So, That’s What That Is

Last Friday I took a cooking class sponsored by the Shanghai Expat’s Association that included a trip to a wet market to introduce us to ingredients before we started cooking.

The class was about a half hour walk from our apartment. It was a bit drizzly, after a week of gorgeous weather, but I decided to walk anyway.

On the way I passed a lot of places selling these fried breads that smelled so good. How is it that Chinese people are so skinny eating things like this?

There was a store selling toy trains

This is one of the many places where you can get custom made clothes

Or perhaps you'd like a cashmere sweater of your own design? The price is probably very, very good.

Chinese graffiti, rarely seen

foreshadowing of things to come

I found the lane without a problem, but finding the actual building in the lane was trickier. Fortunately another woman and her driver showed up at the same time and he was able to ask people in Chinese where it was.

Before we started cooking we walked to a huge wet market a couple blocks away.  It’s called a wet market because it’s hosed down all the time, and therefore–wet.

view down one direction

view down the other

It’s not as big as Reading Terminal Market, but it’s certainly the biggest I’ve come across here in Shanghai.

Chinese celery. We were told the mushrooms below were not oyster mushrooms but some other kind

Apparently stronger tasting than American celery, it is chopped and stir-fried with chilies and garlic and sugar.

Purple potatoes. These will stay purple if you don't overcook them


Sorry for the blurry picture, but these are lilly bulbs. They are boiled with sugar and eaten with mung beans.

Ginko nuts. These are boiled or roasted in oil.

Only 6 or 7 should be eaten a day as more can be poisonous and handling them raw without gloves can give you a rash like poison ivy–but they’re supposed to improve your memory!

You know that clover your yard guys put poison on your lawn to get rid of? Chinese people eat it, stir-fried.

This is yan. It's good for the digestion.

It produces a sticky sap when you peel it that makes you itch if you get it on your skin.

Chinese cooking is so dangerous!

I think I had yan on Sunday, boiled in chicken broth. It was a totally unassuming dish, and absolutely wonderful.

Don't know the name of this but I think it's chopped up and used in stir fries


Spinach. In China, the roots are preferred over the leaves as they are considered sweeter.

Chinese eggplant with cucumbers in the foreground

Stem lettuce. The leaves are thrown away and the bottom is peeled and diced. Probably stir fried (isn't everything?)

Wild greens for stir fry with bean sprouts

Qingcai or chinese cabbage or what we might call baby bok choy

I don't know what this is, I was just impressed with the care and artistry of the lady's display

Mystery veggie that is cooked with eggs


You know how you can spend mega bucks in the states for any mushroom other than the plain white or brown ones? Here? Dirt cheap. I bought a whole bag of the ones that look like oyster mushrooms last week at Carrefour for about a dollar!

My new love. Pumpkins.

In Japan, we kept finding small pieces of an orange vegetable in our dinner and lunch sets, and Meredith and I were both in love with it. I thought it might be pumpkin, but had no idea what it would look like (except I knew it had a green rind), so when we came back home I went in search of something pumpkin-y like. I bought one of these and it tasted the same and then Friday it was confirmed–it’s a pumpkin!

Jujube berries

If you’re thinking, “Wasn’t there a candy called jujube?” you would be absolutely right.  This is the fruit it was named after. Chinese women use it for “lady problems” according to our host and upon searching the web I also learned that it is another one of those “super berries” that is very high in lots of vitamins and minerals. It can be eaten as is, with other foods, dried or made into tea.

This thing seems almost obscene doesn't it? Every time I see one I just want to turn away.

I mean that is one bloated cucumber. Except it’s not. It’s a winter melon. Which is eaten in the summer. Because it has cooling properties.  It is diced up and put into soups. What, you don’t eat hot soup to cool you off when it’s 98 degrees outside?

Quail eggs. Very expensive because they lay so few.

Duck eggs. There were also salted preserved duck eggs, and the preserved kind that have been sitting around for 3 months and now have black yolks. Hmm, I think I'll pass.

Dried black fungus. Dried white fungus is used in desserts.

Ideas anybody? Andy you might be familiar with the item on the bottom left.

These are various organ meats that have been sliced small to be used in appetizers–tripe, tongue, etc and the one on the bottom left–pig’s ears.

Moving on from the neat, tidy and dry vegetable section of the wet market we then entered the area that puts the wet into wet market–the land of blood and entrails.

This place is not for the faint of heart

No sanitized versions of meat here, graciously cut into pieces no longer bearing any resemblance to an animal, and wrapped in plastic

I really wanted to slap this lady's hand as she kept picking up piece after piece of meat!

That's a lot of fish

You could also buy fish that was still swimming around in the water–they just don’t photograph well.

The mark of a pro--I can use sharp implements while talking and looking off in the distance

It's hairy crab season--more on those later

My neighbor, Annemarie, from down the hall, with the hairy crab man

Black chickens

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Wait, those are the whitest chickens I’ve ever seen. Is this like the winter melon trick?” Nope. Except for their feathers, these chickens are black, through and through. Black meat, black bones, and as you can see peeking out, black feet and beaks. They are considered a delicacy and of medicinal value and once again are used by women for female complaints.  Either Chinese women have a lot of female complaints or they have none left because they’ve been cured by all these exotic plants and animals!

We loved the guy smoking the cigarette, weighing the chickens before they met their demise

With a toss and a squawk they were thrown off to the right: the chicken’s final protest cut-off mid squawk.

"So Alice, Betty said she'd be right back after getting her nails done. What do you think could be keeping her?"

Various pickled vegetables and pickled lumpy things

Fresh noodles. At this point, a rather soothing sight.


One of the women described eating this kind of tofu as "eating my kitchen sponge"

If you don't want to pick you're own live chicken, you can just buy one of these--and it wouldn't be a true chicken without its feet!

Actually there must be a bunch of chickens running around without their feet because at the bottom of the picture you can see a whole pile of just chicken feet for sale.

Having thoroughly exhausted the wet market, we made our way back to the cooking school and learned how to chop and dice using one of those giant Chinese cooking knives.

We were all reprimanded for bringing our knives over to the cooking area. Oops!

These were the only sauces and oils we used for all 4 dishes we made

The mise en place for the first dish of Shanghai Red Braised Pork, a traditional Shanghai-ese dish


This is the dish before it cooks for an hour

As you can see, a bit on the fatty side! But we were told you only eat 3 or 4 pieces.

Finished dish--sorry it's a little dark. The sauce was terrific. I'd definitely use it on chicken.

One mystery was solved in making this dish. Or at least a partial mystery: sugar in China. The Chinese aren’t really known for being sugar addicts like Americans are (our host even commented at one point that she doesn’t like sugar), but go to a grocery store and you’ll find one side of an aisle filled with more than a dozen different granulations of sugar! It starts extremely fine, but not powdered (that’s in the foreign section!); so fine you can’t imagine that it just wouldn’t absorb all the water in the air and become a big, hard lump with-in seconds in the summer. Then you’ve got different sizes and shapes of granules (sugar needles, anyone?) right up to rock sugar in several sizes, the biggest being almost the size of your hand.

I know a thing or two about baking and I know you have to be careful about your granulation, so finding the right kind of sugar has been a tough one here. Surprisingly, it’s not always available.

But back to the mystery. What do they do with rock sugar? Well, it was used in this dish. Apparently it isn’t as sweet as regular sugar, but it imparts a pretty gloss to the sauce. Mystery solved.

Sea cucumber. This had to be sliced horizontally first and then cut into matchsticks.

Problem is, it’s just as gelateanous and sticky as it looks, so cutting it horizontally with that big knife was like cutting a thin piece of sticky jello with a chain saw.

mise en place for Hot and Sour Soup: the sea cucumber is up there by the cornstarch

The exciting part of this dish was pouring water into the very hot wok. Would have preferred some long oven mitts for that step.

Hot and Sour Soup

Getting up close and personal with a hairy crab to be used in tofu and hairy crab. There's a handy little trap door on the bottom for easy access.

And then a handy twist off lid!

Mark and I both agree–hairy crabs are not worth the effort for what you get.

mise en place for the tofu and hairy crab: those were a lot of hairy crabs in that bottom dish!

Interesting tip I learned for working with soft tofu. If you want to stiffen it up a bit, throw some salt on it and cover with boiling water for a half an hour or so. Drain before use.

Tofu and hairy crab

mise en place for stir fried vegetables

The vegetables. We all agreed that a 1/4 cup of oil, 2 tsp of salt and 3 tsp of sugar probably were a bit over the top. Moderation in everything, right?

Chef Norris Chen and the owner of The Kitchen at Huaihailu

One of the fun things about this class was that we didn’t measure a single ingredient. We just picked up a squeeze bottle and circled our wok the prescribed number of times–very Rachel Ray-like.

We made tons of food, and even after we all sat down and ate there was enough for each of us to take some home if we wanted to. Yeah! No cooking for me, and Meredith and Mark got to try it too.

On the way home I saw this amazing sight. If you look to the right you can see the handles the proprietor uses to hand carry his cart.

And I was greeted by these when I got to Shanghai Centre:

Elevator flowers


About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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