Archive for July, 2011

Back to Food Basics

Lunch is big here

First, let me set up some basics for fooding here in Shanghai.

  1. Most decent restaurants are in a mall.  The fast food styled stalls are in the lowest floor (B1 or B2) and restaurant-styled are on the top floors.  Not like in America where mall food is not preferable.  Here, malls are filled with fancy restaurants and cafe and a good place for fooding adventures to begin.
  2. Lunch is big here.  The best bang for the buck is lunch set which is widely available in most restaurants.  You can probably get a more than enough meal at a fraction of the cost with some of these lunch sets.  I haven’t seen an emphasis on breakfast, but it seems like everyone goes out for a nice, long lunch.  I think the the it’s time we do the same in the US
  3. Chinese people order a lot of food, especially girls.  A sight you may see here and not likely in the US is girls ordering a massive amount of food.  In many instance, I have sat next to two girls who ordered at least 6 dishes at once and they keep on eating and eating with no shame ( try to do that in the US and you will hear the word “weight” come up right away).  Even then, when I go out with a group, they always order more than necessary … and not to mention, it’s 99.9% family style here, no single order of food per person (unless you are in a Western-styled restaurant).  On average, each person should order 2- 4 dishes.
  4. On that note, everybody double dips, too bad if you don’t like it.
  5. Water is not served until you ask, even then they give you hot water (in the hot weather).  But in general, drinks are disproportionate to the food prices here.  A drink here can cost more than a plate of food.  For instance, I have been addicted to this kumquat ice tea here (since I can’t find decent lemonade anywhere).  This tea in a decent restaurant can cost up to 38 RMB ($6.00 USD) while my lunch set only costs 48 RMB ($8.00 USD).  Forget about Evian or Perrier, or even a can of Sprite.  I once had to pay 30 RMB for a can of Sprite, yep, that’s 5 USD.  So bring your own water if you want to lower your bill!

The popular ice kumquat tea that can cost up to $6.00. For some reason, I can't find a decent cup of ice lemonade here.


But in Shanghai, when you are bored of Chinese-style food and is too lazy to head to a sit down restaurant in town, you can always get simple old American fast food as every franchise has a location here, a few I have seen:

1. Burger King
2. KFC
3. McDonald’s
4. Subway
5. Pizzahut
6. CPK
7. Ajisen Ramen
8. Pho
9. Beard’s Papa
10. Papa John’s
11. Cold Stones
12. Haagen Daaz

Starbucks, Coffee Bean, 85C … and probably way more than you can even imagine

Mall Food Court

However, the experience is unlike that of America. For instance, here, PizzaHut is a full service restaurant with forks, knives, and an expansive menu beyond pasta and pizza. There seems to always be a line at the local Pizza Hut restaurant near where I live. Some times you have to pay before you get your food like Ajisen Ramen. And even the typical self order and sit down joint like KFC and Burger King taste better than it’s American recipes. Plus, they always have specials such us 15 RMB ($2.00) a meal during lunch time or free frozen yogurt or chicken wings with an order of a meal. Plus, everything can be delivered right to your door for $1 or so. Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC even have an English ordering hotline that you can call in.

Enjoying my KFC meal. Besides this, I have been addicted to Burger King.

On the other hand a few things are different here. Haagen Daaz costs an arm and a leg, 2 scoops costs $10. It’s a luxury here despite the fact that you can probably only find Haagen Daaz in supermarkets in the US. And don’t mention the Pho here. Even though it’s popular here in Shanghai, it’s not a decent bowl of Pho as the condiments like beansprouts is often absent and the noodles are thick and the soup tastes nothing like Pho.

This is what happens when you translate Vietlish into Chinglish - Locomotive Pho = Pho Xe Lua ?


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Because of the extensive metro system, the past few weeks, I was able to explore a big part of this city on foot and using the metro system as my main transportation. Here’s the top five reasons why I love this system:

1. It’s BIG and CHEAP! With 13 lines crisscrossing through the city, you can practically get anywhere with the metro and there is bound to be a metro station at all of Shanghai’s big attractions including most (if all shopping malls). In addition, each trip only costs 3, 4 or 5 RMB ( 1 USD = 6 RMB). Compared to a one-way taxi trip that can cost 40 – 60 RMB into Nanjing Rd from where I live, a 5 RMB trip in the metro is a major bargain! So far, I have only used lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10, and it’s enough to get me to everywhere the tour books suggested. Though, this week, I am planning to take the metro to some of the few farther places outside of the city. We’ll see how that goes. On top of that, I have never have to wait more than 4 minutes for a metro to come around, so practically no wait time.

2. Everything is in ENGLISH. As a non-Chinese speaking or reading, the metro beats the bus or the taxi system here anytime because everything is in English, from the signs in the stations to the directions on the metro. In fact, the announcements on the metro is spoken in Chinese and then in English right after so you know where you are heading to. Though the walk during the transfer of different lines can be long, the directions are posted where in Chinese and English, on the ground and on the walls. And if that do not help, all the metro lines are color coded, so just follow the color of the lines you need to take.

3. It’s AIR-CONDITIONED. The weather in Shanghai is always in the mid 30s (celcius that is) and if it is not, the humidity makes it feel like it is in the mid 30s. As a result, having air condition really helps not feeling sticky wet all the time. Well, the best part is that most metro stations are underground and they either have air condition or a nice cool breeze blasting through the tunnel, so it’s amazingly cooling. The metro itself is always air-conditioned, so to avoid the heat and humidity, the metro is definitely a good choice. Given that not all metro stations are created equal (i.e. the station near where I live is the crappiest I have seen in all), most stations are clean and can be an escape to the nasty weather here.

Underground metro station equipped with TV to keep you occupied if people-watching does not entertain you.

4. SHOPPING! From high-end fashion malls to fake brands to yummy egg tarts, the metro stations have it all. I don’t know if it is coincidental or not, most stations are right underneath a major mall. Well, most stations in the center of a city exits right into the basement/ food court of a mall. So if shopping is in your blood, just take a random line through the center of the city, exit and most likely you’ll hit a mall. Now you can’t really avoid shopping while taking the metro anyways because within the stations are stalls that ranges from 7-eleven style shops to bakeries that sell wonderfully smelling fresh-bake egg tarts, to ramen shops, to snacks on a stick. And if you are not satisfied, in the afternoon, you can find people stretching a piece of blanket on the ground spreading out hair goodies, fake LV wallets, women bags, or cellphone accessories. It is literally an unofficial underground malls some times. Actually, there is an official underground mall underneath one of the most popular station in the city (at People’s Square). If that bores you, the metro stations are covered with bright ads at every step, from Charmaine Sheh selling diet programs, to Bi/Rain selling facial products, to Transformers/Harry Potter ads … the metro stations themselves are quite a trip some times.

Above ground metro station, leading into a mall. This stop is my home. Zhongshan Park, Cloud 9 Mall

5. Last but not least, it’s good, fun, EXERCISE. Most metro stations are located underground or high above ground, which means to enter or exit, one must use the stairs. Now don’t even ask how many set of stairs are in these stations because there are A LOT! For the lazy ones like me, I just take the escalators, which I found has an entire set of rules on its own. If you want to just stand and wait, it is suggested that you stand on the right hand side of the escalators, just step on and let the machine take you up. However, if you are in a rush and need to run, you can use the left hand side to quicken up your trip and walk as the machine is rolling you along. On a side note: Shanghai must be the capital for escalators. There are escalators everywhere and of every sizes, in malls, outdoors, in metro stations, they are everywhere! The longest one I have been one stretches 3 floors (yep, it takes you from floor 1 to floor 4). Anyways, if you feel like you are not getting enough exercise some times, then just take the stairs. Just 2 or 3 stops and you will feel your behind tightened up, this beats the boring StairMasters at the gym for sure.

At 3 RMB ($0.50 USD), it's the best metro snack food while walking. You can spot one by following the tantalizing smell inside the stations. Most popular: Lilian's Cake Shop

Well, after 3 weeks of navigating the metro system, I have found that not only do the metro system have their stations, each stations have many exits, heading to different directions. Some times, you don’t have the luxury or a sense of direction to know which exit number to take, so just blindly picking one is fine, but knowing the right exit can save you a ton of time. I.e. the station at Xuijahui is the most extensive I have seen so far. It has 14 exits spreading out in all directions. Now, given that half of those lead into one of the 5 shopping malls in the area, knowing which exit to take will save you at least 15 minutes of walking in the heat. Why do I know this ? After 3 times going to church, every time having to walk in the burning heat for 15 minutes from the station to the church, I finally realized that there is an exit right next to the church. Now, even though I still have to walk, at least I am walking underground, where it is nice and cool and then take the exit right next to the church.

Now, there are some downfalls to taking the metro all the times, that is:

  1. I have not seen a lot of street life or traffic in Shanghai since most of my time is spent underground and just the walking areas around where I am heading.
  2. During traffic time, morning, lunch, and afternoon, it can get crowded, even from getting on an escalators to squeezing into a metro car.
  3. You have to be rude as people do not let you exit out of the metro before they get it in. Once the door opens, every man is for himself, just push your way through. And forget about getting a seat in the metro if you have any common courtesy because there’s always an old person or children standing while a capable young man pushing people out of the way to fight for a seat.
  4. Some of the transfer can be a pain as you are walking for almost 5 – 10 minutes or so. Good exercise in my view, but a pain for others.
  5. PDA. Boys and girls of Shanghai just tend to hold each other a little too close in the metro. It makes me want to barf some times.

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Italian Cravings

I give up. I am craving Italian food so badly. For some reason, today, I just can’t eat any more Chinese food. I am beginning to notice the typical smell/fragrance of the Chinese restaurants around here, an odd smell that is somewhat similar to the hotpot places in LA, a smell I don’t like. Today I have had enough, no more rice, no more vegetables … I am having some Western food. Since I can’t find any Italian nearby where I live, I ended up eating popcorn chicken, fries, and a lemonade at the local KFC joint for dinner.

The next day, I took the metro farther than I have ever been, to Nanjing Road, one of the best shopping street in China which is again consists of shops, after shops, after more foreign-brand shops. The walking experience is great, the sight of the old buildings with its modern architecture stacked neatly next to each other. I can only imagine what Shanghai in the 1920s must be like. Nowadays, these buildings are taken over by McDonald’s, Alisen Ramen, Pizaahut, etc… It is probably a good shopping street for the locals, but nothing special enough for me to step into. I am probably more interested in the small streets behind Nanjing road where the old houses are, but that will be for another day/weekend.

The shopping center of the old days

Shanghai's first food store, is now occupied by McDonald's

The old cable cars that used to run the streets of Shanghai are now souvenir shops nestled in the alleys

I did stumbled onto a shabby shopping center down Nanjing Road with no guards and where I was attacked by at least 4 or 5 ladies who approached me with a business-sized-card with pictures of LV purses. Walking into the mall, the first thing I saw was rows and rows of watches (probably fake) in so many different colors and design. I was drooling, but obviously able to contain myself for this spot will be clearly marked in my book for a future visit and haggling.

I feel like a pro at navigating the metro here now. I can probably walk around looking like a pro, transferring to different lines … well, that’s because that’s the only place with English translations on the bottom. And to celebrate my first week in Shanghai, I am not hitting up a local Chinese restaurant or Din Tai Fung dumpling like locals suggested, I am going to Italian food, a fancy smancy De Marco Italian Restaurant on Changde Lu.

The stone villas on Jing'an. This used to be villas for foreign dignitaries, movie stars, or people with status in Shanghai. Nowadays, each villa has been divided for small families.

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Day 4 –

I spent the Saturday afternoon trying to find a Catholic church with English mass, and indeed I did, St. Ignatius! aka Xiajahui Cathedral, which is also where the Shanghai Diocese is located. 5 subway stops, 1 transfer, and some help, I made it to church right on time, an exhilarating feeling to be able to attend church on a Sunday despite the increasingly hot and humid weather in Shanghai the past few days. The church is quite small for what is considered a Cathedral, but it has a good English choir and good song selections. I might just participate in their choir just to gain new friends.

Fooding continues to be a problem since I haven’t had a good meal except for the on held by our host. The problem here is that most restaurants are family style and there’s usually just 2 or maybe 3 of us eating at one time, which leaves lots of food left over. Then, ordering is still a problem. Though I like Peking duck and walnut shrimp, I can’t have it everyday. Interestingly enough, Shanghainese do not often eat rice with their meal. I always have to ask for it and we are probably the only ones in the restaurant eating with rice. So different from what I know from the US or VietNam. The people in the office is teaching me to say “I am VietNamese, not Chinese” since I have been getting weird stares when I give servers a “lost” look after they start talking to me in Chinese. That’s would be a nice phrase to learn.

Like I said, the weather is getting hotter and more humid everyday. It’s always hazy and overcast in Shanghai. I guess with 23 million people living in such cramp conditions, all the smog just tend to stay in the air. I don’t even know if blue sky is even possible here. Some plans are being made for future weekend trips and the one I am looking forward to is the new bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, a trip usually taking 12 hours is now only 5. That might be my splurge for this trip since the new bullet train costs around $400 round trip, better than taking a flight I think. That’s in the works 2 weeks from now. This weekend will be an exploring trip to the Bund, a more historic part of Shanghai and maybe some classic Shanghai dishes. Oh how I am looking forward to a good meal!

St. Ignatius aka Xiajahui Cathedral - French built in 1901

Just to show my mom and dad that I am doing okay.

My only dessert so far: a mix between Com ruou and xoi nuoc - fermented rice with glutunous rice balls, a local favorite.

A view from the window in my room.

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Day 3 – Shopping

Day 3 – Shopping

I successfully navigated through the railway system and got myself to the nearest shopping mall which has 6 floors and where Carrefour (almost like Walmart) is. I also managed to order my first meal without any help, which is mediocre because I was stuck with some spicy fried rice and eggplant dish. However, there’s a Vietnamese restaurant that just opened on the 6th floor, which might be my solution for tomorrow’s lunch. And the locals here insist that I should try KFC, which can be deliver to my place 24 hrs a day, that is if I can speak Chinese and tell them where to go 🙂

While at the mall, I did some grocery shopping since I practically brought nothing with me. Did I mention how much I love grocery shopping, especially in an Asian country? You see so many interesting items. And yes, there were plenty of plastic water containers, in all different sizes and colors; I want to take them all home with me! Best items bought today were Watson water, which was featured in a TVB drama I saw earlier with Raymond Lam, and some mangosteen, which is super expensive. I guess there’s a reason why people here don’t buy fruits and vegetable at these big supermarkets and rely on their local street market. Off topic, but necessary: congee here is 0.50 cent a bowl, which is another food option when desperate.

One good thing about Shanghai is that there are no plastic bags. If you want to put your stuff in plastic bags, you much purchase them, 0.50 cent a piece. Canvas bags and totes are popular items to have. Also, it seems that all everyone wears Crocs here. I am going to take a guess that either Crocs has a factory in Shanghai or that it’s all fake.

Three big commitments for this trip: No cell phone, use public transportation/avoid taxi, and eat on a budget during the next 7 weeks. Must learn to live more with less.

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