There’s a period of adjustment that takes place every time you move country. When I moved to Australia I had to get used to the lingo. Like putting an ‘o’ on the end of everything – rego (car registration), arvo (afternoon), Stevo, Johno. The petrol pump was a bowzer, sweets (as in confectionery) were lollies, crisps (as in salt & vinegar) were chips. Hot chips? They are chips too.
When we moved to Tokyo it took me a while to realise was illiterate. Now that’s a weird one. I’d walk into a supermarket with an idea of what I was going to cook for dinner, I’d walk around and walk home virtually empty handed. Nothing made sense. I bought eggs that were already hard boiled. Fish looked like it had been hacked into bits and everything had bones. Vegetables were individually wrapped and priced separately. Meat was sliced wafer thin. Back in Melbourne I was used to buying in bulk for the week and topping up towards the weekend and all of a sudden I had to buy every day. Now I can’t imagine having anything ‘fresh’ in the fridge for more than a couple of days. It’s become second nature to walk into the supermarket see what is fresh and then concoct something for dinner.
So why I was expecting it to be easy when we came to Shanghai I don’t know. Of course it takes time to suss out where to go. Of course it takes time to stock up the condiments and the cupboards. I loved the wet markets when I first arrived here. And then I got cold feet. The fish stalls were a mystery. I’d see locals walking home with bags of live fish and prawns. The fish didn’t look familiar. I had no idea what it was, how to order it or how to cook it. Then there are all the food scares about polluted waterways and intensive farming. So I stuck to salmon from Carrefour – a place I avoid like the plague if at all possible.
Talking to my mahjong ladies I realised I wasn’t alone and decided I had to do something about it and eventually found Cooking in Shanghai who offer a homestyle Chinese cooking class combined with a wet market tour. Helen & Cherry who run the events were extremely accommodating and patient with my enquiries and after a little bit of an email flurry I’d booked a private class for 6 of us with the emphasis on seafood. Each class cooks a dim sum and three dishes and we settles on jaozi (boiled dumplings), steamed yellow croaker, stir fried prawns and fried rice.
Cherry met us at the train station and we walk 5 minutes down to the wet market. This one is on two levels and sells pork, beef, chicken & fish downstairs with fresh produce upstairs.
It’s a clean & lively market – no off putting smells but as with any wet market, not for the faint hearted either. It’s packed with locals asking stall holders about the produce, picking everything up , bartering etc. Everyone has a smile for you and you will be offered all matter of things in an effort to get you to hover around a stall and part with your money.
But it was the fish stalls we wanted to get to understand. The locals buy prawns live and cook them live which I know I couldn’t bring myself to do. The larger prawns we bought were ocean caught and frozen but it was difficult to find out where from. As I suspected, the photo top right is fish stomachs which go into hotpots and are good for your skin. I’ll be giving that a miss too.
However, there was Spanish mackerel, pomfret and plaice as well as lots of calamari and crabs. Cherry told us the large yellow croaker was ocean caught and the smaller ones were from the river. Live bullfrogs and turtles are available too (in the net below).
Cherry was great with us. We had a load of questions and she walked us around explaining all the weird and wonderful vegetables to us, how to prepare and cook them etc. Then it was back to the apartment for the class. When the website says authentic home-style cooking they weren’t kidding.
In all honesty, some of the ingredients were surprising. No MSG is used, but chicken stock powder, salt and sugar goes into everything. Shanghainese food is very sweet anyway and the ratio of 1 spoon powder & salt to 4 spoons of sugar can be adapted I’m sure when I make the recipes at home. It was great fun making the dumpling dough by hand although I think we all have a long way to go before we are rolling like professionals.
The prawns were the standout and everyone kept spooning the sauce onto their rice. The croaker was a little too ‘muddy’ in taste for me although I’m glad we tried it and I’ll definitely buy a larger next time for the two of us and see if there is any difference in taste.
If you have friends in town I think this would be a great way to spend a morning or an afternoon with them. It’s a real insight into Shanghai life plus you get to eat lunch too. There’s a Sunday afternoon noodle making class which I think would be perfect if you had young kids and I’m thinking of signing up for it next time R is out of town.
Private class: 1600RMB for 4-6 people (we paid 1650RMB to cover the cost of the large prawns)
Public class: check the website.
If you want to visit the wet market it’s at 17 Yixueuan Lu, near Qingzhen Lu. Closest metro is Jiashan.