How to Eat Jewish in Shanghai

Many Jewish expatriates, such as Baltimore native Hannah Frishberg, turn to vegetarian
restaurants to avoid the pork and shellfish so pervasive in Chinese cuisine. (Provided)

SHANGHAI — The Kosher Café in Shanghai’s Hongqaio District holds eight tables, each draped in white linen and covered with clear plastic. Two middle-aged businessmen, one in a kippah, chat quietly over their fish and chips. A teenager in a black fedora looks up from his computer as I enter the room. He nods and returns to work.

I’ve just arrived in China’s most cosmopolitan city and, curious about Jewish food here, am trying the café at Chabad’s Shanghai Jewish Center. After a few minutes, a waiter hands me a menu with pictures of colorful dishes. Kung pao chicken and chow mein, matzah ball soup and Israeli vegetable salad. When he returns, I point to the dumplings.

I know it’s a bit late, but ask the businessmen what they’d recommend. It turns out I made the wrong choice — my dumplings are bland. Even so, it’s a conversation starter and Michael Kann, a New York businessman with a manufacturing plant in Shanghai, tells me that as far as kosher meals go, the Kosher Café is the only game in town.

It wasn’t always that way.

In the 1930s, when 20,000 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution came to Shanghai, certain neighborhoods resembled New York’s Lower East Side, with kosher butchers, delis and bakeries, according to Dvir Bar Gal, who has been leading Shanghai Jewish Heritage tours for more than 15 years. Virtually all of those Jews left after the Communists took over in 1949.

With the opening of Shanghai to international business and trade in the 1990s, a new Jewish community of 2,000 to 3,000 businessmen and diplomats, professors and students arrived. Those who keep kosher can dine at the Kosher Café, pick up Shabbat meals at the Sephardic Jewish Community Center, or shop at Chabad’s two kosher markets.

While most cook the same food they eat in their home countries, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, who opened the Shanghai Jewish Center in 1998, says many Chabad members train their housekeepers to keep kosher and encourage them to prepare Chinese dishes.

Most Jewish expats, however, eat out or order from online sites that deliver Western-style meals.

“It’s a lot easier to go to a restaurant than to cook if you want good quality food,” said Hannah Maia Frischberg, who coordinates an organization of progressive and Reform Jews, Kehillat Shanghai.

An alleyway in Shanghai’s Jewish section (Provided)

Every Friday, for example, the Baltimore native joins 10 to 20 Kehillat members in a small room at the back of a Chinese restaurant to light candles and recite Shabbat blessings.

Many Jewish expatriates, like Frishberg, turn to vegetarian restaurants to avoid the pork and shellfish so pervasive in Chinese cuisine. One of her favorites is Happy Buddha, originally opened in a small bike shop but now located inside a natural foods store in the former French concession. Owner Lindsey Fine, who focuses on “American-style comfort food,” says she and her husband, Bryan, moved to Shanghai because he wanted to live in the city where his Polish-born grandmother found sanctuary decades earlier.

Vegetarian Lifestyle is one of the oldest and most popular vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai. Located in the upscale Xintiandi district, Vegetarian Lifestyle’s chefs have earned a reputation for skillfully recreating pork dishes such as spare ribs and sweet and sour pork using vegetarian products.

Last winter, French Israeli chef Stephan Laurent became one of two Israelis to open a restaurant in Shanghai. Unfortunately, Boya, a Middle Eastern restaurant, closed in late spring. Laurent’s Bread etc. meets some of the demand for Middle Eastern food with such specialties as crispy cheese-filled bourikas and shakshuka, eggs poached in a spicy tomato-pepper- onion sauce. But most people come to the modern café with exposed brick walls and a hip European vibe for the challah, baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat Laurent bakes on the premises.

Other options for avoiding pork and shellfish include American upscale chain restaurants such as Morton’s-The Steakhouse and Ruth’s Chris, where you can order salmon. Tocks, which features Montreal-style smoked meats, including pastrami, is as close as Shanghai gets to a Jewish deli. And younger expats frequent American-style sports bars such as Cages and Boxing Cats, which broadcast Western sporting events popular with its clientele.

The bottom line? You won’t find Brooklyn-style delis in Shanghai. And assembling a kosher meal can be daunting in a country where pork and shrimp reign supreme and fresh bread, never mind challah, is still a novelty. But the Jewish traveler who wants to avoid pork and shellfish has some pretty solid options. And if worse comes to worse, try what Frishberg and her friends do. Order a vegetable-based Chinese dish. Then tell the waiter, who is more likely to know a vegetarian Buddhist than a kosher Jew, that you’re a Buddhist who cannot touch meat.

RECIPES

(Provided)

Pearl Balls

These gingery meatballs, made with turkey sausage instead of the traditional ground pork, make a nice appetizer or a dinner when served with such side dishes as bok choy. The dish gets its name from the rice coating, which turns almost translucent like a pearl once steamed. Pearl balls are a popular street snack in China. Make sure to allow enough time — overnight is best — for the rice to soak.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup glutinous rice (also called sweet or sticky rice, available at Asian food store)
  • 1 pound turkey sausage
  • 3 green onions, minced (2-3 tablespoons)
  • 8 water chestnuts, minced
  • 2 tablespoons ginger, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch, or as needed
  • Soy sauce
  • Rice wine vinegar

> Rinse the rice and soak it in water at least 6 hours. Prepare your steamer by lining it with lettuce or cabbage leaves so the food won’t stick to the surface. In a large bowl, combine the sausage, green onions, water chestnuts, ginger, garlic, egg. soy sauce and sherry. Add enough cornstarch to form meatballs. When you’re ready to prepare the pearl balls, drain and spread the rice on a dish towel. Form roughly 1-inch meatballs and roll them lightly over the rice, pressing gently to make sure the rice covers the meatball. Place the meatballs, a half-inch apart, into a steamer or bamboo basket. Cover and steam a half hour or until rice is cooked. Serve with equal parts of light soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. If you’d like more flavor, add a little minced ginger and finely chopped scallion.

Adapted from Joanne Hush and Peter Wong. “The Chinese Menu Cookbook.” Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1976.

 

Stir Fried Shanghai Noodles with Chicken and Napa Cabbage

As with most Shanghai recipes, this noodle dish features the flavors of soy sauce and sugar. Set aside 20 minutes for marinating the chicken and preparing the noodles to toss with cooked chicken and napa cabbage in this tasty stir fry.

Ingredients for stir fry:

  • 8 ounces of chicken breast, cut in strips or bite-sized pieces
  • ½ pound Shanghai noodles (sold in Asian markets)
  • 1½ teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1½ cups napa cabbage, shredded
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 4-6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons of hoisin sauce mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
  • Soy sauce, as needed
  • 3 scallions, white sections sliced

Ingredients for marinade:

  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or sherry
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • Ground black or white pepper
  • to taste
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch

> Combine the marinade ingredients and marinate the chicken for 20 minutes. While the chicken is marinating, cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling water, stirring to separate. Check for doneness after five minutes (3 minutes if using fresh noodles) and remove from heat when they are cooked — but not overcooked (al dente). Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain again. Toss with sesame oil. Rinse, dry and finely shred the cabbage. Peel and mince the garlic. Slice the scallion. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pan or wok over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Stir fry the garlic about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn it, and add the chicken, stir frying until it’s white and nearly cooked. Remove from the pan. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in the pan. Stir fry the cabbage about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan. If needed, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil. When it’s hot, add the noodles, stirring to coat them with oil and to make sure they don’t stick to the pan. Add the hoisin-water mixture, tossing to coat the noodles. Taste and add soy sauce if needed. Stir in the cooked cabbage and chicken and heat through. Serve the hot noodles sprinkled with the scallion.

Adapted from spruce.com and lifemadesweeter.com.

 

Shao Mai (Steamed Dumplings)

It takes a few minutes to figure out how to form these open- topped dumplings, but it’s worth the effort to dine on this traditional Shanghai street food. In this recipe, I’ve replaced the traditional ground pork with turkey sausage, but you may use ground turkey or chicken. I recommend watching a youtube video for instructions on filling the dumplings.

Dumpling ingredients:

  • 30 dumpling or wonton wrappers
  • 1 pound turkey sausage, removed from its casing
  • 1 cup water chestnuts, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ginger, grated
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper, ground
  • Coarsely chopped carrot or sliced scallions for topping the dumplings (optional)

Dipping Sauce ingredients:

  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Chinkiang vinegar (you can substitute 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar)
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon chili paste (optional) (you can substitute sambal oelek or sriracha)
  • Combine and serve with the dumplings.

> Prepare your steamer by lining it with parchment paper. Combine all but the last two ingredients. Place a wrapper into a well created by forming a cup of your hand; let your index finger and thumb touch, and let the remaining fingers circle toward your palm, with the opening facing up. Using your other hand, create a few pleats in the wrapper. Fill the wrapper with a tablespoon of meat at a time, tapping the bottom of the dumpling on a hard surface so it can stand upright. The meat filling will show at the top. Continue filling dumplings until the meat is gone. This can be refrigerated, covered, for up to one day. Place these dumplings in two steamer baskets. For color, sprinkle on the carrots or scallions. When you’re ready to cook, fill the wok or bottom of a deep pan with enough water to reach an inch below the steamer tray. Bring to a rolling boil and stack the trays in the wok or pan, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes. Watch carefully, adding water as the steam evaporates but being careful not to raise the water level from its original depth. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the dumplings to a plate and serve with the dipping sauce.

Makes 30 dumplings.

Joan Lipinsky Cochran is a Boca Raton, Fla.-based writer.

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