Sunday, December 18, 2005


I'm not sure what to think about Shanghai food. A lot of non-locals, both Chinese and foreigners, are constantly talking bad about it, that it's too sweet and oily. I must agree...but at the same time, I more or less dig it, and I'm still learning what's good and where to go. I won't say it's the world's best cuisine, and I wish you could get international foods without a big price jump, but you won't find me complaining about it, either.

If that sounds equivocal, I want to take a very firm stance about Shanghai street food and snacks: they are the best! I just love them. I'm not much of one for eating snacks normally, but here in Shanghai I'm tempted to skip meals and just dine on a little of this and a little of that.

There's a lot of options to choose from, and Shanghai's specialty is the delicious Xiaolongbao, but one of my favorites is also one of the more pedestrian: manapua! Yes you can get manapua all over Shanghai. I am so happy. For those not in the know, it's a big Hawaiian snack. You could get it in California, but it's few and far between - my favorite was at the Shan Dong Mandarin Restaurant in downtown Oakland.

It's a little different in Shanghai I admit. The Hawaiian version is steamed (or sometimes baked) spongy white bread, surrounding a meat that is usually char siu pork, dyed red. Additionally the bread is often dyed to indicate the insides, I hate that. It goes cheap and you get it as a snack maybe at a shack or a convenience store.

However Char Siu is a Cantonese type of seasoning, and you won't find it here. Instead you order a "fresh meat" baozi. In Shanghai, pork is the default meat, which is pretty much the way it should be! Instead of char siu seasoning, the pork is ground up and seasoned. A lot of gravy is added, to make it extremely juicy.

OK I can't deny it's ugly, but before I hear comparisons to dog food realize that it's not intended to be opened and photographed. Also, the outside is beautiful. Maybe that's a stretch - well, judge for yourself:

Like in Hawai'i, you can often get a manapua at your local convenience store. However I've never done that, they don't look so great and maybe they're old, who can tell. More importantly, it would probably freeze solid in the time it takes me to walk from Family Mart to my apartment! Tangentially, these convenience stores also have other snacks, like eggs boiled in shoyu, very tasty, or chicken hearts on a stick, someday I'll have to build up my courage and give it a try. The normal place to get manapua is from a small street-side stall.

If you notice the stacks of steamers piled on top of each other, it's kind of interesting. Steam comes up from the bottom, and is allowed to rise through all the baskets, which can vary from just a few to a tall stack of six or seven. You'd think by the time the steam makes its way through all the steamers the steam would condense and get the manapua all soggy and gross, but that doesn't happen. Maybe they're eaten too quickly. Anyway, all the steam is incredibly inviting on cold Shanghai winter days, if for no other reason than basking in the warmth. Also check out the guy hand-making these things in the background:

If that doesn't look like a manapua, you're right. These stalls don't just sell pork manapua. Generally they sell vegetable manapua as well, and then other steamed breads are popular, too. Sweet soy milk is also common.

Chinese manapua are a little smaller than a Hawaiian style manapua, but far far cheaper. I'll include a price list from Babi Steamed Breads, a chain that is very common and very good, with the closest branch about a five minute's walk from my apartment. 1 kuai is about twelve cents, so the listed prices of .5 to 1 kuai isn't so bad!

And big ups to my sister, who gets her Master's at UH Manoa later today - and while I'm at it to my cousin, who just started at UH Hilo. Congratulations!

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