Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dispatches from the Frontline #4, Scoopless in Shanghai

Scoopless in Shanghai, by Mona, LME East Asia correspondent

Upon hearing that I was moving to China for the summer, various well-traveled friends of mine assured me that I would just LOVE Shanghai, because...well..."it's just so cosmopolitan!" And that's proven to be true. I do love Shanghai. A city that boasts a wealth of international cuisines, cultures and communities which most other Chinese cities lack. 

Shanghai skyline

One of the most unique and admirable aspects I have come to appreciate about Shanghai is the juxtaposition in the built environment of old and new. Swaths of the cityscape are construed solely for the tourist's gaze, decorated with ginormous glass towers, sweeping broad avenues, high-end restaurants and manicured gardens. However, at the street level, the accessible world of older, low density neighborhoods characterized by networks of pedestrian-friendly alleyways continue to maintain spaces for small markets, food stalls and local community life in the center of the city. Anyone who has spent time in Paris, Dubai, or New York knows that this is a rarity in the average tourist-destination metropolis. 

Of course, no one is sure how long this will last, as capital-hungry developers continuously work to transform every "available" inch of the city into a demolition and soon to be construction site. 

Demolition and high-rises
Tianzifang alleyway = consumer's delight
Then there are the spaces of the city that are somewhere in the middle: the gentrified and refurbished old alleyways where developers have transformed Shanghai's older neighborhoods into vibrant tourist destinations. Tianzifang is a perfect example of one of these spaces, and from the point of view of an ex-patriot tourist I have to say the appeal is obvious. 

I mean, by now aren't we all completely sick of navigating mall escalators shoved into glass box buildings the size of a city block? Who wouldn't prefer to shop in a charming maze of narrow, walkable alleys, packed to the brim with small boutiques that offer everything from clothes, music and hand-made jewelry to books, photographic prints and of course FOOD? 

Last week, I set out to Tianzifang with a (by now) obvious priority: to seek out a delicious and if possible local ice cream experience. I figured this would be a good place to look because Tianzifang A) mostly caters to an international crowd of tourists, and B) isn't a mall in the strict sense and thus has no Haagen Dazs around to shut out smaller vendors. 

Online research proved promising, pointing me towards Bing - a small stall tucked deep in the alleys and offering Teppanyaki-style sorbet. I'd never heard of the Japanese sensation before, but it sounds absolutely delightful: "First, pick your choice of fresh fruits or other zesty flavors, such as champagne, mint, green tea, red pepper, yogurt, basil and yak cheese. Then, Bing blends your selection with water, syrup and milk, and stirs the mixture on a -20C freezing iron griddle. And ta-da, a fresh delightful frozen treat is served." 

Teppanyaki - source: shanghaidaily.com
Ta-da indeed! Ice cream fresh off a frozen griddle? Wow. I was psyched to say the least, and all set to order up some basil, mint and yogurt sorbet. You can only imagine my disappointment to learn after about half an hour of winding through the alleyways that the world wide web had steered me wrong. Bing no longer exists in Tianzifang, and Shanghai for all I can tell. Now in its place stands a silly second-hand CD shop. Tragic. 

Palace desserts, apparently all the rage

But I wasn't ready to give up my mission, determined to find what I had come after. Just around the corner, I spotted a popular looking hole in the wall called "Palace Dessert" and decided to investigate. After consulting with the signage and the woman at the counter, I determined that on offer here was a uniquely Chinese dessert of "milk, sugar and rice wine" that had its roots in the supposed genius of a Qing Dynasty chef of the legendary Forbidden City. 

I asked if there was a frozen version of the dessert, and the woman helping me pointed to one menu selection saying (and I quote) "it's just like ice cream." I immediately forked over the 9RMB ($1.30) for a small cup, eager to try the stuff but worried that this sounded too good to be true.

Serving up ice cream, Forbidden City-style
And it was. I had been led astray yet again. This was NOT ice cream, or anything like it. Sure, it was dairy-based and cold, but the tartness of the wine completely cancelled out any hint of anticipated sweetness or creaminess. After a few bites, I threw in my spoon with curiosity fulfilled but tummy unsatisfied. 

No, in fact, this is not just like ice cre
As a final resort, I turned to gelato. I know it isn't a particularly Asian specialty by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the closet thing I could expect to a sure bet. The challenge in Tianzifang was finding a gelato vendor that was selling goods that didn't look like they were containers oozing with high-fructose corn syrup and artificial color. 

It wasn't until after dinner that I had my eureka moment. Origin, a spacious and yummy California-esque restaurant serving "seasonal fresh cuisine" on the edge of Tianzifang happens to have a delicious-looking display of normal-colored gelato attached to the restaurant. After the long afternoon of hunting, the sun had gone down, my feet were aching, and one fat scoop of gelato in a waffle cone never sounded so good. I tasted the coffee flavor and wasn't impressed. I was pretty baffled when the server used my first tasting spoon for my subsequent sample of lemon, but I was feeling desperate at this point and couldn't walk away. 

Last stop, gelato

I went for the lemon - tangy yet refreshing  - and I've resolved that the final damage of 22RMB ($3.00) isn't too appalling considering that decent ice cream is such a rare commodity in the Tianzifang marketplace. 

This is Mona reporting for Lick Me Everywhere from the streets of Shanghai.

Origin, House 39, Lane 155 JianGuo C. Rd.(near RuiJin Rd.), http://originsh.com/, RESERVATIONS: 646 701 00


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