A New York City girl with Chinese roots, Sandy Ley came to Shanghai on a mission to eat her way around the motherland. Chronicling her culinary adventures on her website Phat in Shanghai, Sandy was a hit in the local blogosphere as she sank her teeth into local life, and food. Now back in the Big Apple, she lets us in on her a few of her travel highs and lows, the best eats in Shanghai and a top spot for genuine Chinese nosh in NYC. >>>
China Travel: First up, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be living in Shanghai.
Sandy: I'm a full-time graphic designer, part-time blogger, and very experienced shower-singer from New York City. A friend of mine moved to Shanghai and suggested I tag along. My family is Chinese (Cantonese) so I have always had "getting-back-to-my-roots" aspirations.
After a month or two in Shanghai, I ended up getting hired at Auditoire where I got to work on cool events for global brands. In my free time, I'd blog my eating adventures as a way of keeping track of all the places I'd tried and also as an online resource for other hungry and lost laowai (foreigners)....
China Travel: What do you do when you're not eating delicious food and blogging about it?
China Travel: How many times a week do you eat out?
Sandy: In Shanghai I'd eat out about 4-5 times a week. It's so cheap and easy... !
China Travel: What's your own home-cooked specialty?
Sandy: I loved getting a half loaf of pillowy Queens Bread from Yamazaki, the Japanese bakery located in the basement of Freshmart and transforming it into amazing French toast. I dare say I make the best damn French Toast in the French Concession!
China Travel: What's the weirdest thing you were served up in a restaurant in China?
Sandy: I'm OK with offal and all kinds of weird meats, but once I attended a banquet dinner at a Shanghainese restaurant and they served us ramekins of yogurt topped with pesto, corn, and finished off with a maraschino cherry. It was really, really weird.
China Travel: Did you have the chance to do much traveling while living in China? Tell us about your best experience.
Sandy: My favorite experience traveling in China was my first trip to Beijing. I'm pretty lucky and had awesome friends who took care of everything—it began on the overnight party train from SH to BJ, involved some crispy-skinned Peking duck, a huge block party to celebrate the opening of The Source flagship store, dancing all night to DJs Wordy and Lomang at Punk Club in Sanlitun, and culminated in a visit to 798 Art Space. A truly unforgettable trip!
China Travel: And your worst?
Sandy: My second trip to Beijing! I went to meet up with my family that was locked down on one of those government-funded China sightseeing tours. Their hotel was on the very outskirts of Beijing and we were told to meet the tour group at the Great Wall at ten in the morning. We got there on time, only to find out that the tour group had been delayed by shopping trips to the many pearl and jade factories along the way. So there we were sitting on the most boring, overrun section of the Great Wall with the sun beating down on us. The worst part—the only concessions were warm beer and dehydrated, vacuum-sealed chicken feet! Ahh!!
China Travel: What are your top 5 recommendations for a first time tourist to Shanghai and where they should eat nearby?
1. Xiao Long Bao—Shanghai's own dumpling claim to fame—these juicy little soup dumplings can be acquired by following the trails of steam to any local stall. But for consistent quality and a variety of flavors (pork with crab, pork with salty duck egg) try Ling Long Fang on Jiangguo Lu and Zhaozhou Lu.
2. Lanzhou la mian—There are plenty of la mian noodle shops throughout Shanghai—just look for gigantic pots of boiling water outside, and blue signage depicting a futuristic landscape. You can get your noodles hand-pulled thick or thin, knife shaved, hand torn, served up in a bowl of soup or stir-fried. My favorite are the thick noodles that have been tossed in a wok with bits of beef and leeks. Super cheap and incredibly delicious!
3. Yunnan Food—Yunnan is a province in Southern China that shares borders with Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, resulting in a cuisine that is fragrant, flavorful, and exotic. I love that Yunnan dishes incorporate ingredients like dandelion stems, goat cheese, and lemongrass. For great Yunnan in Shanghai, try Lost Heaven on the Bund or Southern Barbarian on Huaihai Lu near Maoming Lu.
4. Hairy Crab (if it's in season)—Yangcheng Lake, the home of the famous hairy crab, isn't too far from Shanghai, so once the temperature starts to drop, you'll start seeing the little crustaceans everywhere. Hairy Crab is best served up steamed, with lots of vinegar, pickled ginger, good company and ice cold beer. Don't be fooled, these little guys don't have a lot of crab meat, but are enjoyed for their incredibly delicious umami-packed roe and sperm. Take a trip to the Tong Chuan Lu Seafood Market in northern Shanghai where you can purchase your hairy crabs and then take them to a restaurant next door to be cleaned, cooked, and served.
5. The Complimentary Nuts at el Coctel. I have no idea what El Willy puts in his nut mix at el Coctel, but it's magical. A little sweet, salty, and a million different types of crunchy. Best washed down with a masterfully-crafted Old Fashioned served over hand-chipped ice.
China Travel: Imagine it's your Last Supper—what are you eating, where are you and who are you with?
Sandy: I'm with all my loved ones on a small island in Hong Kong. Oh and did I mention—Anthony Bourdain is our guest of honor. The weather is pleasant and the sun has just begun to set. We've been yachting all day around Hong Kong Island and are now sitting around a gigantic plastic table about to engage in a 12-course seafood feast. Black bean razor clams, steamed scallops with vermicelli, salt and pepper calamari, lobster noodles, a whole fish—I could definitely die happy!
China Travel: What's the one thing you wish you'd known about China before going?
Sandy: Mandarin, definitely. Would have saved me from a lot of embarrassing pointing and gesturing situations.
China Travel: What did you miss most from home while you were there?
Sandy: I missed the hugely varied social landscape of NYC. You ride the subway squashed up against Park Avenue bankers, Williamsburg hipsters, LES homegirls... and you know you've all got the same goal; get the hell out of that subway car! It's awesome.
China Travel: What do you miss most from China now that you're back in the US?
Sandy: I miss the incredibly authentic and inexpensive Japanese food, the massages with BYODVD, and riding my bicycle to work alongside tuk tuks, scooters, and whatever else happens to be on the road that day.
China Travel: What three words sum up your experience of living in China?
Sandy: Crazy. Amazing. Delicious!
China Travel: And finally, where do you head now to get an authentic Chinese food fix back in NYC?
Sandy: Thank god I've discovered Xi'an Foods on St. Mark's Place. Their liang pi noodles are so chewy and dense, reminiscent of the Lanzhou la mian spot that was around the corner from my apartment in the French Concession.
Photos by Sandy Ley.
Despite having returned to the United States, Sandy's love for food and the cuisine of Shanghai and China in particular stand strong and she's still updating Phat in Shanghai, though with a somewhat more international flavor.
If you'd like to find out more about some of her other passions, then head over to Sandy Ley to see what else is cookin' in her world, check out Fatlace Ladylike for her regular contributions to this online urban-style outfit or Candy Cranks, a blog for chicks that dig cycling around the world.