Video: A Time-Lapse Tour Of Shanghai

Rob Whitworth’s time-lapses are always a cut above. His unique tracking and morphing shots draw you into a city’s routine and accurately sketch its character. His panning and zooming give the sensation of flying around a city and dropping in on its denizens for a look around at ground level before taking to the air again.

He’s applied his time-lapse talent to other Asian cities before, notably Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Hoi An, Vietnam, but this is his first video from China. Shanghai makes for a particularly apropos canvas. Its rapid development in the past few decades has draped a curtain of skyscrapers and high-rise apartment towers on a frame of traditional longtang alleys and lanes.

A cursory look at Shanghai would show the snarled motorways and brightly lit commercial towers of Pudong. However, Whitworth takes care to contrast the city’s frenetic development with its more human character: a flower vendor navigating traffic, her cart piled high with bouquets and potted plants; Shanghainese preparing and munching on the city’s famous dumplings; and even a brief flyby of the city’s fledgling Moganshan art district.

Foods of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong-style

Chinese New YearThe Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.

Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.

Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).

[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]Chinese New YearI had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.

New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.

In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).
Chinese New Year
The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.

Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.

There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.

The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.
Chinese New Year
Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.

That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.

For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

Top ten foreign street foods

With food trucks springing up across the U.S. like so many mushrooms, it seems the culture of street food is finally finding its place in the national psyche. Some, like Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck (a Korean-Mexican hybrid that I promise tastes approximately a million times better than you might think) in LA, have garnered critical acclaim, with Choi recently being named one of 2010’s “Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine. Others, like Portland’s Garden State, have earned widespread press for the utter deliciousness with which local ingredients are transformed into versions of Italian street food like arrancini, or chickpea fritters. In fact, Portland is unofficially the food cart capital of the nation.

But U.S. street food is like the United States itself: a melting pot. Our street food culture- aside from hot dog vendors and Manhattan food carts dispensing coffee and breakfast sandwiches to office workers and the hungover-is primarily based upon inspired reproductions or adaptations of foreign street foods.

In honor of our country’s fledgling, on-the-fly food culture, here’s a list, in no particular order, of some of the best overseas street snacks. Totally subjective and dependent upon the individual vendor, mind you, but the following are regional specialties you don’t want to miss, should you find yourself in the vicinity.

1. Tacos de anything

Who doesn’t love a great taco? And by taco, I mean soft corn tortilla, no bigger than a softball in diameter, piled with juicy bits of carne asada, carnitas, adovada, cabeza, lengua, or pescado. Bonus points for bowls of freshly made salsas and other condiments like escabeche, guacamole, limes, radishes, chopped onion, and cilantro.

2. Elotes/choclo con queso

Depending upon where you are in Latin America, you’ll find corn on the cob sold in a variety of permutations. Elotes are a beloved Mexican street food: boiled or grilled corn slathered with mayo, chile powder, and lime juice (you may instead find fresh kernels cut into plastic cups and mixed with same). Choclo con queso is found in parts of South America, like Peru and Ecuador. The deceptively simple pairing of chewy, boiled native corn (a world apart from our overly-sweet hybrids), served with a generous slice of handmade queso fresco is proof that two ingredients can still equal nirvana.

3. Dumplings from almost anywhere

Korean yakimandu, Russian pelmeni, Polish pierogis, Nepalese momos, Chinese bao; all delicious. Doughy dumpling relatives include Vietnamese bahn cuon (rice noodle sheets filled with ground pork, mushrooms, and shrimp), or Cantonese cheung fun (same, only filled with whole, peeled shrimp, and chopped scallion).

4. Roti

These flat, crispy/chewy Malaysian pancakes are found in various countries with a significant Muslim population. There are many different types, ranging from roti canai, a tissue-thin version served with a side of curry, to thicker, more doughy variations. In Southern Thailand, you’ll often find sweet roti filled with sliced banana and drizzled with condensed milk. Singaporean hawker centers are a great place to find a wide selection.

5. Chaat

These bite-size, salty, crispy, tangy snacks are traditionally indigenous to Northern India; the southern states have their own version, known as tiffin. Chaat is generally vegetarian, because vendors lack refrigeration; look for bites such as pani puri and bhel puri. These puffed, hollow rice crisps come with spiced potatoes, chickpeas, and condiments such as yogurt, chutney or spiced waters.

7. Empanadas

Most of Latin America has empanadas in some form: fried or baked dough stuffed with meat and other savory or, occasionally, sweet fillings. Argentina, however, is the undisputed king, wherein entire towns or provinces are famed for their empanadas. Salta, considered to be the empanada epicenter, produces varieties that reflect the arid region’s climate. Baked empanadas de choclo, a savory, hominy-like corn filling, or charqui, an air-dried beef softened by the steam from the baking process, make for exceptionally flavorful pastries. In Tucuman, empanadas are such a point of pride that they get their own Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada.

8. Kebabs, satay, yakitori, or other versions of meat-on-a-stick

‘Nuff said. [Ed’s note: Just ask @MikeSowden]

9. Pizza/calzone


10. Pho

Done right, few things are more nourishing, or nurturing, than a giant bowl of fragrant beef broth loaded with rice noodles, tender bits of meat, slices of chile, and herbs. Traditionally, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is from Hanoi, but you’ll find variations, including a version made with chicken, throughout Vietnam.

Why we love Shanghai dumplings

Gary Soup, FlickrI thought I would never move beyond curry as my favorite Asian food, but within 24 hours of arriving in China, a dumpling local to the Yangtze river delta is giving my complex curries quite a run.

My friend took me to a small corner “restaurant,” a typical Chinese joint with a few tables and bright fluorescent lights. Baskets of skewered vegetables, tofu and meatballs were stacked against a wall; I picked out several and handed my basketful to a woman who dumped it in a broth to cook. While we waited for our soup, a bamboo steamer arrived, and my friend explained to me how to eat the Shanghai dumplings inside.

“They’re filled with hot soup, so be careful not to spill it in your lap,” he said. He instructed me to bite a small piece of the purse-like dumpling, and then suck the scalding, oily broth out. After I slurped out the broth (the most difficult part was reigning in the dumpling with my chopsticks — I’m still a little rusty). I dipped the dumpling in vinegar (“It’s good for you!” explained my friend), and popped the whole pocket in my mouth. What followed was a mouthful of savory, meaty and doughy goodness, a pork soup explosion in my mouth.

These particular dumplings are copied all over China, but are best in Shanghai. Residents are so proud of them, in fact, that my friend figures that the worst insult you could ever give a Shanghai citizen would be “screw your mother’s dumplings.”

Photo: Gary Soup, Flickr

Undiscovered New York: Exploring New York’s Chinatown(s)

Welcome to Undiscovered New York. Considering this past Monday was the traditional start of the Chinese New Year, now seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of New York City’s most interesting and diverse neighborhoods: Chinatown.

Upon moving to New York, my initial impression of Chinatown was an overwhelming feeling of the unfamiliar and mysterious. Everything about it seemed so at odds with what I knew and what I understood: huge piles of fish and strange produce glistening on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes, the pungent smells, impenetrable language and strange customs.

Yet as I grew more comfortable with this intriguing neighborhood, its many charms were slowly revealed. It was no longer an area of cheap designer knock-off handbags and pork-fried rice. I saw it as an indispensable part of my city – a neighborhood that was just as integral to my view of New York as the Statue of Liberty or the East Village.

What I also soon discovered is that the Chinatown in Manhattan is only one of three distinct Chinatowns in New York City, with another in the Flushing section of Queens and the newest slowly expanding in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Each of these three Chinatowns is a unique city-within-a-city, offering a completely diverse array of regional cuisines, interesting stores and unique sights.

Want to learn about some out-of-the-way spots in all three Chinese enclaves? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to exploring the Chinatown(s).
Manhattan’s Chinatown

Centered just east of Broadway and Canal, Manhattan’s Chinatown is definitely New York’s biggest and also its best-known. But there’s still plenty of secrets waiting for the interested visitor. Given the timing of this post, it’s only fair that we mention the Chinese New Year festivities taking place this coming weekend. The big event is arguably the Dragon Parade on Sunday 2/1, which features dancers parading in elaborate dragon costumes down the area’s sidestreets.

Anybody with a hankering for some authentic Chinese food need only point his nose towards one of the area’s many eateries. Dim Sum is one Chinese tradition that’s not to be missed. The meal typically features a variety of small plates like dumplings, spare ribs and Jin deui served in a communal, buffet-style setting. Head over to the Golden Unicorn, grab a seat and watch the servers roll by in a constant parade of carts with interesting foodstuffs. Joe’s Shanghai is another area favorite – they’re known for their soup dumplings filled with steamy broth. Make sure not to put the whole thing in your mouth all at once!

It’s often said that the Chinese are experts in non-traditional herbal medicines. If you’ve ever been curious about Chinese herbal remedies, Chinatown is a great place to learn more. Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy markets itself as the “Largest on the East Coast.” The store feaures over 1,000 different traditional Chinese herbs and ingredients as well as treatments from a licensed acupuncturist.

Queens’ Chinatown
Though Manhattan may have the most famous Chinatown, Queens’ Flushing area may have its most diverse. The area boasts residents from neighboring Taiwan and Korea as well as areas of China as far-flung as Fujian to Lanzhou. One of the best ways to experience it all is by stopping in to one of the area’s numerous food courts. The Flushing Mall features a particular favorite – this otherwise mundane shopping mall features a mouth-watering food court in its basement spanning Sichuan, Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisines.

Flushing also boasts all kinds of quirky shopping sure to please even the most jaded visitor. Magic Castle is a Korean (one non-Chinese pick, sorry!) pop culture store that sells Korean pop music as well as stationary and toys like Hello Kitty. World Book Store features all the latest magazines straight from the Shanghai newsstand.

Brooklyn’s Chinatown
New York’s “newest” Chinatown is probably also its least-visited. Tucked into Brooklyn’s more remote Sunset Park neighborhood it tends to escape notice from visitors but is still well worth a visit.

Like the other Chinatowns, one of the principle attractions is the amazing, authentic Chinese cuisine. Start your visiting by gawking at some strange Chinese foods at the Hong Kong Supermarket, one of New York’s biggest Chinese supermarkets. Sea Town Fish & Meat Market is another interesting local retailer, offering one of Brooklyn’s biggest selections of Chinese specialty seafood items. When you get tired of “looking” at Chinese food and want to eat some, make sure to visit one of the area’s many street vendors for some authentic street food.