Top Chef Shanghai: The age of quantified dumplings

Top Chef Shanghai: The age of quantified dumplings

There was no reality TV show, but half a century ago, Shanghai's comrade chefs were battling it out in the kitchen
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Historic Shanghai -- Shanghai chefs -- Shanghai exhibition centerIn the 1950s the battle for top chef was held at the Sino-Soviet Friendship Mansion.“Shanghai’s New Day Has Dawned” roared the headline of the English-language Shanghai News in June 1950.

But just two months before, The Times in London had run an article entitled “Shanghai Dying City”, notes historian and author Jeffery Wasserstrom.

Thanks to the gourmets in the Communist Party, swallow’s nest and stuffed suckling pig survived through the lean years of liberation

The merits of liberation were in dispute, but there was no question that the communist takeover was changing the city. From its first year in power, the CCP instituted new laws regarding private property, information, social services and trade.

But a practical Shanghai resident might have wondered: what will the revolution do to the cooking?

KMT and CCP: All in the presentation

The difference in culinary attitude between the Nationalists and the Communists was evident from the day Shanghai fell.

Communists patrolling Shanghai’s streets stoically turned down proffered rice cakes and tea. They were supplied with emergency rations of crushed locust, and had been forewarned about the "sugar-coated bullets" of city life.

The defeated nationalist caucus, on the other hand, clung to the top floors of Broadway Mansions and demanded a multi-course supper. Only then did they surrender.

Democratic dumplings

In Shanghai, for many years mid-range restaurants and nighttime snacks were associated with the sex industry, according to author and food historian Stella Dong. When brothels were outlawed, late-night dining evaporated.

Historic shanghai - Shanghai chefs -- Shanghai exhibition centerA Shanghai food vendor making his way in a new China. Still from "Chung Kuo Cina" ("Antonioni's China"), 1972.There were no more midnight snacks for gamblers, catered events for courtesans, or Western dinners for lovers.

Stalls near the Temple of the City God continued to sell local specialties and snacks, but now they were subject to socialist reform.

The Party ruled that the skin of xiaolongbao should weigh 2.5g, precisely as much as the pork filling.

Back to school

Upscale dining had lost its old clientele -- imperialists, compradors, bureaucrats and dancing girls. Many restaurants folded; others stripped their menu down to noodles and congee.

Top-level cooks could not afford to take on apprentices.

But skilled chefs found new patrons among the political elite -- high-level cadres who prized the memory of Shanghai banquets, according to historian and food writer Mark Swislocki

Shanghai’s premier chefs were rehabilitated as "cultural workers" and sent to cooking institutes, where there was an effort to record and systematize their skills.

A chef’s contribution to building the new society was assiduously documented in his personal file.

They were supplied with emergency rations of crushed locust, and had been forewarned about the "sugar-coated bullets" of city life.

These files indicate a departure from socialist austerity. In fact, they read like an epicurean Kama Sutra: “He can cut ginger into slices as thin and transparent as the wings of cicada.”

Communist iron chef

In 1956, a group of elite cooks competed for the title of "Top Chef."

The arena for the battle was the monumental Sino-Soviet Friendship Mansion, now the Shanghai Exhibition Center that sits between Nanjing Xi Lu and Yan'an Lu.

All the competitors were pronounced winners and they were assigned to work in high-end hotels. For years to come, these hotels were the exclusive domain of party officials.

So thanks to the gourmets in the Communist Party, swallow’s nest and stuffed suckling pig survived through the lean years of liberation.

Shanghai Exhibition Center, 1,000 Yan'an Zhong Lu, near Tongren Lu 延安中路1,000号, 近铜仁路
For more on Shanghai's scandalous part, read on at "Historic Shanghai: Ashes and characters" and "Xu Guangqi: Shanghai’s unlikely Jesuit."
Katya Knyazeva is a journalist and fine artist born in Siberia.
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