Saturday, May 19, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Sponges for dinner

Clockwise from left, crispy shredded beef, rainbow chicken, luffa with soybeans and some white rice

The other night, my fiancé and I had dinner at Ala Shanghai, an area Chinese restaurant that specializes in Shanghainese cuisine.

It's amazing how many people don't realize that China, being a big place, has a lot of regional cuisines, much like America does, from New England clambakes to Southwestern chimichangas to Southern fried chicken and grits. Most of what we grew up eating as Chinese food is actually a really, really Americanized version of Cantonese or Hunanese food (for example, there's no such thing as General Tso's chicken in China). The authentic versions of those cuisines are definitely worth exploring, but there's a whole other world of Chinese food out there, too, and we're lucky to have a place nearby that does authentic (well, mostly) Shanghainese food.

The great thing about this place, too, is that they cook seasonally. Seasonal eating is always the best way to go; out-of-season foods just aren't as good, aren't as fresh and flavorful, and why eat substandard food? Why waste the calories?

There was one particular reason why I wanted to get to Ala Shanghai now, in the spring, and it's because I was intrigued by last spring's seasonal menu and heard that they'd brought it back. And on that menu are some things you'd never see on an American menu -- like, for instance, luffa (also commonly spelled as loofa).

Yes, like the bath sponge. Except no, not quite. If you harvest luffa in the spring, when it's very young, it's not dried out and coarse. At this stage, it's a green vegetable, totally edible, something that looks a bit like squash. I had to try it, 'cause as weird as it sounds, I'd heard that it was good. We ended up getting an order of luffa with soybeans to split.


So how was it? My first impression, oddly, was of a freshly mowed lawn; it seemed to taste like you'd imagine mown grass tasting, very, very green, but not in a bad way, more of an intriguing way. It was a flavor that was easy to get used to, and it had the texture and some of the flavor of zucchini as well. Also, it was served in a sauce that was astoundingly delicious — the sauce was very, very light, but it had the flavor of char, a straight-up grill sort of flavor, perhaps wok hei, the flavor of the wok it was cooked in. It was an eye-opening flavor experience and paired perfectly with the luffa and soybeans.

Of course, as long as we were there, we had to get some soup dumplings and an order of scallion pancake (both of which I'd highly recommend). And we both got entrees, too, aside from the order of luffa with soybeans that we decided to split. It was too much food, and we knew it, but hey, leftovers are always good. His rainbow chicken (strips of white-meat chicken cooked with strips of carrot, snow pea and bamboo) was intensely chicken-y and tasty, and my crispy shredded beef was sweet and savory in just the right way.

There aren't a whole lot of restaurants around here that are up to this level of cooking, that do one cuisine and do it very, very well, but Ala Shanghai is definitely among them. They do Chinese food like it's supposed to be done, with deep flavor and textural complements and contrasts.


  1. This is great. I'm glad you had a positive experience. Ala Shanghai is one of the best seasonal and diverse places to eat in the area. I haven't been disappointed by anything I've ordered there, and even the classic Chinese takeout dishes are miles away from the local takeout joints.

  2. There's a very funny TED talk in which Jennifer 8 Lee, a NY Times reporter, goes hunting in China for the origin of General Tso's chicken and comes up empty: