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Shanghai cuisine: A portrait of development

By 27 June 2009 No Comment

In matters of culture, momentum is not necessarily a function of time. Haipaicai, or Shanghai-style cuisine, has a history less than two decades old, yet the gravitational pull of the city’s food scene is no less effective or transformative than that of time-honored culinary bastions like New York and Paris.

The concept of creating a unique culinary identity by adaptating various regional flavors from all over China was primarily a marketing scheme devised by Chinese Communist Party officials in the 1980s to promote Shanghai as an international, happening place for culture, as well as finance and markets. And it’s worked—today there are over 20,000 restaurants in Shanghai alone, and in one way or another, they all owe their history to this culinary development.

In 2008, Professor Mark Swislocki of Brown University published “Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai,” a study of how food culture in the city sped the process of urbanization. In this book, he explains how the history of Shanghai’s modern restaurants and haipaicai developed during the 1980s and 90s, after the economic reforms and opening to the West promoted by China’s former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.

In the 1980s, restaurants were among the first commercial enterprises in Shanghai, and these usually modest, vendor-style shops provided the model for a range of private, small-scale businesses.

According to Swislocki, the impact of opening and reform in Shanghai was diluted compared to other places, as the country’s earliest steps focused on areas surrounding but not within major cities. Although standards of living improved through the 1980s, Shanghai’s overall dominance declined during those years. Shanghainese home-cooking, simple foods prepared in the local style, was not considered a cultural asset and didn’t have a unique identity.

Then came the 1990s. The Pudong district was selected as the focal point of China’s opening and reform drive, inspiring wave after wave of foreign investment.  After Deng Xiaoping’s famous Southern Tour in 1992, during which he declared that Shanghai should “seize the opportunity” for growth, the restaurant business was one of the first to truly explode.

Today, while visiting the glittering Bund Center, the elaborate Shanghai Uncle restaurant, with its floor-to-ceiling crystal curtains and dashing 1930s glamour, propose a different, up-market image of Shanghai cuisine – a far cry from both the city’s historic cuisine origins and the unassuming, side-street cafes selling “home-style” Shanghai cooking.

The term “haipai,” used in the 1920s and 1930s to describe Shanghai cinema, theatre and literature was applied to cuisine by CCP members, chefs and managers as a novel way to uplift the dragging restaurant economy after the Cultural Revolution left many eateries in disuse and disrepair. But that idea, if once little more than a marketing ploy, is now an important reality for restaurant owners and chefs in the market.

“If you want to do business in Shanghai, you’ve got to change the taste of your food,” said the owner of Nanjing Tang Bao, a tiny eatery located across from a large commercial plaza.

The restaurant caters to workers from the plaza with haipai-style Nanjing cuisine, which is sweeter and less salty than its authentic counterpart. According to this source, all regional cuisines in Shanghai have to adjust themselves to the local haipai style to survive.

But just like speaking the Shanghainese dialect is a point of pride and belonging for city residents regardless of whence they came, cashing in on haipai identity is valued by migrant restaurant owners and chefs over preserving their regional authenticity. Shanghai is defined by its diversity and internationalism, so all aspects of life are shaded by that view.

Even lifelong Shanghai residents don’t distinguish between local foods and the clash of culinary civilization that now defines Shanghainese cooking. One 57-year-old man, a lifelong city resident, who declined to be named, denied that there was such a thing as “local” food.

“We don’t have our own style,” he said. “We have the cuisines of all the other provinces instead.”

The tendency to view Shanghainese cuisine as a product of the last 20 years may be attributed to the overall place Shanghai holds in the history of China: the zenith of modernity, progress and innovation. For the people of Shanghai, local culture is inseparable from migrant culture, which has steadily and increasingly defined Shanghai’s role in the world.

But while Shanghai may be a mix of so many different cultures, it is uniquely distinguished by its capacity to beguilingly transform all that enters this city of promise and movement, rendering ideas about authenticity futile in the face of progress.

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