Shanghai Social

This post was meant to be a love letter to Shanghai and its dumplings.  Instead, it’s a shout out to two young women who are leaving their mark on the Shanghai food scene…with a postscript to the city’s dumplings.  You see, I was in Shanghai during the US elections in early November last year.  Well you know what happened, and for several days after, I felt ill at ease and completely disconnected from where I was born and grew up.  I was walking around in a cloud of disbelief that even Shanghai’s best dumplings couldn’t lift.

Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about a lot of things, but I suppose I’ve mostly been thinking about the women who inspire me.  These days more than ever, I think it’s important to recognise the strength, dedication and general awesomeness of women who are truly trying to make a difference. To celebrate the successes of women because we appreciate the tough path that women have to tread to be heard and seen in most fields. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have women throughout my life who have motivated me and who have spent real time with me to share their experiences, guide and listen to me. I could not have had dared to cook for the public, much less leave my legal job, without the mentorship and encouragement of the female F&B entrepreneurs around me in Hong Kong.  Many of these women are chefs; all of these women have started their own ventures because they deeply care about their city and want to leave it a more delicious and better place. 

Which brings me back to Shanghai…In the midst of my post-election gloom in a foreign city, I met two lightning rods of positive energy who have started their own impressive and spot-on food ventures in Shanghai.  I was inspired by what they managed to accomplish in a city that is not their own, their courage and their sassy attitude in the face of the many obstacles that come with working in China.

Jenny Gao and Camden Hauge

Jenny Gao and Camden Hauge

Camden Hauge is the founder of the Shanghai Supper Club, catering and events production firm Social Supply, and the coolest brunch spot, Egg.  An American in London, she moved to Shanghai in 2012 while working in advertising for a tiny no-name firm, Saatchi & Saatchi.  On the side, she started the monthly Shanghai Supper Club.  Each month, she invites a new chef to come in to a new venue with a new set of guests.  The success of the supper club led her to leave her day job and also start Social Supply, which then led to opening her own brick-and-mortar café which happens to serve the best avocado toast in China and Hong Kong.  She was just voted Shanghai’s Food Personality of the Year by Time Out Shanghai.

Jenny Gao was born in Chengdu, Sichuan, the city of tongue-numbing peppercorns, and grew up primarily in Canada. She worked in tech-related consulting until 2014 when she gave it all up to focus on food.  Through her cooking and writing, she has been featured on CNN, the BBC series with Ken Hom on Chinese cuisine, Andrew Zimmern’s TV Show “Bizarre Foods” and the holy grail of food festivals Omnivore.  She recently started Fly By Jing, through which she cooks Sichuan street food at international pop-ups.  Jenny was nominated for the Food Personality of the Year Award by Time Out Shanghai as well.  As in Hong Kong, the food community is tight, and Camden and Jenny are dear friends.

The three of us met up at Egg for breakfast and tea, and I felt like I could have been in London or Melbourne or San Francisco.  The petit café is in a two-story, sunny loft-like space, with a simple brunch menu focused not surprisingly on eggs but also serving freshly baked pastries, house made yoghurt and granola, coffee with cashew milk and chilli-candied bacon.  When Hong Kongers complain about not having a good place for brunch, this is exactly the place they are mourning. 

Over tea and the perfect avocado toast, we shared the vagaries of our careers, each of us having left the comfort of successful corporate jobs to immerse ourselves in our common passion – food. They both left their jobs at least a couple of years before I did and they haven’t done so shabbily I would say.  More importantly, neither of them have any regrets in going into F&B, and I was so inspired by their contentment with their choices. 

It’s rare to meet people for the first time and feel at home so quickly.  After our catch up, I was told we were going to go for Shanghai’s famed soup dumplings or xiao long bao.  These ladies really do speak my language.

Xiao long bao have a rabid fanbase and there’s a huge debate in Shanghai as to which shop has the best xiao long bao.  Jenny and Camden took me to Lin Long Fang, which is the sister restaurant to Shanghai institution Jia Jia Tang Bao.  Last time I went to Jia Jia Tang Bao, I had to wait in their typically long queue.  My Chinese-speaking friend ran so late, I got to the front of the queue and had to order on my own from a Chinese menu.  I do not read Chinese.  So I did what all foreigners do and quickly pointed at a lot of items in a panic. 

When my friend showed up, it turned out I had ordered 2 large soups and 6 baskets of xiao long bao.   In case it’s not clear, that is way too much food for two people – maybe about 4 baskets too much.  Jia Jia Tang Bao’s crab roe dumplings were perhaps the most delectable, juicy morsels I’ve ever tasted, and we did our best, but my friend left with a bag filled with leftovers.  

Lin Long Fang’s dumplings are of the same quality as Jia Jia Tang Bao but it’s quieter and we didn’t have to wait.  And more importantly, I didn’t have to order myself.  That didn’t prevent us from ending up with a table filled with food – from bowls upon bowls of fresh noodles coated in scallion oil, spicy pork over noodles, wontons in broth, seaweed soup and baskets of dumplings of course.  Steamed pork dumplings, pork and crab dumplings, egg and pork dumplings, crab roe dumplings.  I secretly wished I hadn’t had that avocado toast.

At the next table to us was an elderly Chinese couple sharing a couple of baskets of xiao long bao.  When the husband delicately served his wife a dumpling with his chopsticks without tearing the translucent skin, my heart melted. True love that lasts an lifetime means never breaking your wife's soup dumpling.

Between the old couple’s everlasting love, the mountains of dumplings and getting to know the two forces of nature that are Camden and Jenny, I forgot all about Trump.  This week it becomes a reality.  But since Shanghai, I at least have two more partners in crime who help me believe that the world will be okay.  I have just come back from Japan where Jenny and I had our second pop-up together since we met in Shanghai.  We are planning a pop-up back in Shanghai next.  No matter what happens in the world, we just keep going.  That’s all we can do.  Oh and eat lots of dumplings – we can also do that.

Egg, 12 Xiangyang Bei Lu (near Julu Lu), Shanghai / /

Lin Long Fang, 10 Jianguo East Road (near Zhaozhou Road) / +86 (21) 6386 7021