Chapter 56: Missing the Flavor of Hangzhou in Shanghai

Shanghai Oil Noodles
Even as I found so much to love in Shanghai, I still yearned for the flavors of the Hangzhou I once knew. (photo by HanWei, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I moved to a district in Shanghai called Changning, which means “long peace.” After losing my job and even overstaying my visa in Hangzhou, living in Changning was like finding peace in my life. I had a promising new job as a copywriter in a multinational company named one of the Forbes’ 200 best small companies in the world. I resided in a quiet community, with evergreens, bushes, manicured lawns, weathered four-story, concrete apartment buildings and plenty of sunshine. Every morning, a fleet of modern — and mostly empty — air-conditioned buses could taxi me all the way to my new downtown office.

Most of all, I had John, my Chinese boyfriend, with me, everyday. And perhaps that was the most important difference between Hangzhou and Shanghai — now John was no longer an occasional weekend visitor, but, by unspoken agreement, my live-in partner. He turned Shanghai into something deceptively familiar, as if my new home was simply a Shanghai version of the Hangzhou neighborhood I once knew.

But this was a new neighborhood and a new city — with a new culinary landscape we didn’t understand. After only a few days — and a few meals out — that I finally felt the truth. We’re not in Hangzhou anymore.

John and I, like most young Chinese, ate most of our meals outside, in restaurants and small cafes. In Hangzhou, we had the choice of many fine restaurants just around the corner from my old community — from a Changde Hunan place that dished out fiery and fragrant dishes to several local Hangzhou restaurants, including our favorite, the “Original Flavor House,” where the staff didn’t mind cooking for a vegan, and always kept our teapot full.

But “Original Flavor House” wasn’t what we found this evening in Shanghai. “This food is terrible,” I groaned. John and I were dining in a grotty mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant that had about five tables, several stacked aquariums with live fish, a cash register and television, all crowded together in a space across the street from our community. The greens were overcooked; the fried pumpkin tasteless; and the tofu bland. The management was as unsavory as the food — slow to cook, and even slower to serve us. We left full plates on the table, and left with empty stomachs.

That night, still starving and smarting from the first encounter, we ducked into another establishment, just around the corner from our community. More mediocre dishes piled up before us, and we ate only enough to quell the hunger within. “How is it the food is still awful, even though we changed restaurants?” I lamented.

As the days passed, we realized this was not the Hangzhou I knew. Here in this Changning neighborhood, we’d be lucky to find even one good restaurant within our budget.

As John and I deliberated over yet another lackluster lunch at a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant, we became nostalgic for the restaurants from our old Hangzhou neighborhood.

“Remember the Original Flavor House?” I nudged John, nursing a small cup of lukewarm old tea. “That food was heavenly.” I closed my eyes in ecstasy as I imagined the restaurant, just around the corner from the apartment where I once lived. John and I had spent so many weekend afternoons and evenings there, in love with each other, and the restaurant’s tantalizing, Hangzhou-style dishes.

“They made great fish-fragrant eggplant,” mused John.

“Pumpkin, too,” I recalled, imagining those sweet, golden medallions on a plate.

John took a deep breath, as if he was inhaling an imaginary aroma. “What about tofu-skin baby bok choy?” We both nodded, acknowledging our shared, unspoken thought — to us, the Hangzhou restaurants really were better.

I wonder if this is the disappointment my father knew, years later, when coming to attend our wedding in China. When we started our our journey through Hangzhou, we just randomly choose a restaurant for breakfast — that turned out to make the most delectable beef noodles he had ever tasted.

“Is there any way we can find those noodles again?” he asked again and again, as we visited Suzhou and later Shanghai.

I turned to him with apologetic eyes. “I’m sorry Dad, but we’re not in Hangzhou anymore. Every new city has its own local flavor. It would be almost impossible to find the same noodles on the road.”

A new city, new flavor, new restaurants. My culinary discontent in Shanghai wasn’t just the cook’s fault — perhaps I simply missed the food I loved in Hangzhou, a food that was even closer to me because I loved Hangzhou native.

I could never return to that Hangzhou I once knew. John and I were just beginning to build a life together in Shanghai — day by day, and, yes, even dinner by dinner. After all, there’s nothing like the flavor of being with the one you love, no matter where you are.

Did you ever miss something when you moved to a new place in China (or elsewhere)?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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8 Replies to “Chapter 56: Missing the Flavor of Hangzhou in Shanghai”

  1. This makes me laugh because it reminds me of the best food I had in Guatemala. Oddly enough it was a Chinese restaurant. Of course, it was American style Chinese and it was soooooo good. We were on a tight budget traveling through the country for three weeks, so we hadn’t really been able to do much eating out. At the same time, Guatemala isn’t exactly known for their gourmet dining. Their mainstays are corn tortillas and black beans. Anyway, my husband and I always laugh because we remember that Chinese meal being the best of three weeks. I told my hubby that when we go back I want my first stop to be that same restaurant. I wonder… are there Mexican food restaurants in China and are the owners really from Mexico? Do they speak Chinese? I’m not sure why it was so hard for me to comprehend that in Guatemala. People really from China, making Chinese food “our way” and speaking Spanish. I guess it’s all part of reminding myself that there is more to the world than the US.

    1. Hi Melissa, that is so funny! You know, your experience reminds me of eating Chinese food in Spain. I was studying abroad there for a semester in college (yeah, I know, crazy that I studied abroad in Spain, but ended up in China) and as a vegetarian I desperately needed a break from the spanish omelettes and generally lackluster vegetarian options. Maybe that was a symptom of my deeper connection to China… 😉 (BTW, it was American style Chinese over there, for the most part, but oh was it good). Jessica is right, the mexican restaurants in China stink for the most part — and the last time I went to one, I got heckled by a drunk foreigner which made me even less interested in ever eating it in China again.

      Hi Jessica, thanks for the comment. Isn’t it tough to move around China? I think many people — without the knowledge — would be surprised just how different the cuisine (and, for that matter the language) is around the country. I can totally relate to the Beijing putonghua and lack of good local restaurants. On a similar note, I think a lot of my friends were shocked to learn that, when John and I traveled to Xi’an last summer, he had trouble eating the food. It was technically “Chinese” but the local flavor just didn’t sit well with him at all.

      It is indeed a joy to hear the local dialect once again. 😉

  2. Melissa — there are practically no Mexican restaurants in China, and when there are (we have a few, 2 I think, in Beijing anyhow, and I imagine probably Shanghai) they are really only very very pale imitations of the real thing and worse, they’re wickedly expensive. As someone who spent 7 years of my life in Texas, I lament the lack of Mexican food in China on a weekly basis at least.

    Jocelyn when we moved to Beijing we really missed Kunming food, which is pretty distinctive with its own flavors and special dishes. Then we moved to the neighborhood where we live now and found not one but 2 Yunnanese places on our street! Still though there are some dishes that even the Yunnanese places here don’t have, and the ones that they do have just aren’t the same. When we went back to Kunming for a visit we loaded up on our favorites. Another thing I miss about Kunming is the dialect. After so many years there I was really used to hearing Yunnanese and I swear when I first got to Beijing, where the putonghua is technically supposed to be better, I felt like a beginner all over again because I found the Beijing accent so hard to understand. Folks in Beijing felt the same way about my own Southwestern-influenced putonghua and would often ask me to repeat myself, something which never ever happened in Kunming! When we went back home to visit hearing that rough around the edges Kunming-hua again for the first time (which was, afterall, the namesake of my blog!) was like music to my ears. 😀
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..Mao Zedong and Hu Jintao =-.

  3. Our first year in China we lived at the Shijiazhuang airport, 40km from the city, literally surrounded by cornfields. Our dining options were soooo limited. We lived in a hotel, with no kitchen facilities and so we ate out practically all our meals, except breakfast. There was one really sketchy little food joint next to the airport terminal that offered food and a small assortment of groceries, we called it the “Kwik-E-Mart.” The cleanliness and hygiene left much to be desired, but man did we love this place. They had three small private rooms, but we always sat outside at plastic tables (in the Winter months we’d crowd inside one of the small rooms.) My husband and I ate at least one meal here everyday for a year! The food was very basic and not even all the great, but we loved it, and it was better than our school’s canteen. Our students loved to tell us the Kwik-E-Mart was too dirty for us to eat there, but after a while we started seeing them eating there, too. (It remains the only restaurant that I’ve eaten at repeatedly where I never got ill, not once.)

    Our Mandarin at the time was pretty lousy, so in the beginning we ate a lot of fish-fragrant pork (our fave dish at the time), but over the weeks the cook decided to just make whatever he thought we’d like, mostly pork & veggie dishes. Then one day he brought out a plate of deep-fried mushrooms. Lightly breaded, they were incredibly flavorful and we began asking for them everyday. To this day I think about those mushrooms with longing. After moving to Shandong Province, we’ve never been able to recreate the deep-fried mushroom experience. We can get lots of delicious deep-fried squid, and lots of delicious stir-fried mushroom dishes, but not deep-fried mushrooms. I miss them!
    .-= globalgal´s last blog ..Weekly Round-Up =-.

    1. HI Global Gal, thanks for sharing your experience. What a story — to live in an airport, and find this dining “diamond in the rough.” The deep-fried mushrooms sound delectable!

  4. Can I ask what the restaurant is called in Chinese? I’m living in Hangzhou right now and would love to go. 🙂

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