What was the saddest thing that you experienced in your travels? Mine was Phuket the year before the great tsunami. I booked a four-night birthday break and it rained straight for 48 hours. I didn’t even get to swim in the beach because the red flag was up all the time. I cut my trip short, packed my bags and headed back to sunny Bangkok. Some friends lost all their gadgets and valuables to burglars in Barcelona. A friend who was connecting from Singapore to Jakarta never got through Indo Immigration. She left her passport in the SQ plane. A client fell to a tourist trap somewhere in Europe – he succumbed to wily bar escorts, and then couldn’t leave unless he’d settle a faux bill worth hundreds of Euros. Another friend had a bad fall while walking the streets of Oslo, and had to recover for two weeks in a Norwegian hospital.
But the most heartbreaking story I heard was from a friend who toured Rome, Venice, Florence and Paris with friends. All they ate was Chinese. One of his companions would only eat rice and some familiar meat dish. Not a bite of foie gras, flamiche, soupe à l’oignon, pasta, risotto, not even the fabulous Venetian pizza. He was too scared to wander off and dine alone.
I’m lucky to be a Kapampangan with a hearty appetite; luckier to have a dad who influenced me to be adventurous with food. Scrimp on anything but food, he’d say. Food, glorious food, is one of the prime pleasures of travel. Discovering new tastes, scents and unfamiliar ingredients is as mind-opening as watching crazy teenagers in Harajuku.
In my last trip to Shanghai, my friends brought me to Xibo, a classy restaurant in the French Concession that served Xinjiang cuisine. I hadn’t even heard of the Xinjiang province. Xinjiang is in the northwestern part of China, close to Russia, Mongolia and Tibet. The Xibo minority was descended from the Manchurians and they hosted Marco Polo when he was traversing the Silk Road. They’re Muslims. So if you’re craving pork dumplings, dine instead in Din Tai Fung.
I’m a useless food chronicler so I can’t tell you in detail what we had. But trust me, it’s not your average Chinese. It’s colorful, varied, tasty, sometimes fiery. There’s a lot of skewered mutton, beef, chicken, fish with pickled herbs, cumin, eggplant, pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, onions, fennel, baked pancake, cold noodles, stretched noodles, a lots of chili. The meat seemed to have been cooked in very simple ways – water-boiled, grilled or shallow-fried – thus, preserving the original meaty taste.
When in Shanghai, you must do Xibo. It’s pure gastronomic paradise. It’s complex, decadent, a wonderful expedition to a China that you’ve never gone before.
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Xibo: 常熟路83号3楼 83 Chang Shu Road, 3FL (near Julu Road) / +86 (21) 5403 8330