Staff Meals in a Shanghai Restaurant
I’ve written about the elaborate meals I’d had in Xi’an at Xi’an Fanzhuang and the Grand Hyatt’s Chang’an Bridge restaurant. But one of my favorite memories from this last trip to China was something much simpler: eating the staff meals with the construction crew and restaurant staff in Shanghai.
See, the space I was working on was the lounge space of a pretty fancy restaurant, and while the lounge was still under construction, the restaurant was already in operation.
The first day I was in Shanghai, I noticed that the staff - both waitstaff from the restaurant as well as construction crew from the lounge - were using the in-progress lounge space as kind of a canteen, which I found kind of odd. They all just showed up with these metal trays in the middle of the day.
But the next day, one of my colleagues was eating one of these trays by herself, and asked me if I wanted a tray too. It looked quite good, and I wasn’t sure when I would eat later, so I said sure. She went off to fetch me a tray, which came out looking like this.
These metal trays were just like the ones I used to eat from in the school canteen, when I studied abroad at Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art! There were different compartments for different food, speaking to the variety of dishes that usually compose a Chinese meal. In the main compartment, there was white rice. This was accompanied by stir-fried cabbage, a salted egg, and a delicious ground pork patty that reminded me of what my mom used to make, only this was also studded with shrimp and other seafood. Add this one to the list of dishes I would like to recreate at home!
One touching thing that my colleague told me, is that knowing that I came from Spain, she was unsure if I could use chopsticks or not, and had debated bringing me a spoon! I reassured her that I did indeed know how to use chopsticks…
The next day, I was actually on site when the workers took their dinner break at around 4:30pm. The head of the construction crew invited me to join them, so today I lined up in the kitchen with the rest of the team. Basically we formed a long line into the kitchen, where stationed beside each large tray of food was a cook who spooned a portion onto your metal tray. Then you could serve yourself as much rice you wanted, and there was also dessert for the taking too.
Today’s menu included another kind of stir-fried cabbage, rather bony fish pieces with black bean sauce, and rather bony chicken pieces with bitter melon. I suppose these might be the leftover cuts from the ingredients used for the restaurant upstairs, but the taste was great as great as one can imagine. The cooks were speaking in Cantonese or Cantonese-accented Mandarin, and together with the Cantonese preparation of the dishes, it actually made me a bit homesick for the United States where many of the restaurant cooks and much of the food is also Cantonese. (You’ll also notice that I did take a spoon myself, because I really do prefer eating rice with a spoon!)
The real knockout of the meal though, was the dessert. There was actually a choice between two desserts in the lunch line, one was a clear soup with things floating in it, looking quite familiar, and one was this bright orange, opaque soup which looked totally alien. So of course I chose the latter, because it was so mysterious
I took a tentative spoonful, and immediately recognized the fragrant sweetness of mango. There were some strips of something crunchy, perhaps pieces of mango, and then sudden bursts of tartness. I looked into the bowl, looking for tapioca or popping boba, but instead I found elongated pods of something translucent. I think they were individual pulp of pomelo providing that punch of freshness! This combination of flavors and textures atop the base of liquified mango (which by itself would have already been a satisfying dessert) was both surprising and magical.
While I’d come to China many times before, I’d never experienced before such a typical worker meal. I’ve since learned from my Chinese teacher that such meals are quite common in workplace environments, and it was certainly very similar in set up to what I used to eat for breakfast and for lunch at the art academy in Hangzhou. But I’d say it was also quite special that my first worker lunch, and also my first restaurant staff meal, took place in a gourmet restaurant, where the cooks regularly make quite elaborate banquets.