I Ate 5 Bowls of Noodles at Baoism, Shanghai
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The bao, in my opinion, is one of the oldest and most iconic Chinese culinary inventions, second only to noodles. Centuries later, people from every part of China are still eating all types of baos every single day, from the simple plain mantou to pork filled buns, to ‘Gua Bao’ style buns that almost look like the bastard child of a Chinese bao and Mexican taco.
Enter Baoism. Co-founded by Alex Xu, a Canadian of Shanghainese descent, Baoism serves fusion style ‘Gua Bao’, inspired by the likes of David Chang of the Momofuku restaurant empire in the United States. The baos at Baoism range from classic braised pork belly fillings, to less classic Chinese combinations of satay beef baos, even unique western twists like cheeseburger baos.
The concept of Baoism was once touted as the ‘Chipotle of China’, focusing on quick, tasty and affordable food. The folks are Baoism take high pride in sourcing for the freshest and highest quality ingredients from niche farms and suppliers, normally only associated with fine dining restaurants.
This month, Baoism launched a new noodles menu, officially showcasing the two oldest Chinese culinary inventions under one roof.
In the past, Baoism already had a scallion oil noodle side dish — an iconic Shanghainese noodle dish. The recipe came from Alex’s Shanghainese grand-dad, coupled with a hipster touch of a single sous vide egg. I had tried it before, and it was indeed very tasty, hence my deep anticipation to sample the new line of noodles.
Alex cited that prior to launching his new noodles menu, he had travelled all over Asia and China to specifically research on the various noodles, before shortlisting and creating his versions of them.
All the noodles cost RMB30 a la carte, and RMB45 in a set with two side dishes.
No MSG is used in the preparation of the food at Baoism.
Yuzu Shoyu Ramen
Origin: Tokyo, Japan
Slow-braised Pork Belly, Leeks, Ajitsuke Egg, Yuzu Shoyu Dashi Broth
Inspired by the rising trend of Yuzu laced Shoyu broth in Tokyo. Yuzu is a type of citrus fruit that is very oftenly used in Japanese cuisine, much in the manner of how lemons are used in French cuisine.
For this noodle dish, thick round alkaline noodles are used, like the Shoyu Ramen of Tokyo.
All the noodles that day were done al dente, which is how I usually like my noodles.
The broth tasted clean and savoury, less salty than the typical Shoyu broth, with a tint of tartness from the yuzu.
The braised pork belly was a huge slab, almost a main course sized portion. It had the right balance of bite and tenderness, neither fall-apart tender nor chewy and had fully absorbed the seasonings and spices of the braising liquid. The ramen egg was perfectly seasoned and cooked with a soft yolk.
It was a nice and hearty bowl of noodles, my only complaint was that the huge slab of pork belly may not have been the most convenient way to eat noodles with, because one had to pick up the big slab and bite a chunk off it, before getting a bite of noodles or a slurp of soup.
I would have preferred the pork belly in perhaps 2 or 3 thinner slices for less effort.
Chicken Broth Ramen
Origin: Kyoto, Japan
Sous-vide Chicken Breast, Garlic Corn, Ajitsuke Egg, Thick Reduced Chicken Broth
I had originally thought this would be like a chicken noodle soup dish with a lighter ‘soupier’ broth. Turns out it was based on a style of ramen in Kyoto, featuring a thick umami-laden reduced chicken broth. The same thick round type of alkaline noodles were used for this ramen as well. Alkaline noodles can endure higher cooking temperatures, hence they do not get soggy quickly and are easier to achieve an al dente bite. The most common dish that Alkaline noodles are used in, are classic cantonese wonton noodles. The chicken breast from the Chicken Broth Ramen was tender and moist. The garlic corn added crunch and a welcome rush of sweetness in the mix. The broth was purely cooked from chicken bones, and slowly reduced to a thick savoury broth. It was almost more of a gravy than broth.
Personally, I thought the chicken flavours were a little overpowering for me in the concentrated broth, I would have liked a more apparent spice component to balance out and complement the chicken flavours, perhaps ginger and scallions, like how we do the chicken broth for Hainanese chicken rice. Hainanese Chicken Noodle…woah, I might be on to something here.
Dan Dan Mian
Origin: Sichuan, China
Minced Pork, Sichuan Ya Cai, Peanuts, Sous Vide Egg
Something closer to the home ground. Truth is, a unique version of Dan Dan Mian exists in every Chinese populated city. Whilst the Sichuanese hold claim to the origins, the noodle dish has already been popularised in Taiwan and Japan to the extend that those countries would call it their own.
Dan Dan Mian is essentially savoury fried minced meat on noodles with a sesame/peanut laden sauce. The Sichuan version is also liberally doused in chilli oil and sichuan peppercorns.
The one at Baoism stuck closer to the Sichuan version, but offered in milder, more palatable flavours. The mince is composed of pork and Ya Cai, a traditional mustard green pickle from Sichuan to impart those au natural monosodium glutamate flavours into the mix.
The sauce is sesame based, with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts.
Break apart the sous vide egg, mix it together with the noodles, and you have strand after strand of bliss.
Scallion Oil Noodles
Origin: Shanghai, China
Fried scallions, scallion oil, sous vide egg
Something even closer to the home ground. Scallion oil noodles are the quintessential Shanghainese noodle dish. Millions of Shanghainese eat this noodle daily.
This version of the noodle sticks very close to its roots, the recipe being a family one hailing from Alex’s grand-dad, with Alex’s addition of a sous vide egg. It was truly one of, if not the best scallion oil noodle that I’ve had in Shanghai. What made it shine was the super umami taste of the fried caramelised scallions, and the resulting oil used in coating the noodles. The egg added an additional depth of complexity and richness to the mix. It is often that the simplest of ingredients would result in the tastiest dish and this was one of them.
Za Jiang Mian
Origin: Beijing, China
Fermented bean paste, minced pork, radish, leeks, cucumbers.
Za Jiang Mian to Beijing is like the scallion oil noodles to Shanghai. It is also one of the noodle dishes that appear on noodle menus all over the world; Korea has a jajangmyeon that they call their own, which is really a version of Za Jiang Mian (even the name has the same meaning).
The primary components comprise of minced meat fried in fermented bean paste, which is then tossed together with the noodles and julienned vegetables.
Although there seems to be no specific type of noodle defined for Za Jiang Mian, the one at Baoism made used of a thick flat alkaline noodle. I felt the noodle for this dish took al dente a little too far, and felt undercooked. I found myself chewing far too long between bites, and it took away from the experience of enjoying the other components of the noodles.
The Za Jiang was rich, flavourful, and coated the noodles well. The julienned vegetables gave crisp textures and fresh flavours to the mix, helping to balance out the richness. However, because the noodles were already very chewy, the added textures didn’t feel like a contrast of textures (as opposed to soft noodles vs crunchy vegetables).
That concludes the noodle tasting at Baoism. It was a very bold move by Alex to introduce his renditions of noodles to the public, given that many people are already familiar with their memories of how the traditional chinese noodles taste like. Preference for noodles is an extremely personal thing, which is why Japanese ramen shops often have the option of how soft or stiff customers would like their noodles cooked. Alex had already made note of my observation, and said he would definitely offer customers the option of soft or hard noodles once they’ve finalised the recipes.
My advice to you is to approach the noodles at Baoism with an open mind. They are not trying to execute traditional noodles in a hipster environment. They are introducing traditional noodle dishes with a modern twist, so please base your expectations on that.