Mock duck

When I’m sick, but not bedridden, I tend to crave Chinese food. Not greasy chow mein and sweet and sour pork, but hot, broth-based soups and plates of lightly cooked vegetables, bean curd and rice. Few foods seem more medicinal at these times, and have you ever noticed how elusive a handsome serving of respectfully treated vegetables can be at most non-Asian restaurants? Too many American restaurants treat vegetables as a kind of obligatory afterthought, and you end up with a pile of mushy broccoli soaked in butter off to the side of your plate, or you get a salad coated in oil and spiked with some sort of meat and cheese. OK, I’m generalizing, but still, where else can you get a heaping platter of bok choy or broccoli or snow peas or asparagus?

So, being sick but not bedridden, I went out to Shanghai Garden. What sets this place apart from some of the other Chinese places around is its stated focus on vegetarian dishes. This is not the kind of meat-is-disgusting vegetarianism currently common, but rather the ancient Buddhist meat-tastes-great-but-I-can’t-eat-it-because-Buddha-says-so variety. In other words, many of the vegetarian dishes feature that somewhat bizarre Chinese creation: imitation meat. This stuff is cool, though. I once saw it being made. I understand that it’s often made with wheat gluten, but what I saw was made from, basically, tofu scum. At the top of a large pot in which tofu was cooking, a layer of residual protein had formed. The chef lifted a huge circle of scum off the top, intact, and folded it into a large, thick rectangle. After it set a bit and became tacky, he chopped it into “meat” niblet-sized pieces and stir-fried it to brown it and set its shape. He called the end product “mock duck.” However, how one distinguishes from mock duck and the mock pork or chicken at Shanghai Garden, I’m still trying to work out.

Anyway, I went out imagining things such as Shanghai Garden’s great mustard greens in ginger sauce ($5.75), kung pao imitation chicken ($7.00), and spinach and tofu soup ($4.25). On arriving, however, I was intrigued by something I hadn’t noticed before—the China dinner ($9.75 per person). This usurped my interest in the vegetarian items, and basically put my intentions of eating healthfully on the back burner, because the description read, “For the adventurous diner, leave it to our chefs who will delight your taste.” How could I pass up this challenge?

Well, I was doomed to be a bit disappointed; I guess my imagination was somewhat overactive, because I was hoping to be dazzled by perhaps a flaming platter of sea cucumbers, a whole braised octopus or a brace of roasted pigeons. Instead, what we got, though quite good, was basically just random (and safe) choices from the regular menu.

They started us off with a somewhat lackluster but adequate soup of shrimp, peas, bamboo, carrots, cabbage and toasted rice. The flavor was fine, but the soup itself was close to lukewarm.

Next came a platter of appetizers, including skewers of teriyaki beef, fried won tons, egg rolls and fried shrimp. Of these, the egg rolls were the most interesting. The usual combo of pork and cabbage was complemented by a touch of cinnamon, which, though it seemed odd at first, gave the rolls a unique and delicious flavor.

The final part of the China dinner consisted of chicken with string beans in black bean sauce and Szechwan-spiced shrimp. The heaps of beans helped assuage my earlier craving for veggies, and the combination of chilies, garlic and peanuts accompanying the shrimp helped create a nice, purgative burn. Though I’d forgone the healthier choices I’d planned on earlier, between the broth, the lightly cooked beans and the fire of the chilies, I felt as though a substantial threat had nevertheless been launched on whatever it was that had invaded my body. And thus, Shanghai Garden fulfilled handsomely the restorative role I’d hoped it would.