Sunday, April 24, 2011

Slurping Shanghai I: Fern Root Noodles at Dunhuang Xiao Ting

I’ve had a fascination with Silk Route food for the last couple of years, thanks to encountering good examples of it at the redoubtable Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, and varied noodle offerings are not the least of this cuisine’s attractions. In my last couple of visits to Shanghai one of my missions was to find a casual, inexpensive (yet accessible) purveyor of Silk Route noshes where I could explore this food further, and Dunhuang Xiao Ting (敦煌小亭)seems to fill the bill as well as anything I’ve found. (Like other sophisticated cities, Shanghai tends to present its more exotic “folk” cuisines dressed up and dumbed down on white tablecloths.)
Tops on my list for Dunhuang Xiao Ting on my recent visit was cold “fern root noodles” (蕨根粉, jue gen fen). This is a noodle dish I had yet to encounter anywhere else, and the most frequently recommended item at Dunhuang Xiao Ting by reviewers. The version of 蕨根粉 served at Dunhuang Xiao Ting is simply listed as that, but apparently can be found elsewhere as “hot sour fern root noodles” (酸辣蕨根粉).
Fern root noodles, as the name implies, are made from starch extracted from the common bracken fern, pteridium aquilinum, something perhaps only the Chinese would think of doing. They are purplish black in color, and have a chewy texture not unlike yam root (konjac) noodles. Probably for this reason some recipes pair them with shredded jellyfish. At Dunhuang Xiao Ting they are served cold in a bath of vinegar and chili oil and topped with shredded cucumber. Due to the prominent “suan la” character, it was difficult to attribute any distinct flavor to the noodles, or determine if other ingredients were present, though some recipes suggest that sesame oil may have been included.
Overall, the hot, tangy dressing and the cold chewy noodles made for a very satisfying lunch, paired with a couple of roujiamos (cumin lamb and Xi’an-style pork). Unfortunately (for tasting purposes) it was a mild April day; I can imagine the cold fern root noodles to be a killer nosh on sweltering June day.
Where slurped: Dunhuang Xiao Ting, 333 Changde Lu, Shanghai