Rick Stein feasts on offal, hairy crabs and Cornish crab in Shanghai

"The Chinese are fanatical about their food and that’s what I really like about them. Food is first.”

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In his newly opened restaurant on the prestigious Dorset peninsula Sandbanks, Rick Stein’s mind is miles away.

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“It’s like a sort of unreal city. You cannot believe how big it is and how much is going on,” he tells me. “There are cranes everywhere and freeways going this way and that – it’s like something out of Metropolis or Blade Runner. That’s its reality.”

His new BBC2 documentary is a far cry from his usual television adventures in Mediterranean fishing ports, but Shanghai had been beckoning for a while because it’s a unique culinary hotspot. “I really liked it. And I really like the Chinese,” he enthuses. “But it was all about Shanghainese cooking. It’s not terribly revered in China, generally. They say it’s very rich and that’s because they put a lot of sugar and oil and soy sauce in it. It’s like the ultimate comfort Chinese food.”

Having grown up when China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and “a bit like North Korea is now – very closed”, it’s always held a certain mystique and his tastebuds weren’t disappointed. There was a “red-braised” pork belly dish in particular that was clearly memorable. Nor was Stein averse to trying a stir-fry of pigs’ intestines. “I was with a really nice Chinese girl who was assuming I was not going to like them at all, but they were wonderful. I think one of the reasons you can eat so many different animals in China is that the flavourings are so exquisite.”

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Rick enjoys offal

Thanks to the universal language of food, Rick had no problem at all breaking through any cultural barriers during his ten days in Shanghai. “The great thing about food is that it does allow you to share an experience which, as human beings, we all enjoy. I’m never as aware of the cultural barriers as other people, because I would go into some Chinese person’s kitchen and, because I know about food, I’d be on a par with them.“

Anyone who watches Rick Stein knows how much he loves a good seafood market and Shanghai’s Tong Chuan Lu market was no exception. “Firstly, frogs for some slightly weird reason, are regarded as seafood. So they sell frogs in the fish market in Shanghai and they are huge. They sell them in nets and they are still alive. They’re apparently very nice but the bones are very, very sharp. The other thing about the fish market was they had Devon and Cornish crabs in there, live. And I know they are from Devon and Cornwall because I know a lot of fishermen in the West Country who send them over. I went into a restaurant above the market to find out how they cook them and, basically, they smack them up like we would and then stir-fry them with salted duck egg yolk.”

Then there were the “xia long bao” dumplings, which can be bought everywhere – from street-corner vendors to the most prestigious restaurants. They are steamed in traditional bamboo baskets and what he loved was “the delicacy of them. They’re steamed but they’re just a sort of puff of dumpling.” Spending time in the kitchen of a family-run restaurant and watching the dumplings being made was clearly a wonderful experience. “There’s this great pride in small places like that, the tremendous feeling of belonging to something that has been going on forever. I was thinking about our three [sons] because we’re a family business. It’s so charming in Shanghai; they’re so well supported. The Chinese, wherever you go in the world, are fanatical about their food. And that’s what I really like about them. Food is first.”

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Rick with net fishermen on Chongming Island, Shanghai 

If street food is your thing, Rick lights up at the mention of the Shouning Road night market and its infamous hairy crabs. “That’s THE specialty of Shanghai. The point of the hairy crab is they’re quite small and don’t have a lot of meat, but they have this gorgeous roe and, at a certain time of the year, everyone goes mad about them. Shouning Road is open all night and rammed. That is what I love about Southeast Asia and China. They have this incredible enthusiasm and sort of commitment to eating all through the night.”

For a taste of Shanghainese fine dining, he recommends Fu Restaurant, a popular chain that can be found across the city. “All the dishes were as you would get in Shanghai, but just incredibly sophisticated versions,” he says. “I remember there was a stir-fry of local prawns, fresh-water prawns probably from the Yangtze River. They concentrated on the main ingredients of a dish and made it subtly better than you’d ever had it before. I just thought, that is a lesson to any three Michelin star chef: concentrate on the materials, make sure they’re the best you can get and give them a little twist of excellence.”

So what would he bring back from China and pop on the menu of the new Rick Stein restaurant in Sandbanks? “It would be that red braised pork. That was a BIG dish for me.”

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Rick Stein’s Taste of Shanghai is available to watch on BBC iPlayer