A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and in my case, that step was made with my left foot as I recently broke my right one running in Boston a few days before the trip. Luckily I have two very helpful and completely mobile chefs with me to help with the bags. We were put up by the gracious TongJi University staff during our first night in China – its an amazing campus in a beautiful part of the city!
The flight was uneventful save for the child running and screaming in the isle as his mother relaxed to some in-flight entertainment. I will admit that I thoroughly enjoyed when the flight attendant politely asked that I wait for him to list the dinner menu in Chinese and then English. As soon as he finished the last item in Chinese I said, ‘jirou mifan’ (chicken and rice). ‘You understand Chinese?’, he replied in English. ‘Yidian’ (a little), I said. He then proceeded to launch into a paragraph of fluent Mandarin which I had no chance of comprehending.
After flying for over 14 hours above Canada, the arctic, Siberia, and finally China, we arrived at Shanghai Pudong airport, one of the largest in the world… or so I kept telling Jhonny and Gerry – the main terminal was nowhere near our arrival area. I think they are still skeptical.
I think it is hard for people that have never been to a city in China to picture Shanghai accurately. The estimated population is over 27 million people, and that’s not even the metropolitan area. They don’t build individual buildings but entire neighborhoods at once instead. The only way I can describe it is to imagine that you are driving through Manhattan from North to South. When you pass through downtown and reach New York Harbor, instead of driving into the water, imagine there is another bridge – one that should have started in the Bronx, leading you back into Manhattan. Be sure to take Broad Street and repeat this cycle about ten times over. Now you might be getting close to having an idea of how huge this city is and how endless its buildings feel when driving between them.
We were met at the airport by our guide for Shanghai, Eva, our documentary filmmaker, Jay, and of course, our fearless leader Tom Tong! After introductions and a few pictures we were on our way.
From there we drove directly to the Chifeng Road shop in Shanghai to have our very first baos! The store, featured in many of this blog’s cover pictures, is absolutely beautiful. Its open design allows people in the store and on the street to watch the bao makers at work as they roll the dough, add the various fillings, and steam the small, pale bao until they grow look like they might collapse under their own weight.
After a few minutes spent looking around the store, we all sat down to eat. Never before has so much depended on what I was about to eat. What if I don’t like the taste? What if after months of working toward bringing bao to America I discovered that they were not going to be well received overseas? With my first anxious bite into the Apple Pork BBQ Bao my fears were erased. The sweet and savory flavors worked perfectly together, and soaked into the bao’s bread, combining the juices with the texture of a kind of dough that I can’t say I have ever encountered anywhere else. The closest thing I could describe the taste to is oats, but it is still definitely wheat. It feels soft and spongy to the touch, but has a remarkable ability to hold in moisture without any leakage at all. It also smells slightly sweet.
Tom showed us the proper way to hold the bao to eat it without tearing the bread or spilling any of the juicy goodness inside. We tried most of the bao on the menu, and completely stuffed, headed back to our room to finally rest after our long journey to China. Tomorrow morning we’ll finish sampling the bao for breakfast with Tom, then on to Hangzhou – training begins Monday.
Check out the Baos page, where we will be adding our thoughts and descriptions of various bao flavors.