The “Shanghai Chicken” Project

Recently I received an e-mail from Clayton (author of the first and so far only guest post on this blog). He wrote:

“Yesterday I went to my favorite inexpensive Chinese restaurant here in San Francisco. It is called the Bamboo Restaurant. I ordered my favorite dish: Shanghai Chicken with Pine Nuts and greens. I took a photo of it because I can’t seem to find a dish that resembles it on the Internet nor can I find a recipe for it anywhere. I thought of you because the presentation is so clean even though it was served on a 1970s plastic platter which, I may add, added to its charm.

Shanghai Chicken
Let me describe the dish. As you can tell from the photograph, it is chopped up white chicken meat that, I gather, is probably deep-fried for a few seconds, removed from the deep-fry oil and then stir-fried in a simple garlic chili oil with chili flakes. The pine nuts looked as if they were quickly deep fried as well and then scattered on top of the chicken. The vegetable is chopped leaves which is also deep fried to a crisp like you would deep-fry basil leaves. (They probably deep-fried whole leaves and then chopped them up.) The waitress said that they were chopped Chinese broccoli leaves. When the dish arrived at my table the fried vegetable and chicken were separate. The waitress, using two spoons, will usually toss the chicken and vegetables together at your table. I asked her not to because I wanted to take a picture of it to show you what it looked like before the toss.

The chicken is redolent of chili pepper, mild and not too spicy. It has a hint of garlic and a warm smokiness maybe from a dash of soy. Perhaps you can help me find the recipe or maybe we can make it together, separately. Of course you’ve never tasted it but I think a cross-continent food project might be fun. It is just a thought. Have you ever seen this in Amsterdam or come across something like this?”

I had never before heard of this dish, which is not strange as I am anything but a connoisseur of Chinese food. So I decided to ask John of Sybaritica for help, as it is clear from his blog that he has a vast knowledge of Chinese cuisine and even knows something (or a lot?) of the language. John wrote:


“Wow… Interesting question!

First, I looked at the link for the Bamboo Restaurant and I see they claim to specialize in Hunan and Mandarin cuisine. Mandarin typically means Beijing style cookery.

There’s not much about this dish that suggests Shanghai especially… the chili oil is very western in general and Hunanese in particular but Shanghai, like Beijing has always been a very cosmopolitan center and so you get a sort of ‘melting pot’ of culinary influences in both places.

The deep-fried greens are interesting. There are preparations where greens of one sort or another are deep-fried, but I have only seen them served as a stand alone dish rather than added to a more substantial set of ingredients. On some restaurant menus, chopped deep-fried greens (spinach, kale etc.) has been sprinkled with sugar and served (as a sort of joke) as ‘fried seaweed’. I also seem to recall nuts of some sort (slivered almonds, I think) being used, which puts me in mind of the pine-nuts here.

Pine-nuts aren’t an especially Chinese ingredient. I know I have at least one chicken recipe with pine-nuts in one of my Chinese cookery books but I can’t lay my finger on it at the moment. I’ll look again, but I don’t think the dish I have in mind bears much resemblance to this one. If you google ‘Chinese Chicken with Pine-nuts’ you will get results but everything I saw just seemed to be ‘riffs’ on a Chinese theme and not any particular traditional dish.

Two dishes (both western Chinese) come to mind here:

  1. Gong Bao Ji Ding (Kung Po Chicken) – Like the dish under discussion, this is based on cubes (ding) of chicken in a spicy, reddish sauce.. it too is ‘redolent’ with chili and traditionally has a ‘scorched chili’ flavor resulting in a ‘smokiness’. There is typically very little sauce in Kung Po chicken (just enough to cling to the ingredients), as is the case here and nuts are included (although usually peanuts or cashews rather than pine-nuts).
  2. Cheng-Du Chicken – This also consists of bite size pieces of boneless chicken in a reddish, chili-infused sauce. Nuts are not included, but spinach or other greens are generally are (though steamed or blanched rather than fried) and, interestingly enough, they are added at the edges, or on top of the chicken rather than being incorporated.

It is mere speculation on my part, but the Bamboo restaurant may simply having been doing a ‘riff’ on one of these traditional preparations. Why they decided to call it ‘Shanghai Chicken’ is anybody’s guess but the similarity in sounds between ‘Chengdu’ and ‘Shanghai’ suggests a possibility.”

A Cross-Continent Food Project

Shanghai Chicken project map
After some more e-mails we decided that it would be nice to do a cross-continent food project around this dish. There will be at least three participants in this project: Clayton, John, and myself. But we would love for more of you to join in!

The rules of this project are very simple:

  • Prepare a dish inspired by Bamboo Restaurant’s Shanghai Chicken.
  • It has to include chicken, chiles of some sort, vegetable greens, and nuts.
  • It could be a known recipe or one of your own — traditional or newly invented.
  • Blog about your dish or send me photos and a description of what you did and I will post about it here. Leave a comment below if you’d like to send stuff by e-mail, so I can provide you with my e-mail address.

Have fun! I will post about my version of this dish next week.

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33 thoughts on “The “Shanghai Chicken” Project

      1. My interest is piqued. I posted on May 2nd Chilli Chicken with peanuts, my adaptation of Gong Bao Chicken, the recipe for which I sourced from a gem of a book on Sichuan cookery. The minute I saw the photo on your post it came to mind. I wonder if the restaurant substitutes pine nuts because of the severity of peanut allergic reaction. I look forward to all the ideas from the wonderful world of bloggers

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  1. I’m fascinated with this dish! I’ve never seen anything like it here in Australia… as John comments, pine nuts aren’t a stereotypically ‘Chinese’ ingredient, particularly in Shanghai! Here in Western Australia, we’re lucky enough to be exposed to a cultural melting pot of different cuisines. I have no less than six Chinese restaurants within a three kilometre radius of my house! I’ve also traveled to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia on multiple occasions and although I’ve seen similar chicken dishes, they’re normally served with sauteed greens and peanuts (usually boiled). At present, I’m suspecting that the ‘Shanghai chicken’ is just Bamboo restaurant’s own fusion dish. Anyway… I’d be interested to join the cross-continent project! I very rarely cook Chinese food (particularly as I need to blog on weekends when I have enough natural light for the photographs!) but this dish is intriguing. Is there a deadline for the post?

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    1. Hi Laura, great to hear you’ll be joining our project! There is no deadline, but it’d probably be nice to post something within a month or so in order for most readers to still remember there was a project 😉 Thanks for your thoughts on the dish as well. Clayton may just have to bring his phone or iPad to the restaurant and show the chef all our versions 😉

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  2. Interesting project. I’m Chinese from the Canton region in the south and I’ve never heard of this dish or had a Chinese dish that had pine nuts in it. I suspect that this is either a northern China recipe or an Americanised recipe passing itself off as Chinese.

    Saying that, I would love to participate in this challenge.

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  3. Hi Stefan! I’m one of Sybaritica’s follower. This sounds like a very interesting challenge. I’m a bit behind, but if I have the time I’ll try to make some research and give the Spanish/Panamanian approach to this dish. Nice to meet you 🙂

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  4. I just cooked a dish inspired by Shanghai Chicken. It’s strangely very Westernised, but uses chili sauce, toasted pinenuts, kale, rice and chicken. I will post my recipe and photos sometime this week.

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  5. The pine nuts is litterrary a sign of “fusion” shanghai chicken…..
    the deep fried gai lan is really new invention for me, i’ve try so many shanghai chicken in so diffrent authentic chinese restaurant, never seen any of them use deep fried gai lan..

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    1. Thanks for your comments! It sounds like you actually have had Shanghai Chicken many times in restaurants. Can you tell us more about it? Or are you perhaps willing to participate in the project?

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