Food tastes best served with community spirit

Village feasts are a cherished tradition in rural Minhang. Food caterer Lin Haiying tells his story about cooking feast for 1,500 villagers.

Food caterer Lin Haiying cooked a community Spring Festival feast for all 1,500 residents in Meilong Village last month. The

impressive menu included king snakes and lobsters.

“When I first started catering in villages, they were happy with simple chicken and pork dishes, but now king snakes and lobsters are all the go to impress the guests and show the sincerity of the host,” Lin said.

But the king of choices remains sugar-braised lamb, which satisfies the Shanghai preference to meld sweet and sour. In the dish, there’s two kilograms of sugar for every kilogram of lamb.

“The usual way to cook lamb is to boil it first and get rid of the telltale mutton odor, but I just drain off the blood and put the meat straight into a preheated pan with ginger and onions,” Lin said. “In order to retain most of the flavor, we don’t change the composition of the broth or add turnip to absorb the soup. The recipe was passed down from my teacher.”

When the mutton is almost cooked, Lin adds soy sauce and sugar, turning up the heat to boil off excess liquid and thicken the sauce.

Cold dishes prepared for the village banquet included sweet-and-sour pork ribs, coconut jelly and pumpkin, and jellyfish in sesame oil. Main dishes included lobster baked in butter, steamed crabs with onions and gingers, and braised mutton with brown sauce. The banquet finished with rice pudding and glutinous rice balls, accompanied by osmanthus in fermented rice wine.

“Once when I cooked for villagers in Pudong, the diners came into the kitchen to praise the dishes,” Lin said. “One granny told me it was the best meal she had ever eaten.”

Lin Haiying / Ti Gong

Lin’s menu includes king snakes and lobsters.

Lin was born in 1975 in Caozhong Village in Meilong Town. At that time, villagers burned firewood for cooking. The trick was in learning how to control the heat, and Lin’s grandfather was a master of that technique.

He used to watch carefully when his grandfather and other villagers did the cooking.

“I always looked forward to the New Year’s Eve feast,” he said. “And I always dreamed of becoming a cook.”

Prior to construction of the Caozhong community center, families would bring chairs and tables to one house for the dinner.

“Last year, some 1,500 villagers who had moved away because of redevelopment came back and had the dinner with us,” he said. “Many old friends and classmates of mine were there.”

Lin works as a chef in an industrial business park, providing meals for workers there, but he’s reluctant to give up his sideline as a caterer. It keeps him in contact with the closeness of village life, which he misses living in the city.

When cooking for a village meal, he does all the menu planning and food buying. He arrives at 5am to start cooking.

Lin Haiying / Ti Gong

Before Caozhong community center was built, families would bring chairs and tables to one house for the dinner.

For village weddings that can last for three days, Lin has to come up with hundreds of different dishes.

“Years ago, it was a tradition to kill a pig well before the wedding date to get it well-seasoned for the banquet,” he said. “The whole preparation took months. It was usual for villagers to choose winter for weddings.”

Nowadays, a five-star hotel is the first choice of many to hold wedding banquets, but for villagers in outlying areas of Shanghai, a catered feast provides tastier meals at a lower cost.

Lin has a team of 10 people who help him cook and serve the meals. In the past, that assistance came from village volunteers. 

One important role for a successful banquet is a “tea boy,” whose responsibility is the exchanging of plates and spoons as a big meal progresses through various phases. At the middle of the banquet, the tea boy gives each guest a warm towel bathed in floral water to wipe away greasy mouths so that they can enjoy the next dishes with a fresh palate.

“Neighbors, strangers and friends all gather together,” Lin said. “It is heartwarming to watch the close bonds between people come together.”

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