Above: Yunnan eatery Southern Barbarian's simple mint leaf salad -- with a hint of acid and chilli heat -- is a gorgeously refreshing diversion from Shanghai's usually heavy, greasy cuisine.
It was inevitable. My friends are on to me. My friend Brian in Hong Kong was the first to actually call me on it: "So. You go around the world. You look up all your friends. They take you to to all their favourite, secret, food places."
Case in point, so goes my text message conversation with my friend Shin in Shanghai:
Me: I'm in town! Dinner tomorrow? You pick where.
Shin: Tomorrow ok. 7pm? You want classy or slummy?
Shin is an architect in Shanghai. And for the 12 years(!) we've known each other -- as newspaper interns in Singapore, undergrads in the US, housemates for a fortnight in New York, or party organisers / attendees in Singapore and Shanghai since -- Shin has consistently brought truckloads of ideas, spark and humour to any (always too short) conversation we've had.
So there's only 1 answer that I know will guarantee a great tasting dinner with a vibe that's edgier than its pricelist.
Me: Let's go to your favourite slummy place.
How else would I have found Southern Barbarian?
For a start, it's one of those hip places where it takes a bit of work finding the entrance (if your back is facing the street, it's a couple of doors left and upstairs of where you think it should be... it's not down the alleyway.)
And then there are the gastronomical discoveries. Tip: Best done when you simply refuse to open the menu, and ask your friend-slash-guide to go ahead and order for the table.
Would I ever have guessed that a salad of just mint leaves (above) could be so delicious? Would I have known to pick sauteed pomergranate flowers from the menu? Very light and crunchy, by the way, and the best part, just so damn unexpected.
And who knew the Chinese ate cheese? Well apparently the Yunnanese do. Goat cheese, fried, no less. Very much like a mild Greek hallumi.
Potatoes may have originated from South America, but China is now the world's largest producer of spuds (oh the random facts you learn at the Friet Museum in Bruge). The Yunnanese shoestring their spuds, pancake them and then deep fry them lightly. Babs -- very much a chips man -- couldn't get enough of this.
And did I mention the beer selection? One of the best in the city, I'm told.
How Shin started coming to Southern Barbarian is a story in itself. Year after year, his parents would vacation in Yunnan, much to Shin's curiosity and slight consternation. Who keeps going back to the same place for fun? And why?
"Then I finally had to do a trip there for work. And then it was 'Ok. I get it'," he said.
And now Southern Barbarian is where he seeks solace from Shanghai's sweet gravies and clinging frying oils.
Perhaps there's more street cred in making food discoveries on my own. But when a guide leads the guided to something delicious, doesn't the delight in the room tend to double?
What do you think? I'll take your lead.
2nd floor, Ju'Roshine Life Arts Space
169 Jinxian Lu, near Maoming Nan Lu
+86 1362 1797 634