Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a function at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, which has been running annually since 2003. The Festival draws authors from around the world and has become a major event in the Shanghai arts scene. Over 50 writers attended the 2013 Festival, including James and Deborah Fallows and Tom Rachman. Festival events are held all over town, though the highlight is probably the series of literary lunches. Held at M on the Bund, these are intimate affairs in which a single author discusses his or her literary passions with a small audience. I attended the lunch with Audra Ang, a former Associated Press correspondent based in Beijing and author of the book, To the People, Food is Heaven.
Widely considered among Shanghai’s best restaurants, M on the Bund serves modern European food with Middle Eastern and North African influences. All those flavors were evident in our three-course lunch, which began with a refreshing salad of chickpeas, oranges, carrots, radishes and cilantro. It was dressed simply with lemon and sesame seeds, letting all the ingredients shine through. The second course consisted of roulade of poached chicken and black olives with broccoli rabe, pine nuts and fresh tomato sauce. I thought the chicken could have benefited from some healthy fat, such as might come from sauteing it in olive oil, but the vibrant tomato sauce saved the dish for me. The dense and fudgy chocolate cake served for dessert was a home run. To balance the richness, it was served with a dollop of whipped crème fraîche so thick at first glance I thought it was ice cream!
The event’s literary portion got underway after tea and coffee were served and the attention of the audience was undivided. The discussion was moderated by Fiona Reilly, a former magazine columnist and author of the popular Shanghai blog Life on Nanchang Lu. Fiona’s questions focused primarily on Audra’s seven years spent as a reporter in China. During that time, Audra covered everything from riots to floods, though the 2008 Sichuan earthquake had the biggest impact on her career and life. After answering Fiona’s questions, Audra read a selection from her book, which conveyed her haunting impressions of Sichuan immediately after the natural disaster which killed nearly 70,000 people. Listening to her read, it was clear the experience still affected her and influenced her decision to move to the U.S. and write the book.
An unexpected moment of brevity occurred when a window washer suddenly appeared in the window behind Audra, lightening the somber mood. Fiona deftly steered the conversation towards food and took questions from the audience. Audra, an ethnic Chinese Singaporean, shared that her Beijing ayi made the best fried chicken and that her all-time favorite meal was had at a farmhouse in the countryside, with farmers who had just lost their crops to flooding but still shared what they had left. Audra also admitted to enjoying American Chinese food!
M on the Bund is located on the seventh floor of the former Nissin Shipping Building which was built in 1921. On a clear day, the river-side views are simply stunning.