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A Shanghai Food Primer

An understanding of Shanghai’s cuisine has come to me only very slowly over the last five years. In fact, all of the individual Chinese cuisines took some time to differentiate themselves from the overwhelming flood of new tastes I experienced – what was the difference between food from Guangdong, for example, and from Fujian? Sichuan food, with its blast of heat and numbing spice, was relatively easy to figure, but Shanghai cuisine was more subtle, more difficult to tease out. 
Shanghai’s cuisine is known for its abundance of freshwater and saltwater produce, and also for the use of wine from nearby Shaoxing in many dishes, an aged rice wine with a rounded, mellow flavour. In Shanghai cuisine sweetness and saltiness often occur together, sometimes with vinegar (like sweet and sour pork ribs), but almost never with chili spice. Those who struggle with spicy food will be pleased to find Shanghai’s cuisine contains little of it. 

Often criticised for being too sweet and too oily compared with other Chinese cuisines, in the wrong hands this can certainly be true. But in Shanghainese food cooked the right way, these ingredients are in perfect balance with all other flavours in a dish and never overwhelm the overall taste. Braising, steaming, and poaching are common cooking techniques. 
Below is a primer on Shanghai’s cuisine – a beginner’s guide. Judging by the number of emails I’ve received from travellers asking for tips on eating Shanghainese food in Shanghai it’s long overdue! 
It broadly reflects what you will find on the menu in a Shanghainese restaurant, divided into the following categories: 
1. Cold Dishes
2. Hot Dishes
3. Noodles and Dumplings
4. Sweets
It doesn’t include street foods, or the type of noodle dishes you would go to a stand-alone noodle restaurant to eat, and is, of course, far from comprehensive. It’s just a beginning – so dip your toe in, and  enjoy eating out in Shanghai!
1. Cold Dishes 涼菜 liang cai

Wild vegetables with tofu
马兰头香干 ma lan tou xiang gan 

This dish consists of a steamed leafy green wild vegetable (kalimeris indica) similar to clover or alfalfa that is then steamed, finely chopped, and mixed with diced smoked tofu. It has a light and refreshing grassy taste that perfectly complements sauce-heavy dishes.

Vinegar Jellyfish
老醋海蜇头 lao cu hai zhe tuo 

Jellyfish is, I admit, an acquired taste, with a look on the plate only a mother could love. But prepared this way, sliced into thin slivers dressed with sweet local vinegar and sesame oil, the jellyfish is cool and slippery with a squeaky, chewy texture. Magnificent – a must-try.

Drunken Chicken – Chicken Poached in Shaoxing wine
醉鸡 zui ji

This is a quintessential Shanghai dish with a clear, light flavour achieved by steeping white-poached chicken in Shaoxing wine, then slicing it on the bone and serving it cold with the full-flavoured steeping liquid. Head optional. It’s a triumphant dish where simplicity wins over complexity.

Braised gluten
烤夫 kaofu 

Gluten – a bread-like cooking ingredient – is braised with soy sauce, ginger, five spice, sugar, peanuts and wood ear mushrooms in this vegetarian dish that is usually served as an appetiser, although warm rather than cold. For those who have never tasted gluten, its spongy texture has little taste on its own but absorbs the richness of the fragrant sauce.


 Shanghai Style Crisp-fried Fish with Sweet Soy Sauce
上海烤子鱼 shanghai kao zi yu

No larger than sardines, these crispy little fish are deep fried to within an inch of their lives, then served drizzled with a sweet soy dressing. A perfect accompaniment to cold Qingdao beer.

Jujubes Stuffed with Sticky Rice
糯米红枣 nuomi hong zao / 心太軟 xin tai ruan

DO NOT LEAVE SHANGHAI without trying this dish. I’m SERIOUS. Honey-flavoured jujubes (also known as red dates 红枣 hong zao) are stuffed with soft, pillowy sticky rice, steamed, and then smothered in warm osmanthus blossom syrup. The unusual Chinese name, xin tai ruan, means soft-hearted. For reasons unclear to me you will find it at the front of the menu, along with the cold dishes.
2. Hot Dishes 热炒 re chao
Braised Pork Belly
红烧肉 hong shao rou 
‘Hong shao’ literally means ‘red-braised’, referring to the colour of the sauce made with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, soft brown sugar, ginger, cassia bark and star anise. The pork belly is cooked slowly in this aromatic mixture until the skin and fat become translucent and gelatinous and the sauce is treacle-thick and utterly luscious.

Steamed Hairy Crab
清蒸大闸蟹 qingzheng da zha xie

Natives of Yangcheng Lake near Shanghai, these sweet and delicate hairy crab are available only in autumn from September to December, a much-anticipated delicacy for Shanghai locals. They are best eaten simply steamed, with a   ginger and vinegar dipping sauce and a cup of warmed Shaoxing wine on the side.
Steamed Shad
清蒸鲥鱼 qing zheng shi yu
This whole river fish, steamed gently in its own juices, then has a light soy sauce with fresh green soybeans poured over before serving. This is the best way possible to preserve the superb natural sweet taste of the fish with a light fresh-flavoured sauce.

Braised Eel
锅烧河鳗 guo shao he man

This dish is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s neither light nor mildly flavoured. Shanghai freshwater eels have an intense oiliness and strong fish taste that needs the robust flavours in this braise – soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, oil, and ginger.

Rice Cake Stir-Fried with Pork and Shepherd’s Purse
荠菜肉丝炒年糕 ji cai rou si chao nian gao

Shpeherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is a flowering plant cultivated outside Shanghai, used to give a burst of leafy flavour to this very textural dish. The soft, pleasantly chewy rounds of rice cake are sliced from long cakes of compressed rice starch.

Silken Tofu with Crab Meat
蟹粉豆腐 xie fen doufu 

I sincerely hope my last meal on earth includes this extraordinary dish. Silken tofu cubes, warm and soft, swim in a thick braise of rich crab meat seasoned with pepper. It’s divine.

Braised Pork with Chestnuts in Soy Sauce
栗子红烧肉 li zi hong shao rou

Essentially a variation of hong shao rou with autumn chestnuts and boiled quail eggs added, sometimes with soft yellow gingko nuts.

Salty-Boiled River Shrimp
盐水河虾 yan shui he xia

Not fussy, not fancy. Just very fresh shrimp cooked in salted boiling water for long enough that they turn lobster pink.


Sweet and Sour Pork, Shanghai Style
本帮小排 ben bang xiao pai

Forget what you think you knew about sweet and sour pork. There is no deep frying in batter here, no tart orange sauce made with pineapple juice and ketchup. This is real sweet and sour – soy sauce, dark vinegar, brown sugar, coating pieces of pork rib on the bone. A great eating experience of chewing, gnawing, and spitting out the bony bits.

3. Noodles and Dumplings

Shanghai Soup Dumplings
小笼包 xiao long bao

The best dumplings in the world, filled with fragrant pork meat and hot broth. I think I might have said enough about them already here, in Shanghai Xiaolongbao – The Complete Guide. You must eat these in Shanghai, as often as possible. All good Shanghainese restaurants serve their own version.

Fried Shanghai Dumplings
生煎包 shengjian bao

Fried and crispy on the bottom, steamed and pillowy on the top, these much heartier dumplings are also filled with pork and soup.

Scallion Oil Noodles
葱油拌面 cong you ban mian
Slow cook scallions in oil until they turn a dark caramel colour, then add soy sauce and dried shrimp and mix through freshly cooked wheat noodles. Lip-smacking. 
4. Sweets 点心 dianxin
Just a note here – most Chinese menus don’t list noodles, dumplings and sweets separately, but put them together in one large category called dianxin, to be eaten at the end of a meal. This category includes both savoury and sweet dishes, mostly starch based. I have separated them here, only because I still tend to finish with savoury foods first before ending the meal with something sweet.

Fermented Rice Wine Soup with Sticky Rice Balls
酒酿圆子 jiu niang yuanzi 

A very traditional dish, served warm or cold. The soup is made with sweetened fermented rice, giving it a slightly tangy, zesty flavour. The little soft sticky rice balls may be plain or filled with a sweet filling, like black sesame or red bean paste.


Osmanthus Rice Cake
桂花糕 gui hua gao 
Usually made with sticky rice flour and scented with delicate osmanthus blossoms, the version shown here is more upmarket with an osmanthus-scented jelly on top of a red bean and sticky rice base. 
Over to you now: what’s your favourite Shanghai dish, and how far would you go to get some?
Next post: My Top Five Shanghainese Restaurants in Shanghai