There are almost as many famous noodles in China as there are cities in which to eat them, and they’re all good – believe me, I’ve tried most of them.
Traditionally, five noodles were named as China’s Five Famous Noodles, considered the pinnacle of noodle eating. They were Shanxi’s hand cut noodles dao xiao mian 山西刀削面, Beijing’s zhajiang noodles zhajiang mian 北京炸酱面, Guangdong and Guangxi’s fried noodles, Sichuan’s dan dan noodles dan dan mian 四川担担面 and Wuhan’s hot, dry noodles re gan mian 武汉热干面.
Earlier this year the China Ministry of Commerce and the China Hotel Association expanded this list of five to China’s Top Ten Noodles but caused no end of controversy when the list failed to include, for example, any of Shanxi Province’s hundred types of noodles. What? No cat’s ear, willow leaf or scissor-cut noodles? And how about the noodle dishes of China’s far west?None of them made the list either.
It got me thinking – which noodles would I list as the best, and why? Here are nine favourites I’ve chosen from all over China.
They’re mysterious places, Chinese specialty food stores. But if you’re interested in Chinese food you will inevitably find yourself wandering into one and contemplating the rows of strange foodstuffs and intriguing smells, wondering where to begin.
Most specialty food stores have a similar range – cured, dried and preserved goods; baked goods and confectionary; fresh foods, and freshly-prepared meals to eat at home.
These five restaurants exemplify Shanghai cuisine at its best – laid back, local, and hospitable. Now that you know all about Shanghai cuisine thanks to last week’s Shanghai Food Primer, here’s where to try it out for yourself.
Be sure to let me know your favourites too!
1. Qiao Family Gate Restaurant 乔家栅食府 QiaoJiaZhaShiFu
I have a soft spot for this little place on the corner of Xiangyang Lu and Yongjia Lu. It’s a very old-fashioned Shanghai restaurant, full of locals eating lunch after finishing their morning errands and elderly friends getting together once a week for a meal and a gossip.
It’s not a destination restaurant, and there’s no hype or advertising. What you see is what you get. The most expensive dish on the menu is less than $US10 and most are $US3-4.
Every time I eat there one of the chefs will come out to the dining room to ask what I thought of the meal – not in a western celebrity-chef-meets-lowly-diner moment, just in a curious, never-seen-many-foreigners-eat-here kind of way. They always seem pleased I enjoyed the food, and I love that they come and chat.
On Dianping (China’s behemoth restaurant review website), frequent mention is made of the waitstaff’s ‘bad’ and ‘indifferent’ attitudes – you’ll have to decide for yourself. I’ve always found them consistently surly, in a good-natured sort of way.
Downstairs is just for noodles and Shanghai snacks, upstairs is a la carte.
Stand Out Dish:
Their Drunken Chicken is, in my books, the best in Shanghai. A whole young tender chicken is presented peacefully asleep in a broth of clear chicken stock and Shaoxing wine, its meat suffused with the clear, mellow flavour of the wine and garnished with finely chopped chives. RMB 32.
336 Xiangyang Lu, corner Yongjia Lu
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes
2. Jian Guo 328 建国328
When Jian Guo 328 opened in 2012 there was a sudden realisation that this at last was the Shanghainese restaurant everyone had been looking for.
Lao Zheng Xing
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes
5. Dianshi Zhai Small Feast 点石斋小宴 Dianshi Zhai Xiao Yan
Housed in a beautiful old restored 1930s mansion on Yongjia Lu, the winding wooden staircase takes you upstairs to several different but equally charming dining rooms looking over the street. Consistently well-executed Shanghai classics with great service.
Stand Out Dishes:
Dong Po Pork 东坡肉 (dong po rou) This single piece of slow-cooked pork belly glistens like a jewel in its tiny dish, sitting in a tarry black sweet soy sauce. Perfection in pork.
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes
And Five Honourable Mentions:
Five more places to get your fix of Shanghai cuisine. Are they on your top five list?
Shanghai Club 上海会馆 (shanghai huiguan)
5th Floor, 489 Henan Nan Lu, Huangpu District (near Fuxing Lu)
Same delicious Shanghai classics, but with modern presentation.
Yuan Yuan 圆苑酒家 (yuan yuan jiu jia)
108 Xiangyang Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
A more upmarket dining experience, Yuan Yuan has some beautiful private rooms ideal for large groups, and an extensive and thoughtful menu.
New Jesse 新吉士(xin jishi)
28 Taojiang Lu, Xuhui District
It’s great, but relatively expensive. A nice space on Taojiang Lu, there are another five locations including Xintiandi, and the new IAPM mall on Huai Hai Lu.
Old Jesse 老吉士上海菜 (lao jishi shanghai cai)
41 Tianping Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
The original but sadly no longer the best. It’s on a lot of ‘best of’ lists, which means tables are hard to nab and they make you wait outside until yours is ready.
Lu Bo Lang 绿波廊
Yu Gardens, near Bridge of Nine Turnings
Bill Clinton ate there, along with every dignitary in the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean the food is good, but if you spend the whole day taking visitors around Yu Gardens, it’s a great place to put your feet up for an hour.
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.
老醋海蜇头 lao cu hai zhe tuo
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.
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.
Steamed Hairy Crab
清蒸大闸蟹 qingzheng da zha xie
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.
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.
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.
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 and crispy on the bottom, steamed and pillowy on the top, these much heartier dumplings are also filled with pork and soup.
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.
Their signature dish is a basket of eight rainbow-hued xiaolongbao (RMB 68) with novel fillings:
Foie Gras (tan)
Black truffle (black)
Crab Roe (orange)
Szechuan (sic) (dark pink)
Original Pork (white)
The dumpling wrappers are very fine, soft, and strong, and the eight colours looked beautiful sitting on their linen cloth inside the basket.
I tried the original steamed pork flavour first, as a true test of xiaolongbao-ness. It was good – plenty of fragrant soup, a little ginger, a smooth pork filling. The ‘szechuan’ dumpling was an explosion of chili and flowery Sichuan pepper, although the pepper made the filling a little gritty. The foie gras and crab roe dumplings were rich and full of flavour, the garlic and ginseng dumplings more subtle but still tasty. I wouldn’t revisit the mozzarella dumpling though, with its very odd taste and texture, but my girls like it the best of all of them.
The stand out for me was the black truffle xiaolongbao, rich, dark, deeply truffley and intensely satisfying. After trying just one I ordered a whole extra basket of (RMB 65). Any flavour can be ordered separately as a basket of six or ten dumplings.
We were joined at our table by an old man, his son, two granddaughters, his nephew, sister-in-law, and a couple of his friends. Out came the beer. Out came the baijiu. Cigarettes were handed around the table.
And then the food: the food was being cooked in a makeshift outdoor kitchen by a battalion of cooks, with steamers the size of hula hoops resting on wood-fired boilers, and two of the largest woks I had ever seen. The food began to arrive on great heavy trays.
While we ate I asked them about the house party. They told me in this part of the world it was considered very good luck to ‘christen’ your new house by having a celebration with all your family. And all of your friends. And your neighbours. And your neighbours’ friends. And anyone else you could think of, including a random foreigner. (Foreigners were considered to be especially lucky for the house, should one happen along at the right time, they told me. I felt incredibly auspicious for the first time in my life.)
When I asked my fellow guests how they knew our lady host they made vague mentions of living “over the hill” and “in the next village”.
“Not related?” I asked.
“So do you actually, like, know her?” I asked.
“Chabuduo” came the hilarious reply. Sort of. Approximately. Kinda.
We all toasted her anyway.
“To the new house! Ganbei!”
Never one to back away from a challenge, my ever-patient husband and children and I will spend much of this year restoring a decrepit, beautiful heritage house built in 1891 which will become our new home. I’m just jumping to get started, but there will be plenty of travel too – I leave for China next week to travel to Beijing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Shanghai, and April will see me attending the Miao Sister’s Meal Festival in Guizhou for the second time. A greatly anticipated trip to Sweden, Scotland and France is planned for mid-summer.
And of course, The Book. The book of our travels in China I’ve been writing for a year now, a struggle and a joy in equal measure but still a fledgling, will, I hope, find wings and take flight this coming year.
I’d love to know of your plans this year for food, travel and creative projects too – please fill me in!
Jiachang cai is bangers and mash, it’s southern fried chicken, it’s coq au vin, it’s black pudding and tatties. It’s a sticky plate of pulled pork or a fragrant bowl of herby chicken soup. It’s cheesecake and apple cake and red velvet cake, and all the kinds of cake that make you think of home.
It’s the food your mother makes when you come home for the holidays, it’s the food you cook your children every day.
It’s soul food, straight from the heart.
It has much in common with it’s country cousin, nongjia cai 农家菜 or peasant food, which is also simply prepared and presented, but is typically eaten on location at the farm where the food is grown, prepared and butchered by the farmer herself, right beside the table. I’ll write a more detailed post on nongjia cai in coming months.
Jiachang cai, on the other hand, can be eaten in in a simple restaurant or in someone’s home, and the ingredients bought rather than grown.
Take sour shredded potato, for example – suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝 － a dish of finely shredded potato stir-fried with dried chill, a little shredded green pepper, and a splash of vinegar until the potato slivers have just softened.
Every Chinese cook has their own version of this dish – in Guizhou the dried chillies are kept hanging over the cooking fire so they impart a rich smokiness to the dish, and in the east a little sugar sometimes makes its way into the dish to counteract the sourness of the vinegar. In Sichuan chili becomes the dominant flavour, and in parts of Yunnan the dish has metamorphosed into a fried cake made of potato shreds studded with flecks of chill – as though the cook just dashed out of the kitchen for five minutes while cooking and came back to find the entire thing melted together into a wonderful crisp-bottomed potato cake.
- Sour shredded potato with chili and peppers
- Smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar
- Stir-fried green peppers with pork
In Inner Mongolia the bitter cold means hotpot is a popular homestyle dish, served with (clockwise from top)
- finely sliced mutton
- pickled chilies
- chive flower paste
- red fermented tofu
- pickled garlic
- Boiled peanuts with soy beans
- Chitterlings fried with peppers and black wood ear fungus
From Shanghai and Zhejiang province homestyle dishes are cooked with a light touch:
- Sliced wawa vegetable stems steamed then stir-fried with a dash of baijiu liquor
- Tofu strips fried with pork and wilted greens
- Soy cooked chicken
- White-poached Chicken
- Steamed freshwater shrimp
- Smoked dried carp
- sliced pig’s ear
- fat pork
- pork ribs
- fresh pork intestines
- chicken gizzards
- egg fried with chives (also at bottom)
- fish-fragrant eggplant, Guizhou style
- plain fried potato
- sour shredded potato with smoked chili
- fried greens
- home-smoked bacon slices – la rou
- fried pork intestine with local herbs and chill
- fermented chill sauce
- wild herb and peanut sauce
- cold vegetables
- wilted greens
- crunchy fried pig skin
- fermented chill with local herbs
- assorted meats – chicken, fish, pork, pig’s ear
- pork bone broth
- baked yam
- pickled green chilies
- fat pork slices
- poached chicken
- pickled vegetables
- rice steamed with jujubes
- steamed squash
In the sparsely populated north-west homestyle means one thing – noodles. Served here with cold sliced beef, la jiao chili paste, cilantro and shallots. A dish of clear soup is usually served alongside.