One of my finest memories of Shanghai was the rush I felt the moment evening classes were dismissed. My friend and I would run downstairs, outside, down the concrete steps, and into the city streets, where lights poured out and the lingering smell of roasted yam from a nearby street vendor tempted us to break our dinner plans.
One of us would fling an arm up, and eventually we’d be in a cab, hurtling past our sleepy district, up highly elevated roads that seemed to graze the side of skyscrapers and made Shanghai seem exactly like the hyper-futuristic metropolis its city planners designed it to be.
Shanghai Laolao (上海姥姥) is a corner restaurant right next to the Bund. It sits on the intersection of Fuzhou Lu (福州路) and Sichuan Lu (四川路)—two streets whose names I have not forgotten, even as the names of my classmates and the material we learned have long faded from memory.
We’d make the last seating of the night and would always order the same thing: red-braised fatty pork made so sweet and tender by whatever sorcery goes on in that kitchen; a delicate, creamy tomato and egg stir-fry that changed the way I thought about egg; and oil-cooked eggplant that made the vegetable taste like succulent pieces of meat. If we were particularly hungry that evening, we’d get stir-fried rice cakes folded with pieces of cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. Home-style Shanghainese food, the way grandmother made it, is the motto of the restaurant.
Despite all the international eateries that our study abroad group frequented and all the wonderful higher-end joints we could have afforded, it was Shanghai Laolao that won our hearts over. Four years since then, I’m happymo to report that it’s still open.
Shanghai is an ever-changing city, where skyscrapers seem to pop up overnight. Because eateries have such a high turnover rate, you’re never really sure if your favorite restaurant has folded or if you’re just at the wrong place. Heavy immigration and international influences add to the confusion over what Shanghai cuisine really is.
Ask a long-term expat what quintessential Shanghai food is and she’ll spin out a list of Italian, Cantonese, French, Spanish, and New American preferences—all with a fantastic cocktail menu. Ask a local who was born and raised in Shanghai and he’ll respond without blinking: “Xiaolongbao (小笼包), shengjianbao (生煎包), red-braised dishes (红烧), crayfish (小龙虾), and hairy crab (大闸蟹), when it’s the right season.” For the sake of nostalgia, I like the local’s take on things.
What I perceive as “old-school” Shanghainese cuisine is fundamentally sweet in flavor. It’s not inundated with spices; preservatives are used sparingly; and while soy sauce is a common ingredient, dishes tend to veer to the softer side. Shanghai used to be an old fishing village and its proximity to the Yangtze River means a lot of freshwater fish and crustaceans.
In reality, what is iconic is all a matter of perspective. And so this is my list of what I perceive to be iconic—and, of course, the most delicious:
Xiaolongbao was reportedly invented in Shanghai, and these “little caged buns” (that’s the literal translation) can be found in nearly every district in town. At a restaurant, 18 folds is the standard. These are decadent soup dumplings, made soupy by pieces of congealed pork broth that are mixed in with ground pork, Shaoxing wine, green onion, ginger, light soy sauce, and a drizzle of sesame oil. The dough composition is rather simple. It’s identical to your standard boiled dumpling: just water and flour. The difference lies in how the dumpling is folded. “You have to make xiaolongbao until the thought of xiaolongbao makes you puke,” says Mike Huang, a local Shanghainese cooking teacher. The touristy go-to place is Nanxiang (南翔) in Yuyuan (豫园) Garden. With over a century’s worth of history, Nanxiang’s crab and pork xiaolong is legendary. The shop is a descendant of the original store in the Nanxiang District of Shanghai, which claimed to have invented the xiaolongbao. I personally enjoy De Xing Guan (德兴馆), a chain that has been around since the Qing Dynasty. The insides are succulent and sweet. And if you’re looking for something a bit more modern, The Dining Room does xiaolongbao stuffed with a generous amount of truffle.
Nanxiang Mantou Dian: 85 Yuyuan Lu
De Xing Guan: 471 Guangdong Lu
The Dining Room: No A-003, LG2, L’Avenue, 99 Xianxia Lu.
In Shanghai, shaomai isn’t stuffed with pork and crab or topped with roe à la dim sum banquet halls. The filling is a bit more simplistic, but by no means less complex: it’s sticky rice flavored with pork and pieces of shiitake mushrooms. Vendors pop them in a plastic bag for you to enjoy on the go. You can find these on the streets, but consider Xiasha (下沙), where they specialize in shaomai.
Xiasha: 1266 Beijing Dong Lu
Pork chop with rice cake (排骨年糕)
A deep-fried pork chop is smothered in a sweet-sticky soy-based sauce and layered on slippery rice cakes. The specialty has reportedly been around for at least half a century. It’s a common plate that appears around lunch, but I say it’s most appropriate in the late evening with a cold bottle of Tsingtao. Xian De Lai (鲜得来) is where to go if you want a quality rendition.
Xian De Lai: 46 Yunnan South Lu
Red-braised pork (红烧肉)
Red-cooking—known as hongshao (红烧) in Chinese—is a style prevalent throughout all of China. The color and taste are achieved by slow-cooking proteins in soy sauce with sugar and fermented bean paste. In Shanghai, hongshao pork is a marvelous dish that can be found at every level of dining from street food to fine dining. Shanghai Laolao does my favorite rendition of hongshao pork belly, served with traditional pieces of tea-cooked eggs on the side. And at Zhujiajiao (朱家角), an ancient water town just on the outskirts of the city, red-braising is done on the streets in huge vats of sauce. Walk down the town’s narrow cobblestone alleyways and you’ll be greeted by rows of glistening pork knuckles—a deep red hue and warm to the touch. “How do I eat this?” I asked a vendor. There were no seating areas around or even tables. “We’ll give you a glove,” was her response.
Shanghai Laolao: 70 Fuzhou Lu
上海姥姥: 福州路 70号
Shengjianbao is the other famous dumpling of Shanghai. These little gems first appeared in local teahouses in the 1930s. They are round buns (a little bit thicker than the xiaolong because yeast is added) stuffed with pork, pan-fried, and decorated with sesame seeds and a bit of chopped scallions. They’re common for breakfast but really can be eaten all day long. Yang’s Fried Dumplings is a reliable fast-food chain that both locals and tourists frequent for their fix.
Yang’s Fried Dumplings: 97 Huang He Road
Shepherd’s Purse (荠菜)
Chinese vegetables are often excluded from food lists, and that’s a shame because Chinese chefs are great at cooking leafy greens and highlighting their natural flavors. Shepherd’s purse, a leafy green in the mustard family, is used frequently in Shanghai. I’ve seen them stuffed in dumplings, stir-fried with bamboo, and—my favorite—blanched and then cooled, shaped into a heart, and topped with sesame seeds. You can obtain the latter at The Dining Room.
The Dining Room: No A-003, LG2, L’Avenue, 99 Xianxia Lu
Slippery Shrimp (水晶虾)
This dish is mostly obtainable at the higher-end restaurants like the reputable chain Xiao Nan Guo (小南国). It’s a small river shrimp, gently cooked with cornstarch and a bit of vinegar. It’s a delicate and simple plate, and the natural sweetness of the shrimp really shines through.
Xiao Nan Guo: 777 Jiamusi Lu
Deep-fried anchovies (油煎凤尾鱼)
Quite a bit of anchovies can be found off the streets at Zhujiajiao, where they are deep-fried in a vat of oil and eaten on the go. Note that these are not miniature pieces of fish; the anchovies in Shanghai are quite sizeable. I like to think of them as fishy French fries. Same concept, right?
Baked quail eggs (烤鹌鹑蛋)
These can be found on any old food street in Shanghai. I spotted quite a few at Qibao (七宝) Food Street and Zhujiajiao. The former is also a water town and one of the more famous food streets in Shanghai. Quail eggs are baked in a salt mound for two hours and then dug out. They’re served in a plastic container, and you peel and pop them into your mouth as you go.
Tangyuan is a sweet dumpling, made with glutinous rice powder and stuffed with sweet sesame or crushed peanut powder. It’s an auspicious dessert, mostly eaten during the winter solstice or Chinese New Year. The roundness of the dumpling symbolizes unity within the family. Qibao Old Food Street has a handful of tangyuan vendors, all with more or less the same layout. The cook is perched at the front of the restaurant while a cluster of ladies work in the back, rolling and stuffing with amazing speed.
Qibao Old Food Street: 14 & 26 Qibao Laojie Nandajie
Crayfish is so beloved among locals that there’s an entire street—Shouning Road (寿宁路)—dedicated to them. It’s a summer seafood that takes quite a bit of work to eat: you have to twist the head off, peel off the shell, and get rid of the intestines before you can even get to the meat. If you get a bit of roe with your crayfish, consider yourself lucky.
Shouning Lu, near Xizang Nan Lu
Hairy crab (大闸蟹)
I’d like to think that you haven’t truly eaten in Shanghai unless you’ve tried hairy crab. I once spent an entire day at a local Shanghainese woman’s house with my family, unwrapping, cracking, and sucking the meat out of the crustaceans. Fun fact: It’s considered an invasive species in the States. It’s an autumn to early-winter dish beloved among people in the region, simply steamed and served with a minimal sauce of rice vinegar, ginger, and scallions. A female crab carries her roe—considered a fine delicacy—under the shell from autumn to winter, which is why fishermen prefer catching crabs at this time. Once the season hits, you can find these at any Shanghainese restaurant in town, at the grocery store, or even inside vending machines at the subway station. I recommend Ling Long Ge, where you can hand-select your crustacean and even get it in a sandwich. Crabs are usually obtained from Yangcheng Lake (阳澄湖), about 43 miles away from Shanghai, historically known for its pristine waters.
Ling Long Ge: 2/F 951 Hongxu Lu
Red-braised eel (红烧鳗鱼)
Freshwater eel can be found stir-fried or deep-fried, but it’s also lovely when it’s red-braised and soft. At Sunji Restaurant (孫记饭店) in Zhujiajiao, the slithery creature is served with cooked pieces of garlic and a bit of scallions for a kick. Warm and sweet, it settles perfectly over a hot bowl of rice.
Sunji Restaurant: 198 Zhenbeida Jie
Zongzi is a rice dumpling wrapped in reed leaves—a specialty of Southern China. Every region does it differently, and in Shanghai the zongzi is wrapped in a pyramid-like shape. Zhujiajiao has dozens of zongzi vendors; mostly old ladies who do everything by hand. They pull rice kernels off the stems, stuff the leaves with fatty pork, a duck egg, and glutinous rice, wrap it all together with their teeth, and then steam it to be enjoyed. Zongzi was reportedly invented during the Eastern Han Dynasty to ward off dragons. They are consumed widely during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.