There are eight major cuisines of China, and Shanghai food constitutes one of them. Dishes in Shanghai restaurants are typically blends of the other styles of cooking, with special sauces and cooking methods making the Shanghai dishes a bit different. The chefs in Shanghai also borrow the best aspects of foreign cuisines. Most ex-pats will agree that Shanghai food is not too spicy, not too oily, and not too exotic.
Most ex-pats love Chinese food and probably ate it frequently in their native countries. However, be advised that the Chinese food you grew accustomed to back home is not the same that you will eat in Shanghai. All is different, but delectable: the ingredients, the colors, the sauces, and the total ambiance of eating a large Chinese meal.
Shanghai cuisine is light, healthy, and comes in smaller portions than the cuisine in Beijing, Hubei, Hunan, or Guangdong provinces. It is the result of borrowing cooking styles and ingredients from neighboring provinces, and then refining or changing them slightly into something distinctively Shanghainese. Sometimes this is achieved by adding alcohol to fish, eel, crab, or chicken, which are then cooked or steamed. You will also see preserved vegetables and meat and fish that have been salted in order to add flavor to the dishes.
Sugar is also added to many Shanghai dishes, which are then complemented with soy or other sauces that make it difficult to detect the sugar. A favorite Shanghai food cooked in this style is sweet and sour spare ribs.
Shanghai dishes are often pickled in wine and their cooking methods include baking, stewing, steaming, deep-frying, etc. Condiments are an integral aspect of the meal and an emphasis is placed on accentuating the original flavors of the ingredients. The objective of Shanghai cooking is to offer lightness in flavor and attractive presentation.
Another characteristic is the use of a great variety of seafood. Given its location at the mouth of the Yangtze River and bordering the East China Sea, it is no surprise that both river fish and ocean are used. The famous Shanghai hairy crab is one of the many delicious dishes when it is in season every October and November. Rice is dominantly served over noodles or other wheat products.
When you go to any restaurant advertised as “Shanghai cuisine”, you will probably find the following dishes:
- Xia Zi Da WuShen: This is the most famous seafood dish in Shanghai cuisine. Dried sea cucumber is immersed in water to restore its original size and then stewed with oil, yellow wine, soybean sauce, broth, sugar, shallot, starch sauce, and shrimp roe. This dish is nutritious with rich protein and minerals and is said to effectively control cancer.
- BaBao LaJiang: It is a dish featuring great flavor and bright color. Bean sauce and chili sauce are blended and stir-fried with shelled shrimps, chicken, chicken stock, pork, pig offal, dried small shrimps, bamboo shoots and various kinds of seasoning. This dish with so many ingredients demonstrates how intricate Shanghai cuisine can be.
- YouBao HeXia: If you like seafood, then you will like this plate. Live shrimps are deep-fried and then stir-fried with a special sauce made of yellow wine, soybean sauce, sugar, shallot sauce and ginger sauce. The dish tastes fairly sweet and fresh.
- Yan Du Xian: This is a delicious stew. Pork and ham are first steamed and then stewed in a soup with fresh bamboo shoots.
- QingChao ShanHu, also known as XiangYou ShanHu: Fresh eels are stir-fried with shredded bamboo shoots, yellow wine, soybean sauce, ginger, sugar and starch sauce. After being put on a plate, chopped shallot is sprinkled on the dish and hot oil is poured onto it. Consequently, Qing Chao Shan Hu crackles when it is served at the table.
- Xiaolong Bao: Pork or crab soup dumplings
- Shengjian Mantou: Pan-fried pork dumplings
- Shanghai Chao Mian: Shanghainese fried noodles
- Mapo Doufu: This is one of the signature dishes of Shanghai consisting of bean curd, pork and spring onions in a chili sauce.
- Fanqie Jidan: Stir-fried egg and tomato
- Steamed Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crabs: Late autumn is the best time for eating crabs in Shanghai.
- Shrimp with colorful vegetables: This is a stir-fried shrimp dish. The shrimps are peeled and then stir-fried with Chinese bean sauce.
- Squirrel-shaped mandarin fish: This is my favorite Chinese dish! It uses very fresh mandarin fish. The fish is deep-fried and has a crispy exterior and soft interior and then hot broth is poured over it. The sour and sweet flavors are blended very well.
Another popular type of cuisine with ex-pats is found in a type of restaurant referred to as “huo guo” or hot pot. Hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of the Swiss fondue style of cooking: A pot of broth – usually divided in the middle with a spicy mixture on one side and a plain vegetable broth on the other – is placed on a portable gas range, usually embedded just below the middle of the table, that boils the pot of broth while you place sliced meats and vegetables inside of it. The cooked foods are then usually dipped into a mixture of soy sauce, chili or hot pepper oil, garlic, and sesame seed paste before eating.
Another type of dining experience that is popular with Westerners is Korean-style barbecue in which you place cuts of raw meats and vegetables on a grill situated over something similar to charcoal briquettes and barbecue your own food. Another variation of this is where the food is essentially stir-fried on top of a greased pan that is placed over the gas range.
Chinese people love their food and each region has a cuisine named after it. For example Dong Bei Cai (东北菜) which is, literally translated, North Eastern cuisine and Xi Bei Cai (西北菜) – North Western cuisine. The differences in cuisine lie mainly in whether food is mild or spicy, whether the main method of cooking is frying or steaming and whether the primary starches are rice, noodles or dumplings. To get a sense of how food registers in the psyche of the average Shanghainese, you only need to listen to the colloquial greeting between two friends or acquaintances: “Chi le ma?”, a way of saying “Good afternoon” or “how’s it going?”, literally translated means “Have you eaten yet?”. If you are well, the standard response is “Chi le” or “I’ve eaten.”
Many Chinese restaurants have an English menu, although it is often just one and you will have to wait for it if there are other foreigners dining in the restaurant at the same time as you. In the cases where there is no menu, you are left with the option of either relying on the restaurant having an English-speaking server (highly unlikely) or relying on a combination of pantomime hand gestures, showing the server key words in your dictionary and pointing to pictures in the Chinese menu. This is laborious and not ideal but if you are feeling adventurous and are prepared to tolerate a little confusion, it is a great way of discovering ethnic cuisine.
Street food is, as the name suggests, food that is cooked and served in small stalls along the street. It is cheap, tasty and satisfying. Be aware that there are varying standards of hygiene in the food preparation of these stalls. Stall owners sell a range of kebabs, pancakes, dumplings and pies – hot and cold. You will find them on street corners, next to bus stops and train stations, and anywhere else where there is a density of either commuters or shoppers. After living in Shanghai for a while, many foreigners enjoy street food for breakfast or as a quick snack just after work; it is a sure sign that a real immersion into the Shanghainese lifestyle has begun.
Do not drink the water from the tap. Tap water in China is not chemically treated and, therefore, it is not drinkable without first being boiled for at least 10 minutes (and that only kills microbes but doesn’t remove waste particles). Consequently, the Chinese rely on bottled water and a water cooler (with a heating element for hot water) for their drinking water and these units can be found in every home and business. Because they have to pay for drinking water, do not expect to be served a glass of water with your meal.
If you choose to eat a Chinese breakfast, you will find it to be very different from the breakfasts of New York, Paris, or Munich. A typical Chinese breakfast consists of milk or, more commonly, a yogurt drink and either rice porridge, some type of bread, or a “baozi” (a steamed bun usually containing a green vegetable) depending on location. You can find coffee, but you may not find instant coffee or decaffeinated coffee – check the Western food markets, such as City Supermarket or Carrefour. The milk has been pasteurized and will last longer unrefrigerated in Shanghai than the milk products of your home city. This is due to a different pasteurization process whose goal is to lengthen the “shelf life” of the milk.