“Stick with me, babe, I will feed you!”
This is one of Bill’s signature phrases to me, and he always delivers it with a knowing smile. The man knows me all too well! I love food and the joy of eating.
Whenever I visit a new city, finding the best local dishes is always #1 on my list, followed by sightseeing. When it’s mealtime, I Google. I Yelp. I read through comments. I study photos and evaluate recommendations, all in the effort to find the best food in the area.
But sometimes, language barriers and a general unfamiliarity with the local geography can make finding authentic meals difficult. To my utter dismay, I sometimes find myself dining on bland, unremarkable dishes in tourist areas, and I can imagine this happens way too often when people travel abroad, especially to countries like China.
There is one saving grace when dining at restaurants in China. Most menus contain color photos for each dish, so you can see exactly what you’re ordering. No surprises! Some even have English translations. Though those translations can often do more to scare tourists off than anything else––some dishes are so poorly translated that you might find yourself dropping the menu and running for the door.
See for yourself:
Talk about “lost in translation.” Google Translate, looks like you have much to improve! Of course, this is just one of the reasons why I decided to write this post on how to find the best food in Shanghai. I have been brewing and developing this post ever since Bill and I came back from Shanghai last year.
Shanghai is a metropolitan city that offers a wide world of cuisines, but this post focuses only on Shanghai cuisine (a.k.a. ben-bang-cai 本帮菜). I compiled a comprehensive list of dishes to eat while visiting Shanghai, including our recipe links (when available) in case you want to recreate those dishes in your own kitchen. I also included a few restaurant recommendations. These restaurants don’t have four dollar signs ($$$$), but they have earned 5-star ratings from patrons.
With foreign visitors to Shanghai surpassing thirteen million annually, not to mention the large number of foreign expats there, this post will be valuable for many epicureans like myself. Think of it as your culinary guide to one of the most exciting cities in the world––my hometown, Shanghai!
To reiterate my earlier point about avoiding eating in touristy areas, let me be more specific:
- Yuyuan (豫园, a.k.a. 城隍庙) is one of the top tourist spots in Shanghai. The quality of the food there has gone down so much over the years. Don’t be tempted by the long lines outside food shops and restaurants. The people waiting on those lines are not locals. I too, got sucked in, and had to trash the poorly made soup dumplings I waited on line for. Hate when that happens!
- Yunnan Lu (云南路) is often described as the best food street in Shanghai. Again, I find that it’s mostly low quality food for tourists. Two words: Don’t bother! We tried the famous nian gao (sticky rice cakes) with pork chop, and the fried pork chop which was like a “shake ‘n bake” pork chop. Huge disappointment!
- Nanjing Lu ( 南京路) is a famous pedestrian street. It’s a great place to people watch, but don’t follow the sign that says “Street Food.” The place is crowded, and the food is terrible. As a general rule, stay away from street foods that come on a stick. But I do suggest that you tour the Shanghai #1 Food Company (上海第一食品公司) right on the pedestrian street. It’s a multi-floor department store of food, and there’s so much to see, eat and buy. Also go all the way to the top floor and have yourself a nice bowl of freshly-made rice noodle soup. A blissful experience!
Okay, so on this tour of Shanghai cuisine, I’m going to mostly focus on lunch, dinner, and snacks.
For Breakfast, we’ve already got you covered. Read up on our post, “Shanghai Breakfast Club, How to Eat like a Local.” Get up early, and do not miss the breakfast markets dotted around the city. It’s a feast for the eyes (and your stomach).
For Lunch, most Shanghainese families like to cook in the morning for both lunch and dinner. That’s how I remember it, and it has not changed much years later. My uncle still does it––old habits are hard to change. Restaurants do offer lunch specials, which are called shangye wucan, 商业午餐. But as a visitor, take your pick from the list below:
1. Pan-Fried Pork Buns (Sheng Jian Bao, 生煎包)
These are chewy, delicious pan-fried versions of the more common soup dumpling. Instead of being wrapped in paper-thin dough and steamed, these are slightly thicker, and they’re pan-fried/steamed with a crispy bottom. Like soup dumplings, though, they also have a lot of hot, flavorful pork bone soup in the middle, and they’re served with vinegar. I still have yet to tackle the perfect recipe.
My favorite place to get shengjian bao is Xiao Yang Sheng Jian (小杨生煎). It’s a chain restaurant, with many locations in Shanghai, but not all Xiao Yang Sheng Jian are created equal. I like the location at #1601 West Nanjing Road (南京西路1601号), Reel Mall (芮欧百货) Floor B2 (inside the food court), and near Jingan Temple (静安寺). Be sure to check on whether the location is still there by the time you read this post, as things change quickly in China.
Definitely go during mealtimes to ensure the buns are fresh and hot off the stove. They have the best shengjian bao I have ever tasted.
2. Steamed Shanghai Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao, 小笼包)
Don’t mess around when it comes to Xiao Long Bao, paper-thin dumplings filled with silky ground pork and soup, and served with julienned ginger and Chinese black vinegar.
One of the best places to get them is still Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰), with many locations in Shanghai. Din Tai Fung’s Xiao Long Bao have many kinds of fillings. My favorite is still the original, plain pork filling.
We also have a recipe if you want to try your hand at making them at home. Check out our Shanghai Soup Dumpling Recipe here.
3. Shanghai Wonton Soup (Xiao Hun Tun, 小馄饨)
Shanghai Wonton Soup, or Xiao Huntun is every Shanghainese person’s first love. We have them for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks, and midnight snacks. And that’s why Xiao Huntun stalls are everywhere, but finding a good bowl of Shanghai wonton soup is actually not that easy these days.
Bill and I did not go looking too far for it, as the place I mentioned in my breakfast post was pretty good. But I did some research on Da Zhong Dian Ping (大众点评), China’s version of Yelp, and found 弄堂小馄饨食府 at #714 Wei Hai Road 威海路 714号 (Near North Mu Ming Road 茂名北路). It’s a small place, and there is always a line. It’s very popular with the locals and highly rated!
P.S. If you’re making these, remember to use the very thin wonton wrappers, not the regular thick wrappers. Check out our Shanghai wonton soup recipe.
P.P.S. If you’re eating these in Shanghai, don’t forget to add about a ½ teaspoon of the Shanghai vinegar that’s on the table before you dig in.
4. Shanghai Rice Cake Stir-fry (Shanghai Chao Nian Gao, 上海炒年糕)
When it comes to leafy greens, I think shepherd’s purse (荠菜) is a Shanghai favorite. It has a special aromatic and earthy flavor that’s addictively good. We used shepherd’s purse in our Shanghai Rice Cake Stir-fry with Greens recipe.
If you see stir-fried rice cakes, or nian gao (年糕) on a menu in Shanghai, it is most likely cooked with fresh shepherd’s purse, which is a treat that should not be missed while in Shanghai, as it’s nearly impossible to find fresh shepherd’s purse in the US. Most Shanghainese restaurants would have this on the menu.
Also check out our recipe for this dish here.
5. Shanghai-Style Crispy Pan-Fried Noodles (Liang Mian Huang, 两面黄)
What makes this noodle dish great is its saucy topping. When you ask for liang mian huang while in Shanghai, you will likely be directed to Wang Jia Sha (王家沙). It’s a famous restaurant with some history, but history is all it has. We went there to try their liang mian huang and were disappointed.
After searching online, I actually could not come up with a good restaurant recommendation for this one. I think I will just have to make it for the blog. But if you’re a Shanghai native or have sampled a good liang mian huang in Shanghai, please let us know your recommendation in the comments!
Photo Credit: http://mmbiz.qpic.cn/
6. Shanghai Hot Sauce Noodles (Shanghai La Jiang Mian 上海辣酱面)
Wei Xiang Zhai, 味香斋, address: #14 YanDangLu, near HuaiHaiZhong Road (燕荡路14号，近淮海中路)
This tiny restaurant will definitely be worth the effort of finding it. It’s nothing fancy, but packed with locals who have been eating there for twenty or thirty years. Nabbing a seat, sharing a table, and slurping noodles are all considered the everyday norm here.
I was told that everything on the menu is good. We ordered Ma Jiang Mian (麻酱面), (made with sesame paste), La Jiang Mian (辣酱面) and Beef Curry Soup (咖喱牛肉汤)––all winners and definitely worth the wait. We also have a recipe for Shanghai La Jiang Mian, if you want to try making it yourself!
7. Shanghai Yellow Croaker Noodle Soup (Shanghai Huang Yu Mian 上海黄鱼面)
The Shanghainese love yellow croakers (黄鱼), a fish found in the temperate waters of the East China Sea and Yellow Sea. Cooking methods range from steamed to pan-fried to soup. It doesn’t matter how long you cook this fish, it stays juicy and tender.
Find yourself a Gourmet Noodle House (家有好面) location. It’s a fast-food chain mostly located in shopping malls, and four US dollars will get you this exquisite bowl of goodness. They also have many other delicious choices.
8. Soy Scallion Shanghai Noodles (Cong You Ban Mian葱油拌面)
The mention of Cong You Ban Mian reminds me of a great restaurant called “Shanghai Min” in English, or Xiao Nan Guo (小南国) in Chinese.
They have many of the dishes mentioned in this post. I love the location in the Super Brand Mall, 正大广场. It has a great view of Shanghai and the Huangpu river. The food, the view, and the surroundings will make anyone feel like a million bucks. And best of all, their version of Cong You Ban Mian is the best.
We have a recipe on the blog as well if you want to try making it.
Ok, moving on to afternoon snacks. The Shanghainese have a habit of eating in the afternoon. It’s really just an excuse to eat more of what you had at breakfast time. A quick afternoon snack might be a bowl of wontons, or a plate of sheng jian bao (fried pork buns). Let’s take a look at a few other popular items one-by-one.
1. Savory Pork Mooncakes (Xian Rou Yue Bing 鲜肉月饼)
I kid you not, this juicy pork mooncake will be one of the best things you will ever try. Yes, it’s not super healthy. But it is insanely delicious. NOT TO BE MISSED. Fair warning, you may have to wait on line for this one. Or…you could always make them at home with this savory mooncake recipe.
2. Xie Ke Huang – 蟹壳黄 (loose translation: Yellow Crab Shell)
This baked crispy pastry is generously coated with sesame seeds. My mother loves them, and many Shanghai locals share her love for them. The filling can be savory or sweet, and comes in different varieties.
3. Green Mochi with Red Bean Filling, Qingtuan 青团
The making of the glutinous rice dough for this green mochi is complicated, so I think I will save the details for another post. You should know that it’s a seasonal item, for sale around Qing Ming (清明) or the Dragon Boat Festival, because the vegetation that turns the dough green is only available in spring. They will slowly hit the market by the time you read this post.
For these (and the Xie Ke Huang and savory mooncakes I talked about above), I recommend 光明邨 (Guang Ming Cun) on 淮海中路588号 (#588 Middle Huai Hai Road). It’s a restaurant with a retail outlet on the street level. In the retail section, you will find a wide range of prepared foods that you can buy by weight, and snacks like the ones I’ve talked about here.
4. Shanghai Fried Turnip Cake, You Dun Zi, 油墩子
These are straight from my childhood. You Dun Zi, or fried turnip cakes, are made with shredded daikon, ground pork (optional), scallions, and a thin batter. They are sold mostly in the deep alleys of Shanghai by old men and old ladies running very small stands or push carts.
There might be a folding stool there for you to sit, but most likely, you will find yourself inhaling these delightful turnip cakes fresh out of the fryer standing up. As you may have guessed, it’s hard to locate these small merchants. I did find you a restaurant that serves you dun zi, though. Here it is: 曹家渡点心店, 长寿路1080号 (#1080 Chang Shou Road.)
Ok, moving on to dinner choices!
I rarely go to overly expensive restaurants, because I rather enjoy finding reasonably priced, great restaurants with five-star ratings. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite restaurants for Shanghai cuisine. You will find most of the dishes listed below in these restaurants. My favorite is Ren He Guan (人和馆) on 肇嘉浜路407号 (#407 Zhao Jia Bang Road). I love everything about that place––the food, the service and the decor. The collages of old posters, antique phonographs, and aged furnishings transports you back to 1940s Shanghai with class and style. Just remember to make a reservation!
Here’s the full list:
- Su Zhe Hui 苏浙汇，multiple locations
- YuanYuan 圆苑, multiple locations
- Lulu 鹭鹭酒家, multiple locations
- Shanghai Min 小南国, multiple locations
- Shanghai Ren Jia 上海人家, multiple locations
- Shun Feng 顺风大酒店, multiple locations.
- Ren He Guan 人和馆，肇嘉浜路407号
And now, for all the dishes:
1. Drunken Chicken (Zui Ji, 醉鸡)
Drunken Chicken is a local specialty. With its firm, almost crunchy skin, juicy texture and robust flavor, it has been a favorite dish for generations. The chicken is poached, then soaked in a Chinese wine sauce. You will find it on the appetizer section of the menu.
We also have a drunken chicken recipe you can check out!
2. Braised Wheat Gluten with Mushrooms (Hong Shao Kao Fu 红烧烤麸)
The look and name of this dish may sound odd, but it really is delicious. I always think of this dish as the vegetarian/vegan version of Shanghai Style Braised Pork Belly, Hong Shao Rou 红烧肉. It’s braised in a similar way, and it’s very flavorful and satisfying. It’s often served at room temperature. Like drunken chicken, you’ll find it in the appetizer section of the menu.
3. Ma Lan Tou and Spiced Tofu (Liang Ban Ma Lan Tou, 凉拌马兰头)
Bill goes ga-ga over this dish, and even posted a Liang Ban Ma Lan Tou recipe on the blog. Ma Lan Tou is a wild vegetable that’s harvested in spring. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it anywhere other than the Shanghai area. It’s a staple in the appetizer section of many Shanghainese menus.
4. Shanghai Shrimp Stir Fry (You Bao Xia 油爆虾)
In Shanghai, this dish is made with freshwater shrimp, so they will likely look smaller and slightly different in shape than the saltwater shrimp I used for our Shanghai Shrimp Stir-fry recipe. Again, you will see this dish appear on many tables in the restaurant.
5. Shanghai Xun Yu (熏鱼), a.k.a. Shanghai Bao Yu (爆鱼)
This dish is another specialty of the region. It’s always on our family’s Chinese New Year table. Xun Yu translates to Smoked Fish, but this fish is not smoked. It is deep fried twice till crispy, then soaked in a special sauce. It’s pretty amazing!
We now have our own recipe on the blog for Shanghai Smoked Fish, Xun Yu (上海熏鱼) with step-by-step instructions so you can make it at home!
6. Shanghai-style Braised Pork Belly (Hong Shao Rou 红烧肉)
This dish needs no introduction. So many of our readers cook this dish on regular basis! In fact, our version of Shanghai-style Braised Pork Belly is one of The Woks of Life’s most popular recipes. It’s a MUST-HAVE while you are in Shanghai––remember to mentally compare it with the version you make at home!
7. Shanghai Sweet and Sour Ribs (Tang Cu Pai Gu 糖醋排骨)
The Shanghainese are big on starting a meal with cold appetizers (冷菜), and this sweet and sour rib dish is usually the star leading the pack. It’s one of the most-ordered appetizers, along with You Bao Xia (油爆虾) and Xun Yu (熏鱼), described above. While in Shanghai, might as well do as the Shanghainese do, and order yourself a plate.
Also check out our Shanghai Sweet and Sour Ribs recipe!
8. Sauteed Clover (Cao Tou 草头)
Cao Tou is not a vegetable that you see everyday. In Shanghai, you can only find it in the spring. So while it depends on the time of year that you find yourself in Shanghai, hopefully you get to taste this delightful vegetable dish. Bill and I loved it so much when we were in Shanghai back in May that we went out to a local market, bought some fresh Cao Tou, and blogged a recipe for it. Check it out here.
9. Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish (Song Shu Gui Yu, 松鼠桂鱼)
Look at this fish––isn’t it a work of art on a plate? Sweet and Sour Fish is usually made with yellow croaker (黄鱼) and what I think is called Mandarin Fish in English (桂鱼). I have my reservations about this translation, because the actual fish looks like a grouper.
The body portion is deeply scored and “stands” straight outward after deep frying. Then a luscious sweet and sour sauce is poured over the whole fish. Growing up, I only saw this dish at wedding banquets, so I’ve always considered it very special. Supposedly, this fish is made to look like a squirrel, which is what’s described in its Chinese name. I have never seen a squirrel that looks like that, but who I am to argue? All I know is that it’s scrumptious, with a very distinctive presentation.
10. Soy-Glazed Phoenix Tail Fish (Kao Zi Yu, 烤子鱼 a.k.a. 凤尾鱼)
I couldn’t really find a good English translation for this dish. But regardless of what it might be called in English, I believe this is a type of freshwater fish, similar to anchovies. The ideal time to have this dish is from May to July, when they are packed with roe. Again, the fish is deep fried, then lightly glazed with a sweet soy dressing. I recently got my aunt’s recipe, which I hope to blog soon!
11. Stir-fried River Shrimp (Qing Chao He Xia, 清炒河虾)
This dish has gourmet written all over it. It has another beautiful name, 水晶虾仁. Literal translation: Crystal Shrimp. These river shrimp are sweet, delicate, and juicy. Minimal ingredients are added so you can really taste the freshness and flavor of the shrimp.
12. Braised Belt Fish (Hong Shao Dai Yu, 红烧带鱼)
There are four fish dishes that you need to try while in Shanghai: Shi Yu (鲥鱼, see #13 below), Yellow Croaker (黄鱼), Kao Zi Yu (烤子鱼, see #10 above) and this braised belt fish (带鱼). Belt fish is widely popular in Shanghai. More common home-cooking methods for belt fish include steaming it with salt, rice wine, ginger and scallions, and lightly salting and pan-frying it.
13. Steamed Shad (Qing Zheng Shi Yu, 清蒸鲥鱼)
If you had to rank Shanghainese dishes in order of decadence, this one would be at the top. A dish of steamed shad (a type of fish)––with only HALF of a fish, mind you––can set you back about 100 USD. Shad looks and tastes like a large herring. It’s almost always steamed for its natural, delicate umami flavor, with a few added ingredients like cured ham and rice wine.
Another fun fact: you might have noticed that the scales are still on the fish in the picture. That’s no accident. The Shanghainese like to suck on those soft fish scales. I don’t really know how to pretty up that image for you. As Bill put it, you can’t put lipstick on that pig. Nevertheless, don’t be alarmed if you notice a few locals enjoying the scales on this fish!
14. Shanghainese Salted Pork Soup with Bamboo Shoots & Tofu (Yan Du Xian, 腌笃鲜)
This soup is really a crown jewel of Shanghainese cuisine. You have to taste it to appreciate it. I just made it for Chinese New Year for a crowd of fifteen friends––none of them Chinese––and this soup clearly came out as the winner out of the nine dishes that we made.
15. Yellow Croaker Wonton Soup (Da Huang Yu Xiao Hun Tun Tang, 大黄鱼小馄饨汤)
Want to know how much the Shanghainese like yellow croakers? This dish is another clue. Not only is the soup a broth made with yellow croaker, the wonton filling is also made with the fish! Double Deliciousness!
Bill and I coincidentally stumbled upon a restaurant where they recommended this Yellow Croaker Wonton Soup. Apparently, the restaurant that we’d stumbled into was famous for their yellow croaker wonton soup. It was about 6:30 PM, and they still had one unreserved order left for the day. That’s right, you have to RESERVE the dish!
Definitely give this one a try. The restaurant is called Rui Fu Yuan (瑞福园), and the address is 132 South Mu Ming Road (茂名南路132号). A reservation is needed, and make sure you tell them you’re looking to eat this dish when you make the reservation.
16. Shanghai-Style Eel Stir fry (You Bao Shan Hu, 油爆鳝糊)
This is a dish that you either love or hate, and I belong to the latter group. So why do I include it in this must-try list? Because for most Shanghainese people, if not all, the mere mention of You Bao Shan Hu can make them weak at the knees. For me, I think it’s more of a visual hurdle––it’s not so much a taste or texture issue.
Eels look very much like snakes, and fun fact––I am terrified of snakes. So I never developed a liking for it. Many people really do love this dish, though. The fresh eel is stir-fried with ingredients like bamboo shoots, aged ham, garlic, and ginger, and topped with hot sizzling oil. If you don’t have a snake phobia, definitely give it a go.
17. Steamed Hairy Crab (Qing Zheng Da Zha Xie, 清蒸大闸蟹)
Every year when September and October roll around, there is excitement in the air, because these babies are hitting the market. Having hairy crab for dinner is definitely a big event for any family. At RMB200 (about US$30) per pound, it doesn’t happen often. The crab roe is also a delicacy, used in dishes like tofu with crab roe or steamed soup dumplings with pork and crab roe.
18. Braised Water Bamboo (You Meng Jiao Bai, 油焖茭白)
This dish is very common in Shanghai, when the jiao bai is in season in the spring. At that time of year, many families are cooking this dish at least a couple times a week. It’s definitely more of a Shanghai home-cooking thing, as I rarely see it on restaurant menus.
For you Shanghai expats out there, this is one dish that you should ask your Ayi to cook for you. It’s super easy! It tastes like bamboo shoots, but without the toughness. And for those of you who do your own shopping and cooking, here’s what to look for: they look like skinny bamboo shoots, about eight to ten inches long, with white flesh and green outer layers that you peel away before cooking.
19. Shanghai Rice with Salted Pork and Greens (Shanghai Cai Fan, 上海菜饭)
You will find this towards the end of the Shanghainese restaurant menus, where the rice, noodles, and dumplings are. Chinese menus are big––almost like reading a book, so by the time you reach the end, you might have identify too many dishes to even think about this one.
That’s when this post will pop into your head, and you’ll remember that Judy from the Woks of Life said not to miss this very savory and homey rice dish to round off your feast.
20. Braised Fish Tails (Hong Shao Hua Shui, 红烧划水)
This dish is so old school that newer Shanghainese restaurants don’t even offer it anymore. But I know my favorite restaurant, 人和馆, still has it. Do you know why it’s made with the fish tails specifically, and not the whole fish? Because of its constant movement, the tail is considered the most delicate and tender part of the fish. It really melts in your mouth!
I hope you enjoyed the culinary tour through Shanghai. Doesn’t it make you want to buy a ticket and hop on a direct flight to Shanghai? For those of you who are already there or planning to travel there, I hope this post helps you hunt for these delicious morsels of Shanghai cuisine around the city.
I do have a special request for readers––feel free to add your picks of worthy dishes and restaurants in the comments section. Thank you very much!