The culinary profile of Shanghai is diverse, starchy, and influenced by the sea. The Shanghainese are known for having a deep pride for their city, and food is one of the best ways to understand their city-patriotism. Here are 10 of its finest dishes.
Xiaolongbao, those sly baozis that look like jiaozis hiding a juicy spoonful of soup inside, are one of Shanghai’s most famous dishes. These soup dumplings generally come filled with soup of pork, shrimp, crab, or vegetables. Pick one up with chopsticks, and plop it down on your soup spoon. Carefully bite into the morsel and suck out the salty broth. Be warned: these arrive hot. Slurp luxuriously, but also cautiously. Order a basket of these babies at Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰).
Yellow Croaker Noodles (黄鱼面)
Yellow Croakers swim in the Yellow Sea, until they are caught and turned into this bone broth-based noodle soup served throughout Shanghai. Cooks simmer the bones of Yellow Croakers for hours to make the light fishy base, then add in wheat noodles with chunks of Yellow Croaker and bits of crab meat. Mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and pickled vegetables are thrown in, completing the creamy, thick, and golden mixture. Order a bowl at Xie Huang Yu 蟹黄鱼.
Pan-Fried Pork Buns (生煎包)
Invented in Shanghai (though their origin story remains a mystery), pan-fried pork buns are categorized as both Shanghai dim sum and an everyman’s snack. Known as “sheng jian bao” in Chinese, they give you the best of three worlds: the crispy underside akin to a fried dumpling, the soft sponginess of a baozi on top, and the juicy pork broth reminiscent of a xiaolongbao inside. Topped with sesame seeds and green onions, they make for a great snack or breakfast on the go. Go to Yang’s Dumpling (小杨生煎) to eat some of the best in the city, or buy them from street vendors.
Hong Shao Rou (红烧肉)
Juicy, sweet, and sticky, hong shao rou is tender braised pork belly. Light and dark soy sauces, sugar, and rice wine, get mixed together and cooked with cubes of pork belly until they become tender and caramelized to a deep red. Generally served with hard-boiled eggs, other things like steamed tofu or squid sometimes serve as substitutions. Although originally created in Hunan Province, the dish has become a staple of Shanghai cuisine and was one of Chairman Mao’s favorite dishes. Try them at Jian Guo 328 (建国328).
Beggar’s Chicken (叫花鸡)
How much mud does it take to cook a chicken? About six pounds—or at least that’s what the recipe for Beggar’s Chicken calls for. To make this legendary dish, a cook will take a whole chicken, stuff it with onions, ginger, black mushrooms, and pickled vegetables. The bird gets wrapped in lotus leaves and mud mixed with wine and salt water, then stuffed in the oven from three to six hours. To serve, waiters crack the baked mud mound open, revealing tender, aromatic chicken that easily falls off the bone. Call a day ahead to reserve your bird at Xindalu (新大陆 ) on The Bund.
Steamed Hairy Crab (大闸蟹)
From fall to early winter, hairy crab takes over Shanghai. You can find it in most restaurants and even in vending machines during this season. A crab is bound and steamed with ginger, then served with a light sauce of rice vinegar, sugar, and scallions. The crab actually contains little meat; what diners are after is the bright orange roe under the shell. Creamy, buttery, and super fatty, crack it open yourself or ask the restaurant to do it for you (called “dressing” the crab). Fu 1088 (福1088) serves this dish in an elegant ambiance.
Braised Fish Head (葱爆鱼头)
Very local and very authentic, Congbao Yutou or “Scallion Fish Head” in English, is a large carp’s head cooked until tender in an oily sauce. Chefs split it down the middle, cover it in scallions, bathe it in sauce, and place a few thinly cut peppers and greens on the side for the final presentation. Locals say the fat behind the eye is especially savory. Try it at an old Shanghai standard: Old Jesse Restaurant (老吉士酒家).
Fresh Soy Milk and Fried Dough (油条 and 豆浆)
These are half of the bad boys of the four warriors (四大金刚) of Shanghainese breakfast (along with stuffed sticky rice and sesame pancakes) and akin to coffee and donuts in the West. The beverage? A fresh pressed bowl of steaming soy milk called “dou jiang,” is both sweet and a little salty. The food? Deep-fried dough sticks called “youtiao” come crispy and chewy and also contain both sweet and salty elements. Go to Shunchang Lu Breakfast Market to have your pick of breakfast stalls serving these.
Lion's Head Meatballs (狮子头)
Another Shanghai dish steeped in food lore, Lion’s Head Meatballs use water and vinegar to get the minced pork to stick together instead of breadcrumbs, so the dish is gluten-free. Made with a good amount of fatty meat and sherry, the meatballs bake in a clay pot until tender and golden-brown in color. Scoop them up at 1221 CanGuan (餐馆).
Osmanthus Cake (水塔糕)
This honey-sweet sponge cake’s main ingredient comes from the fragrant Osmanthus tree, which blooms around the Mid-Autumn Festival when the smell of its blossoms waft through the air. Light and sugary, it’s easy to eat one or five of these delicate pastries. Made from sugar and rice wine, this sticky treat gets steamed into little stacks or “water towers”, as locals call them, and they pair perfectly with tea. Try a plate of them at Xiao Tao Yuan (小桃园).