Food shapes culture. The renowned gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said:
“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
This makes perfect sense – I too believe that the best way to learn about a culture is through food. When I travel I want to feel like an insider, and that means eating what the locals eat. Though Shanghai is an international metropolis and offers a wide range of culinary options, there are a few iconic food items that define the Shanghai food scene.
Xiaolongbao (Steamed Soup Dumplings)
Your Shanghai food adventure wouldn’t be complete without having these renowned steamed soup dumplings. Xiaolongbao is probably the most famous dish from Shanghai. Over a century old, Xiaolongbao is a type of steamed bun from the Jiangnan region of China, typically associated with Shanghai and Wuxi. The Shanghai-style xiaolongbao is from Nanxiang, a suburb of Shanghai. From there, these small but flavourful dumplings expanded to downtown Shanghai and outward. From roadside stalls to Michelin-star restaurants, Xiaolongbao seemingly is a must-have food item on the tables today.
Make sure you don’t burn your mouth when slurping up the hot, flavourful soup!
What might be ‘gross’ to you is definitely ‘yum’ to Shanghai ren. Fermented and very offensive to the nose, stinky tofu is one of Shanghai’s favourite snacks, and that many foreigners love to hate. In Shanghai, stinky tofu is typically fried and sold at roadside stands, usually accompanied by a spicy or sweet sauce. You know you belong in Shanghai when you smell this stuff two blocks away and start running towards it instead of away.
“Four Heavenly Kings”
The term summarised the four most well known foods for breakfast in Shanghai, which include Chinese flat bread (dabing), fried breadstick (youtiao), steamed sticky rice ball (cifantuan) and soymilk. In particular, among the “Four Heavenly Kings”, cifantuan belongs to typical Shanghai food.
Shengjianbao (Fried Stuffed Buns)
This thin, crispy golden snack is another favourite to Shanghainese. The filling is usually pork and they best enjoyed freshly made. Believe it or not, some foreigners have even taken classes at the Chinese Cooking Workshop just to learn how to fry a perfect bun!
If you are looking for something luxurious, try hairy crabs! Late autumn is the best time for eating crabs in Shanghai. The best quality Hairy Crabs with green shells and white bottoms, rich in fat and ovary, are shipped to restaurants. The most popular way to prepare the crabs is to simply steam whole to maintain the original flavor of the crab.