It’s been said that the best living comes by eating breakfast like a king, lunch as a prince, and dinner as a pauper. For those living in, native to, and visiting Shanghai, this approach to eating is certainly in good order.
Knowing this prior to my trip in November, I was prepared to have no shortage of food in the early mornings each day, determined to explore what the local streets had to offer. As my brother, who’d been to Shanghai himself, told me: “If you’re awake at 5 am, you should go out and see what food is on the street.” That I did.
Finding local cuisine is an essential part of any trip to Shanghai (or most any foreign city, for that matter.) If you’re going yourself, and are interested in exactly where I found any of the myriad of selections below, feel free to ask. They don’t come from sit-down restaurants or traditional storefronts, but rather nondescript pop-up windows, rough-looking food carts, and back-alley hole-in-the-walls run by grandmothers who have been making their food for decades.
Jiangbing is very popular and can be found seemingly everywhere. It’s like a large, rich crepe – egg batter, laced with a hoisin sauce, chilies (optional), green onions, an egg, and some sort of pastry inside. It gets folded up, cut in half, and you’re good to go- eating a Shanghai breakfast burrito as you head off to your next spot.
Also easy to find is Cong You Bing, or fried scallion pancakes. Pretty simple- flaky, buttery, and delicious. Walk around and look for the ones with more filling than others.
Shanghai Shao Mai are little pork and sticky rice dumplings that are small and tempting but very rich. If you’re on a mission to try a lot of food over the course of one morning, or even day, stick with just one of these. They’re both sweet and savory, but one is enough.
Tea Eggs look like they’ve been warming in a pot for hours, and that’s exactly the case. They’re boiled to start, then sit in a metal tank as you see here, that’s traditionally full of water, soy sauce, tea bags, cinnamon, sugar, and anise. You crack them just as you would any other boiled egg. If you want with more of the unique flavor, select one that has more cracks.
Finally, dumplings of several varieties abound, and are one of the things that makes Shanghai such a fantastic destination. Xiaolongbau (or XLB for short), are small, steamed dumplings filled with both a scalding hot broth and a meat of some sort, usually pork or crab. In doing some research before going, I found that one of the best spots for XLB is Jia Jia Tang Bao. I found the place, and sure enough, all I was wishing for was a larger appetite. The line out the door was about ten deep, and once inside, you order then just take a seat at any table, even if there’s others already at it. In around ten minutes, my ten pork dumplings arrived (they’re made to order), then vanished quickly. They must be eaten carefully – bite into the top or side, slurp out the hot broth, and then devour the dumpling.
Farther down the same road was another spot I’d wanted to try that served Xiao Hun Tun, or dumpling soup. It’s a total hole-in-the-wall and was a bit challenging to find, but inside were several patrons already enjoying the savory soup and other offerings. The husband and wife owners were quiet and hard at work- he in the back “room” (no larger than a bathroom stall), mixing the ground pork, while she sat up front, quickly and methodically stuffing the wonton dumplings. I videoed her work as she sat there, and later calculated her pace at around 2 seconds to fill and close one wonton. Amazing. And amazingly delicious. I wish I’d been able to go back.
There’s plenty of other food to talk about, I could go on and on. The hot pot is a famous dish here, and I got to experience this with a colleague I later met up with. Chenghuangmiao Old Street is one of the most famous food streets, let alone streets in general, in Shanghai. Many options for mid-day snacks, I found myself in a worthwhile line for Sheng Jian Bao (pan-fried buns stuffed with pork), and another for more steamed buns at the famous Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant.
Whatever you do, and whatever you try, enjoy. Look around, watch the locals. While you’re eating, gaze at the hundreds of old folks you’ll see doing Tai Chi (many in groups and clubs), enjoy the bamboo broom-pushers, and watch out for the bicycles and scooters coming at you in every direction. Happy eating.
Until next time,
The Candid Traveler