If you haven’t tried these dishes, you haven’t truly experienced Shanghai
1. Xiaolongbao 小笼包
No “Shanghai Must Eats” list would be complete with xiaolongbao. These delicately pinched and wrapped steamed soup dumplings are savory, fragrant and just all around delicious. Usually served with a pork filling, you can find places that also pack xiaolongbao with crabmeat and crab roe inside (usually only available in the late autumn months when crabs are in season). One dozen of these bad boys will also only set you back RMB10-15.
2. Shengjianbao 生煎包
Think xiaolongbao but heftier, doughier and less refined. Much like xiaolongbao, shengjianbao is filled with savory pork and piping hot soup, but unlike it’s delicate and dainty cousin, the skin is much thicker and it’s pan-fried. These fist-sized baos are commonly found street-side, tightly packed on a large, shallow pan covered with oil, cooked until the bottoms are crisped and browned.
For the less adventurous, you can grab yourself one or two shengjianbaos at one of the many Yang’s Fried Dumplings shops scattered throughout the city.
3. Congyoubing 葱油饼
Rain or shine, you can see locals lined up to buy one, two or three pieces of congyoubing (scallion pancakes). These savory, flaky, buttery and scallion-sprinkled fried bings (pancake) are something of a guilty pleasure for us, but for locals it’s a pretty normal way to start their day.
You can find these greasy, yet tasty, fried flatbreads being sold at nearly every street-side vendor in the city in the mornings, but are more difficult to come by in the afternoons as they are considered breakfast food.
4. Congyoubanmian 葱油拌面
Between congyoubing and congyoubanmian (scallion oil noodles), it’s obvious Shanghai knows how to use scallion right. A bowl of congyoubanmian might look plain and simple, but the flavors pack some punch and will make you salivate for more.
The fine hand-pulled noodles are dressed with scallion oil (made by frying actual shredded scallions) mixed with soy sauce, topped with the crispy fried scallion and sprinkled with fried and dried shrimp. As the noodles are tossed, each strand gets coated with the oil and soy sauce giving each bite some major flavor.
We like adding splashes of black vinegar to our noodles for that extra kick.
5. Lion’s Head Meatball 狮子头
This has a bit of a funny name but regardless, it’s one of the better known Shanghai dishes. These giant pork meatballs are made with pork fat, cooked in a sand clay pot and served with shredded greens. They are meant to represent a lion, with the greens its shaggy mane – can you see the resemblance?
The meatballs are tender, juicy and represent a traditional, rustic and homey dish to most Shanghainese.
6. Hairy crab 大閘蟹
If you’re in Shanghai from late October to early December, you’re in luck because it’s hairy crab season. Renowned for their rich and abundant orange roe, hairy crabs are considered a delicacy in Asia. Normally steamed with fresh ginger, the crabs are cracked and dipped in gingery black vinegar making for a beyond tasty experience.
Though it may be hard to initially see the appeal of these crabs – they’re small, and require a lot of work to get through to the meat – but it’s well worth the effort.
7. Xiaolongxia 小龙虾
Another crustacean that dominates the food scene in Shanghai for one season out of the year is xiaolongxia (crayfish). Though technically available year-round, the best time to eat these critters is June to September where they are at their fattest and most abundant. At local restaurants, they’re also sold by the pound (about 500 grams) – one pound is good for two people.
So this summer, grab a friend, roll up your sleeves and dive right into some xiaolongxia. Pairing them with a couple bottles of cold Tsingtao beers to help cut the spice never hurt either.
8. Hongshaorou 红烧肉
Bite-sized cubes of sweet and savory soy glazed fatty pork belly. Need we say more?
9. Youtiao 油田
The savoury churros of China. Commonly found streetside, they are eaten as breakfast with congee or a bowl of steaming sweetened soymilk. The crispy and oily exterior hides an airy interior and makes it a sinfully tasty way to begin your day.
Beware though, if you wait too long to eat it (more than 10 minutes), it will become cold, tough and kind of rubbery. These deep-fried dough sticks are best eaten freshly plucked from the fryer.
10. Suzhou-style Mooncakes
So these mooncakes didn’t originate in Shanghai, but with Suzhou just a 20-minute high speed train ride away, we can pretty well count these as a local specialty. Unlike the sweet, decorative mooncakes handed out during Mid-autumn Festival, these Suzhou style ones are eaten year round.
They come with either a sweet or savoury filling, with a crisp flaky pastry. The most popular kind is xianrouyuebing (鲜肉月饼), which has a savory pork, soy and ginger filling. They are usually baked fresh in the morning and sold in snack shop booths throughout the city.