I take you to Shanghai this month where I recently spent five horridly hot days basking and eating my heart out. Shanghai is special to me, it's where my mother's parents were from before they fled to Hong Kong, before eventually making their way to Vancouver Canada.
As I grew up, I'd occasionally hear Shanghainese from the mouths of my grandparents, mom, aunts and uncles, but not enough to pick up the language, which I regret. Stir-fried shredded pork and snow cabbage on top of noodles in soup, a very Shanghainese dish, is what I grew up eating for lunch on Sunday's, which is what I revert to as a simple pleasure. As a child, lunch at a Shanghainese restaurant excited my siblings and I. Sticky rice wrapped around fried chinese dough and pickled cabbage (which we love to dip into sugar), pot stickers, xiao long bao (meaning "little steamer buns", "bao" means "bun"), hot sweetened soya milk, fried thick noodles or sticky rice cake a la Shanghainese style, put a smile on our faces.
My first trip to Shanghai was at a recent age. I was eager and felt a special something being there, like I was in-touch with my roots finally, and fond memories of my grandparents and childhood persisted. In Shanghai, I was always in search of foods I grew up eating. I remember an overjoy of excitement as I awaited my first actual soup noodles at a local chain Shanghai noodle restaurant 滄浪亭 "Cheong Long Ting", which my grandmother dined at as a child. There was a wide array of Shanghainese side dishes to choose from here. It was like window shopping! There was a warm tingle at my first slurp of the childhood staple, like I had filled my grandmother's shoes. It hit so close to home for me, but this time it was the real deal.
From Start to Finish
Shanghainese cuisine is unique with its variety of cold appetiser dishes. I love the Jellyfish Heads, unlike the ones which look like noodles which we eat at Chinese banquets, these heads are sliced like corn flakes and are very crunchy.
Kuo Fu is another typical dish. It's fried gluten then braised in a sweetened dark soya, which it eventually soaks up. Smoked Eggs with a creamy center is another popular appetiser. The mentioned are just a few of the near hundred unique appetiser dishes.
Nanling Restaurant 南伶酒家 at the French Concession is recommended for traditional Shanghai cuisine, and Fu 1039 福1039 (don't confuse it with Fu 1088) provided the best Shanghainese meal I've had. Both restaurants provide a deliciously wide array of these Shanghai entrees.
And not to forget about dessert, Fermented Rice in Wine with Glutinous Rice Balls is popular. Besides its deliciousness, there are health benefits associated. What a great excuse to have dessert!
My Bao Mission
I was also on a mission for authentic Xiao Long Bao. I would say this is Shanghai's national dish. Steamed buns filled with pork and an explosion of its juices. I was puzzled when numerous people recommended Din Tai Fung, a famous Taiwan establishment known for their xiao long bao in all of Asia. You must be kidding, that's not authentic! The hotel concierge notified me that today's Shanghainese food had been refined by the Taiwanese. The buns are smaller, its skin thinner, with more variations. Apparently, if you want to find true authentic Shanghainese food, you have to go to the small alleys. The concierge then sent me to Yuyuan Old Town for some traditional xiao long bao at Nan Xiang Steamed Bun. Yuyuan Old Town is the only district that still maintains Old Town Chinese architecture in Shanghai.
We were being swallowed by tourists on this near 40 celsius day. Finally, we made our way to Nan Xiang Steamed Bun 南翔饅頭店. You can't miss it, as the line outside is looong. The ground level is the busiest, due to a no minimum charge policy. Make your way to the second and third floor as there are two lines for two separate dining rooms. One with a 30RMB per person minimum, and the other 60RMB. The 60RMB line was literally a crab crawl, eventually we got a table at the 30RMB dining hall. My anticipation for these buns had finally come to rest. The size of these dumplings were significantly larger and skin thicker, and you can't see through the bun's skin like many places nowadays. There's a technique in eating these hot bites, otherwise, your friend across the table may get a squirt of hot soup across their face, unpleasant! While tilting the dumpling to let the juices run to the opposite end, take a small bite at the bottom and carefully slurp the hot soup. The verdict - the meat was harder than the norm, the soup and meat was not as tasty, and the skin was thick and not as delicate.
While we were working on our buns, the show stopper had arrived. The concierge said this was really authentic and not commonly found, one large xiao long bao in its own steamer with a straw poked in the middle. To prevent the bao from piercing, the skin was indeed very thick and not very moist. The very hot soup tasted a bit fishy, as there was hairy crab roe present. As I finished, I peered into the bun finding a tiny bit of the roe. The skin however tasted doughy. Well, at least I gave it a try!
In the end, not to turn you away from this place, it's still a nice site and a great tourist venue, but you may want to wait until after the Expo months. In addition, we each had a tofu spring roll and a fried prawn ball. The bill came out to 158RMB. An economical experience, I would say. A take-out window for the steamed buns is located on the ground floor.
On the other hand, Jia Jia Tang Bao on Huang He Lu, reviewed by another fellow contributor in the column The Hungry Chef, is a much more convenient and tastier option.
For the best Pot Sticker Buns in Shanghai, you must (I emphasise, MUST) stop by one of the Yang's Fried Dumpling 小杨生煎 outlets, a famous specialty shop for their fried buns. Each order is four buns for 5RMB, what a steal! Eighty buns are made at a time which sell out like hot cakes. The boys and girls behind are hurriedly wrapping and rolling away for the next batches. Yang's fans buy 4-5 boxes to go at a time. A little bird told me that WOM editor, Fergus, once sinfully bought 96 buns to-go to share amongst him and his friends!
Like the xiao long baos, take a small bite near the bottom and slurp with precaution. The bottom is fried crisp, the meat tender and juicy, and the soup inside is un-be-liev-able! It's what I call having a food orgasm! If there was only one place to eat at in Shanghai, it would be Yang's Fried Dumplings. (If you visit the Huang He Lu branch, feel free to skip across the street to Jia Jia Tong Bao after).
Last But Not Least
Another pleasurable highlight is heading to The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, with over twenty outlets in Shanghai nowadays. Although it's not Shanghai born, it's a great cold pleasure. Grabbing a Mocha Ultimate is like having a cherry on top of a sundae. Ideal for those hot oven-like days.
For my last stop, noodles were not to be negotiated. I stopped by this local eatery suggested by a friend. Ah Niang Mian 阿娘面, meaning "mother's noodles", for my last meal before departing. Filled with locals, a hole-in-the-wall is no better way to explain this place. Among the variety of noodles, I opted for the signature Yellow Carp (a type of fish) on Noodles in Soup, and a side dish of the dried bean curd and potato in chilli oil that my friend had recommended. The side dish was nothing like I had imagined, literally chunks of potato and bean curd dunked in chilli oil. The taste was more sweet than spicy. The fillets of fish were tender, and tasted delicate. I liked the texture of the noodles, and the soup was flavourful. I'd definitely check-in again, but next time to try the other selections.
My food trek in Shanghai is not complete, as I am still in search of more childhood food memories, not to mention hairy crab season is coming. Our hairy crab feast last year was one of the best and most memorable meals I've ever had. I just can't miss out on this once-a-year food extravaganza! I know, excuses, excuses.
My Shanghai Food Journey
Ah Liang Mian 阿娘面Si Nan Lu 36号 卢湾区思南路36号(近南昌路) Tel: 021-5306-6604
Cheong Long Ting 滄浪亭地址:上海市黃浦區山西南路183號 Tel: 021-63223528
Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包90 Huang He Lu 黄河路 90号
Nan Xiang Steamed Bun 南翔饅頭店Yuyuan Rd. 85号 Jing'an, Shanghai, China Tel: 021-63554206 Opening Hours: 07:00~~20:00 上海老城隍廟內豫園路85號
Nanling Restaurant 南伶酒家168 Yueyang Road, near Yongjia Road, French Concession Tel: 021-6433-0897 Opening Hours: lunch 11:30am-2:30pm, dinner 5:30-10:00pm Tel: 021-6467-7381 上海市岳阳路168号
Fu 1039 福10391039 Yuyuan Lu, 愚园路1039号 Tel: 021-5237-1878
The Coffee Bean and Tea LeafDetails here
Yang's Fried Dumpling 小杨生煎黄河路 97号 97 Huang He Lu
Thank you for your comments/recommendations!
Thank you for your comments foodies!
排骨年糕 sounds super duper delicious! I now have new places to visit on my next trip to Shanghai. So excited!
Thank you for the support and recommendations!
o i forgot to say
o i forgot to say, Kuo Fu is my favourite, too!
I used to eat it when I was little, my grandma made it in CNY gathering. And smoked fish... Those appetitizers are so so so so tasty! How memorable!
Regret that didnt learn Shanghaiese, too :P
Agree what Peech said, I don't think Nanxiang is worth eating, and u know what, I queued up on the ground and waited for an hr, the angriest thing is, an uncle cut me in the queue!!! I was alone to queue up and of cos I didnt let him cut, then he used his big belly to stick my back!!The steamed bun downstairs are dry, without soup, thick dough, and I found that I have wasted for an hr in it.
Btw, pot sticker buns are good everywhere in Shanghai!Juicy, thin dough, much more better than eating in HK anyway. And did you try shanghai glutinous cake with ribs(排骨年糕)? I ate in Feng Yu(豐裕), it's really interesting that the glutinous cakes were deep fried with 2 big pork chops actually. So cheap tho!
Nanxiang is a waste of money (and stomach space)...
Their standards have not improved in decades, while the rest of the Chinese community - led by Taiwanese like DTF - have been refining the quality of their products.
On my trips to Shanghai, the dual stops of Jia Jia / Yang's on Huang He Road is kinda routine, as you get two in one go. There's also Linlong Fang just a couple of blocks south of Xintiandi for XLB.