Walking down the streets, the Chinese characters you see are all trying to help you. Granted, there are roughly 10,000 of them, so you’re forgiven if they go over your head [editor’s note: excuse the pun]. But for your singular purpose of filling your stomach and satisfying your appetite, all you need to know are these shanghai local food…
Category 1 – 饺, 馄饨
Jiăozi (饺子), dumplings, are different from húntun (馄饨), wontons— in that wontons have thinner skins and belong in the milder Cantonese cuisine. Though minced pork is the standard filling for both, shrimp wontons are probably the best that China’s Southeast has to offer. For either, a bowl of 10 giants or 12 petits, costs about 15 RMB in street eateries and no more than 30 RMB in bigger (and cleaner) restaurants. Shùnfēng găngwān (顺丰港湾) is just one of the Cantonese restaurants in which you can find generous whole shrimp wontons for cheap. Also, their yellow croaker wontons (28 RMB) ingeniously work in local water produce and take on a lightly salted, rich Shanghainese flavor.
Popular in China’s Northwest is the more substantial dumplings, with a bigger variety of odd-ball fillings and chewier skin. Some great combos (traditional-Chinese-medicine-approved, by the way) are radish and beef, mushroom and chicken, or three-ingredient vegetarian dumplings (mushrooms, carrots, and seasoned tofu). But the most curious of all is sauerkraut dumplings (18RMB) in decadent platefuls, available at Dōngbĕi sìjì jiăozi wáng (东北四季饺子王). I recommend steamed over boiled and always dipped in strong Chinese vinegar.
Look for these characters: 饺, 馄饨
Search for this restaurant chain: Shùnfēng găngwān (顺丰港湾), Dōngbĕi sìjì jiăozi wáng (东北四季饺子王)
Expect to pay this much: 15 RMB – 30 RMB
Category 2 – 清真, 兰州
China has a selection of mutton and beef fests, the first borrowed from Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the latter originally catering to a Muslim minority called Huis on the mainland.
Walking down the streets in Shanghai, qīng zhēn (清真) means three things: One, Uyghur-inspired mutton galore representing Xinjiang Province, famous for their cumin mutton skewers, “hand-grab” mutton rice with carrots, and stone-stove lamb chops. Two, hand-stretched beef noodles at restaurants invariably named lánzhōu (兰州, after the birthplace of this working man’s delicious dish). But unlike the days when its inventor, Mǎ Bāozǐ (马包子) first carried this economical quick meal out of Lanzhou, these words are found everywhere along the beaten lanes of Old Shanghai and no longer signify authenticity. And third and last is a no-brainer— the most popular halal option remains the traditional hotpots for one, two, and up to twenty. This halal variation simply features beef, mutton, or seafood instead of fatty pork ribs.
Look for these characters: 清真, 兰州
Search for this restaurant chain: Gu Li Xian (古丽仙西域情餐厅)
Expect to pay this much: 9 – 20 RMB
Category 3 – 小龙虾
Crawfish/Crayfish are raised in recycled water and therefore not so sanitary, but I suspect they’ve been raised on a diet of opium as well, because they are absolutely addictive. The craze has been raging in Shanghai for years now, and the city’s marinated crawfish will probably remain a regional must-try, available at almost any BBQ place off the streets.
Xiāng Măn Táng (香满堂) in Xuhui, for example, serves a sharable pot of crawfish done traditionally at about 56 RMB per person, but the dining environment is hardly impressive. You must be a brave soul to enter these often disorganized, disheveled eateries. Groups of people hunched over little tables, smoke and beer hanging heavy in the air, barely covering the thick pungent aroma of the little succulent seafood, today’s crawfish diners bear some scary resemblance to the opium dens of the past. Still, definitely a must-try, but you can decide for yourself whether this addicting dish is truly worth it.
Look for these characters: 小龙虾
Search for this restaurant chain: Duàn Shì Lóng Xiā (段氏龙虾)
Expect to pay this much: 40 – 75 RMB
Category 4 – 面, 粉, 线
Stir or soup? China’s noodology is a study yet to be exhausted. The local winner is yellow croaker soup noodles, or huáng yú miàn (黄鱼面), known for being ladies’ nutritional choice in the cold, cold winter. They are easily found at any place with the character miàn (面) on the banner. Chóngqìng xiăomiàn (重庆小面) is another old brand, a spicy dish with egg noodles that give a slight resistance to the bite, tempting the hungry out to the eateries, rain or shine, with its mix of dark brown broth and Chinese Bok Choy. Remember: neither noodle dish should cost more than 30 RMB, so expect greatness if the price tag ever goes over…
Guì lín mĭ fĕn (桂林米粉), like a rice vermicelli, is a local favorite too, economic and deliciously filling. The dish presents a unique taste paired with vegetarian toppings, some might say superior to the beef or mutton options. At the top of our list, “Fú Kè Guì Lín Mĭ Fĕn” 福客桂林米粉 lays its claim to fame with a bowl of sweet and sour bamboo shoots vermicelli (12 RMB).
Look for these characters: 面, 粉, 线
Search for this restaurant chain: Héfǔ Lāomiàn (和府捞面)
Expect to pay this much: 9 – 20 RMB
SHANGHAI DIM SUM
Category 5 – 包, 饼, 糕
Bāo (包)—buns— are soft and fluffy wheat flour doughs enveloping veggies and/or pork. Most locals grab one vegetarian bun and one meaty one to make a quick and more than healthy breakfast. Lǜ Yáng Cūn (绿杨村), one of Shanghai’s oldest dim sum outlets since 1936, is known for its hour-long lines and setting a daily maximum purchase of 20 vegetarian buns (2.30 RMB) per person. Another breakfast-on-the-go are jiānbĭng (煎饼) (5 RMB), soft Chinese crêpes with runny sweet sauce over a fried egg and often a cruller, with cilantro to taste. They are available at nearly any cart or breakfast stall on the streets, just look for the big, flat, black frying surface.
However, gāo (糕) (rice-flour desserts) are most unique to Shanghai. Highly recommended are hēimĭgāo (黑米糕), which are made from black rice and sticky rice flour ground and fermented. The millet flour version tends to be sweeter and fluffier, often adorned with colorful dried fruit cubes and enjoyed around Chinese New Year.
Look for these characters: 包, 饼, 糕
Search for this restaurant chain: Dōng Tài Xiáng (东泰祥)
Expect to pay this much: 2 – 7 RMB
Category 6 – 川, 湘
Chuān (川), for Sichuan Province, and Xiāng (湘), for Hunan Province, are China’s most popular cuisines, and both are devoted to perfecting the art of dried Chinese red peppers. The two are very similar, except in that Chuan Cuisine puts aniseeds in, looking to add yet another layer of tongue-numbing sensation.
Locals frequent the franchise Hóng Là Jiāo (红辣椒) for Chuān and Wàng Xiāng Yuán (望湘园) for Xiāng, which share some signature dishes. For example, yuānyāng yútóu (鸳鸯鱼头) (68 RMB) is a must-try— a large fish head steamed and split in halves, one side covered in red and the other side in green chili peppers. Also, gānguō niúwā (干锅牛蛙) (68 RMB) is diced bullfrog stir-fried or grilled with sauced vegetables, served smokey hot in a wok. Rule of thumb: a good Chuān or Xiāng restaurant should be crowded and boisterous, indicating that both the dishes and the classically Chinese atmosphere will make for a worthwhile dining experience.
Look for these characters: 川, 湘
Search for this restaurant chain: Hóng Là Jiāo (红辣椒)
Expect to pay this much: 50 – 80 RMB
Category 7 – 港, 粤
Cantonese cuisine pleases those who prefer a mild and delicate taste. Recognize the characters găng (港) and yuè (粤) to know that you are not far from crispy-skinned, charcoal-grilled poultry and fresh seafood, often fried and lightly salted. Besides, this expensive cuisine is also credited with a unique take on steamed greens, with oyster sauce dripped on top and indulgently sweet desserts.
Shanghai’s Xiāng Găng Lóng Fèng Lóu (香港龙凤楼) has the beautiful name of “Hong Kong’s Tower of Dragon and Phoenix”, a remnant of the traditional Cantonese culture you might have hoped to find more of. For a cheaper option, order a bowl of yúntūn miàn (云吞面) (26RMB) with shrimp wontons and silk-thin noodles all in one. To really get to know Canton’s flavors, nánrŭ diàoshāojī (南乳吊烧鸡) (90 RMB) is the roasted whole chicken you must experience.
Look for these characters: 港, 粤
Search for this restaurant chain: Jíwàng xiānggǎng chá cāntīng (吉旺港式茶餐厅)
Expect to pay this much: 20 – 100 RMB
HOT POTS (NOT HOTPOT)
Category 8 – 麻辣烫
Listen. You know about hotpot. Everyone knows about hotpot. You’ll have no trouble finding hotpot. Let’s talk about hot pots instead. Málàtàng (麻辣烫) is a pot of all-you-can-pick fresh ingredients, perfect for an indulgent meal alone or casual late-night snacks with a group of friends. The character là (辣) means hot, and the character má (麻) means tongue-numbing. The combination is often served in bone broth with a flowing surface of cut-up red peppers. At most hot pot diners without a sanitation certificate, however, expect the bone broth be substituted by seasoned water boiled repeatedly since 10 AM.
Charged by weight, the price for vegetarian ingredients is half that of meat, poultry, and seafood alike. Likely, the owner has a singsongy Sichuanese accent and recommends for his foreign tourists “very hot and very numbing.” But feel free to request bú là (不辣) (not spicy) or yīdiǎndiǎn (一点点) (a teeny bit) if you’re not going for bragging rights.
Look for these characters: 麻辣烫,
Search for this restaurant chain: Shŭ Dì Maò Caì 蜀地冒菜
Expect to pay this much: 70-160 RMB
Category 9 – 麻辣烫
Yes! Shanghai does have a vegetarian scene! It’s mostly divided into two categories: economic buffets, and vegan-themed haute cuisine. The buffets are only cheap because vegetarian ingredients are cheap to buy locally, but the options are often dynamic and nutritionally rich. For example, Fú Tián Yuán (福田缘) on East Yan’an Road has tens of different sautéed and stir-fried vegetables, steamed dim sums, and tasty staples like stir-fried noodles and black rice porridge (28 RMB/ person). [Editor’s note 3/8/2016: Fú Tián Yuán (福田缘) is unfortunately closed down for good.]
In comparison, most of Shanghai’s vegan-themed fine-dining zeroes in on plating and meat replicas, and general reviews for them are not optimistic. Interestingly, Western organic restaurant Green Mix, which serves two fistfuls of wasabi cream sauced white mushrooms for 58 RMB, was listed by a local restaurant guide as one of the “dining hoaxes we all fell for” in 2015.
Look for these characters: 素
Search for this restaurant chain: LóngHuá Sù Zhāi (龙华素斋)
Expect to pay this much: 25 – 70 RMB