Just like New York and London, Shanghai is a veritable melting pot when it comes to eating out. You can easily find every major Chinese regional cuisine here (traditionally, there are 8) and subset thereof, from Shanghainese and Sichuan to Cantonese and Mongolian hotpot, which means you can eat “Chinese” every night of the week and never get bored. And just when you've OD'ed on soy and sesame, Shanghai has every other type of food on offer too, from casual Italian and Michelin-starred French to Indian curries and molecular gastronomy.
But when in China, you should enjoy the local fare and to make things easier, click here for my Restaurant Lingo 101.
Then, below is a rundown of some of the main regional Chinese cuisines.
Shanghai cuisine tends to be sweet and oily and, its location being “on the sea”, features lots of both fresh and saltwater seafood. Typical dishes include:
Steamed pork dumplings - xiao long bao
Watch out, these little buggers are hot! How to eat: place dumpling in spoon, carefully bite the top off and suck the juices/soup out. Sprinkle with vinegar, then pop into mouth.
Shallow-fried steamed pork bun - Shengjian bao
A Shanghai breakfast speciality, the best example of which you can find on Wujiang Lu’s food street. It’s technically a baozi (bun), filled with a soupy pork filling, steamed and shallow-fried until the bottom forms a hard, golden brown crust; eaten with vinegar.
Red cooked pork - hong shao rou or ti pang
Pork belly braised in a seasoned, sweet soy liquid, it’s tender, very fatty and delicious (no crackling here).
Lion’s head meatball - shi zhi tou
Oversized pork meatball braised in a rich, soy-based liquid, so-called because its cabbage-leaf wrapping resembles a lion's mane. A common variation is xiefen shi zhi tou, which mixes in crabmeat (xiefen) with the pork.
Sauteed river shrimp - shui qing xia ren
Plump shrimp sauteed in a light sauce, sprinkle with some dark vinegar before eating. A particularly good (and my favorite) variation includes Longjing tea leaves (long jing xia ren).
Drunken chicken - zui ji
Poached chicken marinated in Shaoxing wine...in fact, the first time I ever got tipsy (9 yrs old) was in Hong Kong eating this dish.
Crab meat tofu - xie fen dou fu
One of my all time favourites, this is crab meat and roe sauteed with silken tofu...really delicate, delicious flavours.
Stir-fried eel - qing chao san
Little river eels that are fried and usually coated in a sweet, dark sauce.
Scallion pancake - cong you bing
Simple fried pancakes made with flour, water, scallions and sesame oil, a perfect street snack or appetizer.
Hairy crabs - da za xie
Freshwater crabs in season from October-November, they are eaten with vinegar, Shaoxing wine and warm ginger tea.
Stinky tofu - chiu dou fu
Not for the faint-hearted, this stuff smells like sweaty gym socks but the locals love it.
Dumplings - jiao zi
Variations include shuijiao (boiled), zhengjiao (steamed) and guotie (“pan stick” or potstickers, which are shallow-fried).
Most of the Chinese food found outside of China is an adapted/bastardized version of southern China’s versatile cuisine, of which a few big highlights include delicately-flavoured seafood dishes, BBQ meats and the ever-popular dim sum. Equally, the whole range of meats, offal, noodles, soups and rice dishes feature in some of the region’s most memorable dishes, not to mention delicacies like abalone, shark’s fin soup and birds nest soup.
Most popular categories of Cantonese cuisine are:
Most popular dishes include whole fish (flat, demersal types like sole, flounder are common) steamed with ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil topped with scallions; anything with black bean sauce (clams, shrimp, squid); deep-fried salt and pepper squid or shrimp; and lobster noodles.
BBQ meats (Cantonese: siu mei)
This is Cantonese-style rotisserie cooking, and you’ll often spot these places by the mahogany-colored meats hanging in the window. A popular lunch consists simply of chopped bbq’ed meats served over rice or noodles. The main three (sam siu) are siu yuk (roast pork with crackling), char siu (red-cooked pork) and siu aap (roast duck); siu gai (roast chicken) and even the soy-braised chicken (si you gai) are commonly found there too, but the real delicacy is whole roast suckling pig (yu zyu/yue jue), often reserved for special occasions/banquets.
Dim sum/Yum cha
Just to get the semantics out of the way, “dim sum” refers to the small dishes that comprise “yum cha” (Cantonese for “drink tea”), which refers to the whole eating experience, as you typically consume vast quantities of tea while you eat. While it’s more of a breakfast/brunch meal, select dim sum are now even cropping up on dinner menus in Chinese/Pan Asian restaurants outside China.
You typically order a range of steamed and fried dishes to be shared by the table, the most popular (or at least, my favourites) being the following:
-har gau - crystal shrimp dumplings
-siu mai - pork and prawn “open-faced” dumplings topped with crab roe
-cheung fun - steamed rice rolls with roast pork, shrimp, beef or fried dough filling
-char siu bao - roast pork bun, either steamed or baked
-chiu chao fun guo - Chiuchow-style (from southern Guangdong province) dumplings which have peanuts, pork, dried shrimp, mushrooms and other seasonings in a rice wrapper
-fung tsow - steamed chicken feet
-heun guen/cheun gyun - veg or meat spring roll, often served with worcestershire sauce
-wu gok - taro croquettes filled with pork and coated in delicate, lacy batter
-lo bak go - grated turnip cake with dried shrimp and Chinese sausage, often eaten with oyster sauce
-lou mai gai - chicken-stuffed glutinous rice steamed in lotus leaf
*Vegetables - usually steamed and topped with oyster sauce
-choy sum - thick, crunchy stalk with yellow, mustard-flavoured flowers
-gai lan/kai lan - also called Chinese broccoli, large flat leaf, thick stem, small flowers
-juk - congee, a savoury rice porridge that can be plain or served with wide range of toppings, including thousand-year old eggs, pork liver, sliced fish
-siu mei - Cantonese-style BBQed meats, small plates of sliced suckling pig (yu zyu/yue jue) are usually on offer, but check the price first
-pai gwat - pork spare ribs with fermented black beans
-dan tat - egg custard tart; sadly, not as moreish as the flaky Portuguese version, this has a simple sweet shortcrust base and a bright yellow eggy custard
-doufu fa - warm silken tofu with sweet ginger syrup; look out for the large wooden barrel from which the server “slices” the tofu with a metal scoop
-tang yuan - glutinous rice dumplings often filled with sesame, red bean or peanut paste and served warm in sweet syrup
-jin deui - glutinous rice balls stuffed with red bean or lotus paste, coated in sesame seeds and deep-fried
-mong guo bo din - mango pudding, from the packet and topped with condensed milk, but very nice
This fiery cuisine originating in the southwestern province of China is known for its heavy use of chilis and the unique Sichuan peppercorn (called huajiao, or “flower pepper”, a highly fragrant peppercorn that temporarily numbs the tongue). Peanuts and preserved/pickled vegetables are also common.
Popular dishes include:
-gong bao ji ding - “Kung Pao/Po” chicken, dish consists of chicken, chilis, hua jiao and wok-fried peanuts or cashews
-mapo doufu - “pock-marked woman’s” tofu, with a spicy oily, bean-based sauce and minced beef or pork - nice image
-huiguorou - twice-cooked pork belly, which is first boiled then shallow-fried in the wok with cabbage and peppers
-laziji - chicken with chilis, chicken pieces are deep fried then tossed with copious amounts of chilis, huajiao, garlic and ginger
-bang bang ji - Bon Bon or Bang Bang Chicken, which is shredded boiled chicken topped with dressing of sesame pasta, soy, rice vinegar, chilis and sugar
-dan dan mian - dan dan noodles, noodles topped with a spicy sauce of chilis, Chinese sesame paste, preserved vegetables (ya cai), pork and scallions, similar to what you get on bang bang ji, though Americanized versions will sometimes use peanut butter
-“mala” huo guo - literally “numbing spicy” hot pot. Meal consisting of a bubbling, spicy broth (brewed with the infamous huajiao “flower pepper”) into which thin slices of meat, vegetables, really anything! are thrown in for cooking, then eaten with a dipping sauce
OTHER FAMOUS CHINESE REGIONAL DISHES
Considered one of China’s national dishes, this meal consists of roasted duck, with the prized crispy skin on the outside, and a decent layer of fat and moist meat on the inside. The duck is typically carved tableside and served with pancakes smeared with hoisin sauce and topped with freshly sliced cucumber and spring onion. In Beijing, Quanjude (est. 1864, with branches/franchises around the world, including Shanghai) and Bianyifang (the first, established in 1416) are the most famous places to try this speciality.
Note: Crispy duck is actually something that originated in the UK, and involves wok-steaming the duck to render all the fat, then dusting with a light, seasoned coating before deep-frying until dry and crispy.
Mongolian hotpot - huo guo
Considered to be the mother/father of all Chinese hotpots (not least because it’s often believed that hotpot originated in Mongolia, though it’s also likely it came from Sichuan province), again this meal consists of a huge variety of meats, veg and other ingredients cooked at the table in a basic stock broth and eaten with a range of dipping sauces.
The ethnic Muslim Uighur cuisine of this western province is known for its widespread use of mutton, especially in their grilled kebabs which is a common street food throughout China. Marinated mutton cubes are strung onto kebabs and roasted over charcoal, then seasoned with a fragrant spice mix of cumin, black pepper and chili powder, among others.
An excellent, detailed rundown with pictures of various street foods in Shanghai can be found here
What to Eat: Shanghai
Xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung
Shengjian bao, Yang's Fry Dumpling
Shui qing xia ren (sauteed river shrimp), Fu 1088
Zui ji (drunken chicken), Din Tai Fung
Crab meat (no tofu), Fu 1088
Sweet and sticky crispy fried eel, Fu 1088
Hong shao rou, Fu 1088
Cantonese-style crispy roast suckling pig, Crystal Jade
Baked BBQ pork buns, Crystal Jade
Street eat: jianbing, the omelet-crepe
More street food: steamed veggie buns (man tou)