I apologise to my Jewish, Muslim, vegetarian and vegan friends. This post contains a lot of pork.
They say when in Rome...and if I am going to do as the Chinese do, that means eating pork. A lot of pork! In China, if you don't know what the meat is - it is most likely pork. This is my first big trip as a non-vegetarian, and it was very strange to be able to eat street food without having to find out how to say 'is that vegetarian,' or some other variation of the phrase before departing. Although if you are planning a trip to China and would like the know, the word for vegetarian is 'chizhai' (pronounced chinzhai). And I think it looks like this: 素. On all my other big trips, I've always tried to maintain my pescatarian eating status, and it's meant lots of questions and gestures, and heaps of missed opportunities to eat whatever I see that looks delicious. I'm a big fan of eating street food - it's the way the locals eat, and if it's disappearing off the grill, hot plate, soup stand or noodle rack faster than they can make it, you can guess that it's probably pretty fresh.
I went to Shanghai for 3 days as a stopover on my way to Sevilla - bugger flying from New Zealand to Europe for 36 hours straight. And if in search for inspiration, where better than one of the oldest cuisines on the planet!
Before leaving, I did a bit of research about the 'must-eat' foods of Shanghai. The most famous food I read about is xiaolongbao ( 小笼包 ) or soup dumplings. These are popular across China and Taiwan, but apparently the best ones are to be found in Shanghai. They are served almost everywhere, and you can find them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were so many things I wanted to try that I created a list on my ipod that I could carry around. The problem with this was that my list was in English, with some Mandarin words, but in Latin characters. To actually find these foods, I either needed to know what I was looking for, or be able to recognise the Chinese characters.
No matter, food can be a universal language, and if you can't communicate with words, you can always point, gesture, mime a chicken, jump up and down; and when all that fails, get out your device and look it up on the internet. I went in search of food within the first hour of arriving in Shanghai. The hostel I booked appeared to be on a pretty happening food street. My new hostel friend, Ben, and I wandered around the block looking for something good, which means busy when you can't read any of the signs. As we wandered past a place that had a queue out the door and every table full, a woman said to us 'oh, I think you should definitely try this, I think they're the best in all of Shanghai.' Not one to disregard advice, we got in queue. It turned out to be Sheng Jian Bao, which are pan fried pork dumplings. For 8rmb (about $2nzd), we ate our bao, and as we sat at the table, four local women hovered over us, waiting for us to vacate the table so they could sit down! Clearly I don't eat fast enough for the Chinese.
I found vegetarian baozi on Huanghe Road, filled with Chinese greens and little bits of tofu. Baozi are almost always meat filled, so I was super excited when I was told they were chizhai. Huanghe Road was my favourite food street in Shanghai. Between snacks and proper meals, I ate there 3 times. On the second night, Ben and I ate at a restaurant which had a menu that was pages and pages long. This would usually put me off, but they had so many things that were on my list, and they had wonderful Chinese-English translations! We ordered a mushroom noodle dish, crab & tofu casserole, and sliced chicken in chilli oil. All three dishes were delicious, the favourites being the chicken in chilli oil, which packed a punch, and the mushroom noodles (pictured below).
I could probably go on about each little place I enjoyed - there wasn't a meal I didn't like in Shanghai, and each ones seems to have a little story about how I found it, or the interactions I had with locals in trying to order.
On my last morning, I realised there were still about four 'must-eat' things I needed to try, as well as visit a local market, and visit one of the many museums, art galleries or monuments. My street had some amazing looking street food that I had seen the day before. Making my way up Yunnan Rd South, I found the couple making what I believe is called Jian Bing. A crispy wheat crepe, filled with egg, scallions, pickled veg, coriander, hoisin sauce, chilli and something long & crispy. It was like a Chinese breakfast burrito! Another stall had all sorts of Cong You Bing, or scallion pancakes of different types. There were also soups, tea eggs, and other breakfast foods unfamiliar to me. Armed with my multiple bags of breakfast, I made my way to the metro to visit a market.
The market that I found on the map was very much a local market. It was located under an overpass, and when I got off the metro, I was definitely in local Shanghai. I received a lot of strange looks from people I passed, especially as I wandered through the pretty little park nearby, where people were doing their morning exercise. In the market, I was greeted with a combination of waves, smiles and shy giggles. Nobody there spoke English, which means I couldn't ask what the unknown veggies were, but most were things I recognised from the local veggie market in Wellington, or my other travels. Lots of Asian greens, whole tables of tofu products, stalls with various animal parts butchering onsite, and lots of fish, shellfish, and frogs. At the front of the market, there was a stand selling baked things, and I tried a Ma Qiu, a sesame ball filled with red bean paste.
From the market, I made my way to Xintiandi. This neighbourhood is part of the old French Concession, an area well worth visiting while in Shanghai. You feel like you've left the city of 24 million people behind while wandering these pretty little streets. On this warm day, the rain decided to make a proper appearance, and caught without an umbrella,
I found the nearest food shop I could and ducked inside. With a little bit of English translation, I ordered wonton soup - made with pork of course. A fairly simple lunch, but for my very few dollars, it was tasty and filling, and gave the rain a chance to stop.
A very full Amber wandered through the French Concession, an hour or so later coming to a corner which looked incredibly familiar. Upon inspection of the queue and posted sign, I realised it was the location of A Da's little food shop. His is the most famous of the Cong You Bing (scallion pancake) places in Shanghai, which I learned about on the plane, watching Rick Stein's Shanghai food show. Joining the queue, I hoped that one little Cong You Bing would be ready for me before he shut up shop at 3 pm. There were about 15 people in front of me, but with no limits to the number you can buy, one person may stand in queue for 8, 10, 12 pancakes, and it takes a half hour to make about 20 of the things. I got lucky around 3 pm, as everyone was waiting for more than one; the locals sort of let me jump queue, pay for one, and walk away!
Stuffed full from my day of eating (luckily also walking - 15 hours worth in 3 days), I still needed to find space to fit the famous Xiaolongbao. Making my way back to Huanghe Road, I visited the highly regarded Jia Jia Tang Bao. At 7pm, they only had 2 options remaining - Pork and Crab (30RMB), or Crab only (99RMB). On a roll with the pork, I ordered Pork and Crab and sat down to await my last supper. Twelve come in a basket, and thanks to Rick Stein, I had seen the best way to eat these little dumplings without spilling soup down my front. I managed to devour 9 before my day of eating triumphed and I gave in, leaving 3 uneaten xiaolongbao in the basket.
Walking away from Huanghe Road, I felt pretty satisfied with the amount of food I managed to consume in 3 days. It would have been great to have access to a kitchen in Shanghai to be able to play with the flavours and the beautiful ingredients found here. Although there will always be more to try, I made it to some fairly iconic Shanghai food institutions, and feel there is some potential food inspiration brewing!