Fast and technologically forward, these are the two words that come to our mind the moment we hear about Shanghai. As the largest and second most populated city of China, Shanghai boasts a blended culture of East and West, much due to its colonial history. When it comes to food, a unique blend of Benbang and Haipai cuisines can be seen in the traditional Hu Cuisine, which still remains an underdog when it comes to China’s major cuisines. Youngest in the list but favoured by many, the Shanghainese are known to have a sweet tooth, as sugar and soy are used in the ratio of 1:1 in signature Shanghai dishes, making it distinctive from China’s other regional dishes. Here’s what we are talking about:
Xiao Long Bao
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A classic Hu dish, Xiao Long Bao are soup dumplings and probably one of the first dishes you should try while visiting Shanghai. The dumplings - served in small bamboo baskets they’re steamed in, have delicate skins encasing pork-based filling and delicious meat broth. While steaming, the gelatinised meat broth chunks melt, making it into a soup which gives an explosion of rich, steaming, hot juice oozing right into your mouth. Careful, as these pillowy delights are presented piping hot so give each dumpling some soy sauce and vinegar baths before chewing them right away. Due to its thin skin, the main objective is to eat it without rupturing it. So here’s a little trick for the newbies, use a Chinese soup spoon. Or even better, just use your hand if you can’t resist this tender and juicy delight for that long!
Some people say you really haven’t experienced Shanghai unless you’ve eaten a Hairy Crab. A Shanghainese delicacy, during late fall and early winter you’ll find hairy crab sold on every street corner and every restaurant. Because of Shanghai’s proximity to the Yangtze River and the East China Sea, steamed crab is one of the many seafood dishes enjoyed by locals. The famed steamed crabs are tied with ropes and strings, kept in a bamboo container with few extra ingredients such as scallions and fragrant ginger. The result is firm, yet tender and delicate meat which is slightly sweeter than regular crab meat. The dish is served with a dash of rice vinegar, sugar and ginger sauce for dipping. The laborious part, however, is picking apart the whole carb. In traditional Chinese medicine, crabmeat is considered as ‘cold’ food, so don’t hesitate to pair your meal with a flask of warming Shaoxing rice wine (obviously recommended!).
Shi zi Tou
Another of Shanghai’s most beloved dish is Shi zi Tou or Lion’s Head Meatballs. Now, the dish isn’t exactly made from a lion’s head but is fashioned from grounded pork meatballs simmered in soy sauce and sugar and braised with bok choy. The meatballs are moist and tender with a unique blend of sweet and savoury flavour. Often consumed with rice, the delicate and porky nuances of these meatballs are quite irresistible. As a matter of fact, these giant meatballs got their name from the banquet for the State Governor of Xun, where the officials called him a fierce lion and commended him for his achievements.
A uniquely cooked chicken which involves stuffed and marinated chicken that is covered with several layers of lotus leaves and finally sealing it in a parchment paper. After 6 hours of slow baking, the result is tender, juicy and aromatic chicken easily falling off its bones. There is a very interesting folktale behind Beggar’s Chicken. Legends say this uniquely cooked chicken dates back to Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), when a hungry beggar who lived in Shanghai’s neighbouring town of Changshu, stole a chicken from a local farm and hid it in the mud till the farmer went to sleep. Then without even cleaning it, he cooked it over the fire.
Hong Shao Rou
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Red-cooking—known as hong shao in Chinese—is a style prevalent throughout all of China. The colour and taste are achieved by slow-cooking proteins in soy sauce with sugar and fermented bean paste. Hong Shao Rou or Red Braised Pork Belly is a classic crowd-pleaser. Sweet and caramelised chunks of pork belly are simmered in light and dark soy sauce with a dash of brown sugar along with fresh ginger, garlic, green onion, and star anise. This dish is typically served with hard-boiled eggs and its tender meat will melt in your mouth.
This one is for spice lovers and adventurous eaters. Lade Tiao is the spiciest dish of Shanghai. This popular dish features bullfrog meat slow-cooked in five different types of chilli peppers. The dish is so hot and daunting that one time, a restaurant in Shanghai ran a promotion, offering Lade Tiao free of cost to the person who can finish it within an hour.