One of the best ways to immerse yourself in Shanghai culture is through the food (we call it a ‘ricebreaker'). You’ll make more friends here with cursory Chinese and an appetite for chicken feet than Confucius-esque Mandarin and a diet of Wagas salads.
The problem is many expats’ idea of going native boils down to McDonalds’ ice cream mooncakes and moo goo gai pan with Mickey Mouse ears at Disneyland. They fancy themselves a culinary Colonel Kurtz plumbing the depths of China’s cuisine scene; but what they’re really doing is ordering Olive Garden in Italy.
Here are the 5 eats expats order too much, and their better alternatives.
When it comes to soaking up the booze, lamb chuanr are like meat squeegees — hence why you see carts of them congregating outside expat clubs at 3am like crocs ambushing perch at a river mouth. But if anybody’s lubing up cat and rat meat in street diesel and masquerading it as mutton, it’s these guys.
You'll want to head up the uyghur carts, denoted by a Turkish-looking gentleman, and a mile-long line. These folks are excruciatingly picky about their lamb; they're not going to try and sell you a rat in sheep's clothing. It's just not halal. You can find great versions at the corner of the the Yunnan snack street and Ninghai road, or at the Friday Muslim Market, where they truck the whole animals in fresh. You can actually see the preparation process from sheep to skewer to ensure that your mutton’s not being “stepped on.”
Find it: Yunnan Nan Lu Ninghai Dong Lu 云南南路 (近宁海东路))
Never really understood the hype this place gets. It’s basically the KFC of fried dumplings with conveyor belt specimens that aren’t really better than your average grease balloon stagnating in a street wok — maybe more uniform and hotter due to higher turnover.
Da Hu Chun’s been serving the Shanghai staple (生煎馒头, shengjian mantou) since its inception into Chinese gastronomy a hundred years ago. Unlike Yang’s, it employs the “clear water” technique, browning the dumplings on the non-pleated side. As a result, they look a bit decrepit and deflated like they could use a couple presses of the basketball pump. But they taste light years better as if they compressed all the flavor from a pork belly into one meatball while the sweet skin sponges up the juice marvelously.
Find it: Da Hu Chun - 71 Yunnan Nan Lu (near Jinling Dong Lu) 云南南路71号 (近金陵东路),
The precursor to that compilation of chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers Westerners eat of a white carton at 3am after not getting laid. We’d always get mad that the Chinese had their own words for Western brand-name items (hence the blank stares when you order a “Whopper” at Burger King) until we realized Western countries anglicize the crap out of Chinese things too (lo mein etc). Unfortunately, the rift between the Chinese and English names for Kung Pao is much greater than the difference between flavors. Making a pilgrimage to China for gongbao Jiding is like traveling to Switzerland for Nestle crunch bars.
Find it: Fu Chun - 650 Yuyuan Road (near Zhenning Road) 愚园路650号 (近镇宁路)
Instead we submit la zi ji, Sichuan’s answer to Popeye’s with deep fried chicken chunks festooned with garlic, ginger and chili and peanuts. Sadistically spicy, high-octane goodness that “hits the ji spot” much better than Kung Pao ever could.
Find it: Spicy Joint - 4/F, 500 Jinling Lu (near Xizang Lu) 黄浦区金陵东路500号4楼 (近西藏中路), Tel: 6470-2777
This Huaiyang staple has become synonymous with fried rice in Shanghai. And it’s decent for a generic amalgam of wok-fired rice, shrimp, peas, roast pork, and ham — although there are quite a few variations. We’d like it a lot more if the versions here didn’t use that space food Lawson sausage that tastes like what you’d get if you filled a prophylatic with spam and ran it through a woodchipper.
Find it: Wangdonglou - 4F, 178 Daduhe Lu 大渡河路178号长风景畔广场4楼,
Go against the grains with “spring fortune fried rice,” a luscious compilation of rice, salted and fresh greens, eggs, onions, peppers, pork strips, and an unexpected ingredient: diced olive bits. The fresh eggs are scrambled quickly at high heat, rendering them fluffy and delicious, and the oil is pristine, and not so abundant that you could frack it like with most versions. This isn’t your usual greasy, one-note filler, it's a vibrant centerpiece.
Find it: Chunfu Shui Jiao - 275 Nandan Lu (near Caoxi Bei Lu) 南丹路275号 (近曹西北路),
Xihongshi chaodan is often viewed as the ultimate expat staple. It sounds about as authentic as Fu Manchu eating a fortune cookie, and it has tomatoes, that decidedly un-Chinese fruit. However, we’re not including it because of its perceived lack of Chinese-ness. Heck, tomato sauce, the lifeblood of Southern Italian cooking, didn't arrive until the 16th century. And that "all-American" pairing of Heinz ketchup wouldn't exist without the Chinese -- consider xihongshi chaodan the Paleo precursor to this dish. However, we eat this dish so much it, it borders on culinary appropriation. It's like a a robin's egg that's been handled too much by a foreign species; the mother can never accept it as her own again. And in the realm of Chinese egg dishes, you can do a lot better.
Find it: Wo Jia - Bldg 7, 229 Huashan Lu (near Yan'an Xi Lu) 华山路229弄7号 (近延安西路),
Expand your repertoire with xiefen chaodan, eggs scrambled with Shanghai's hautest condiment and splashed with rice wine. Oh, and it's only 16RMB. 'Nuff said.
Find it: Hai Jinzi - 240 Jinxian Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu (进贤路240号, 近陕西南路),
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