What’s Ben eating in Shanghai?

Posted in Food and Drink at 9:20 pm by Benjamin Ross

Over the past couple weeks I’ve written about Chinese graffiti, signs floating in the Huangpu River, escalators, and the late great Mitch Hedberg. But when it comes to a trip to the Middle Kingdom, I think we all know which topic causes all others to pale in its shadow…the food.  Whenever I am in China, I try to remain cognizant of my culinary surroundings, and take up as much of the local flavor as possible.  However, I must admit, I have now been to Shanghai 4 times, and still have only a vague idea of what Shanghai food is exactly, other than that it’s similar to the cuisines of Zhejiang and Jiangsu (bland, somewhat sugary, lots of fish and aquatic creatures) and that the baozi explode with soup when you bite into them.

One of the reasons for this is probably that the population of Shanghai, like most major population centers in the world, is composed very much of people who are not from Shanghai.  Thus you encounter a lot of food from various other regions of the country, not to mention the world, whereas the cuisine of smaller cities tends to be considerably more regionalized.  With that in mind, I wanted to give a little sampling of what has been traveling through my digestive tract over the last week and a half.  And if you’re wondering about the apparent dearth of bona fide Shanghaiese cuisine, consider the above.  I plan on heading out to Anhui next week, and should be able to get a much better sampling of the local fare.

tie ban niu rou
铁板牛肉 (tie3 ban3 niu2 rou4), a mainstay in just about any part of the Middle Kingdom.  This is definitely not a representative example.  I ate it in a restaurant which claimed to be Anhui style.  I only thing Anhui about the restaurant I could detect was the waitresses.
gan bian niu rou
Here’s another poor example of one of my favorite spicy dishes 干煸牛肉 (gan4 bian1 niu2 rou4).  Spicy beef fried up in a bunch of oil and hot peppers, a typically Sichuan dish.
hang jiao niu rou
While we’re on the topic of beef, here’s one dish I’d never previously tried called 航椒牛肉 (hang2 jiao1 niu2 rou).  The beef is cooked in what I am presuming to be oyster sauce and a lot of sugar similar to 蚝油牛肉.  As for the peppers, they’re not the typical green ones you see in most markets in China, and I’m not sure what you’d call them in English.  As a beef enthusiast, it wasn’t my favorite Sino-bovine dishes, but still a nice way to change things up from time to time.
guilin rice noodles
Ahhh…this was possibly the best (not to mention cheapest) meal I’ve had yet this trip.  I’ve never actually been to Guilin, but I’ve eaten their famous rice noodles,桂林米粉 (gui4 lin2 mi3 fen3) all over the Middle Kingdom.  This spicy snack usually consists of rice noodles (duh!), small shards of beef, leafy greens, peanuts, and a ludicrously spicy broth.  Out of curiosity I asked the waitress what was in the broth and she replied by saying “It’s a complicated mix of Chinese herbs and spies, I don’t even know what exactly is in it.”  I wasn’t sure if she really didn’t know or was afraid I was going to open up my own Guilin rice noodle shop across the street.  FYI:  There was already another one two doors down.
hot and sour soup
Here’s a picturesque (but unfortunately not as tasty) example of another one of my all-time favorite Chinese dishes, hot and sour soup (酸辣汤 suan1 la4 tang1). The secret to hot and sour soup is white pepper (the hot) and vinegar (the sour).  Apparently these guys were out of white pepper, and just dumped a heaping teaspoon of hot sauce on top.  The result was a little disappointing…yet rather photogenic, eh?
cha shao rou
One of my co-researchers is from Hong Kong, and whenever she gets sick (as we all have been all week) she craves a meal at a 茶餐厅 (cha2 can1 ting1), a typical Hong Kong style restaurant, which serves most of its meals in individual portions, rather than family style, as is most common in China.  Cha Shao Pork (叉烧肉), pictured above (coupled with another kind of pork for which the name escapes me), is one of the most typical dishes in the 茶餐厅, and usually a pretty consistent order.
gu lao rou
Reminescent of American Chinese food, gu lao rou (characters are escaping me right now), is the candy of Chinese pork dishes.  I like to think of it as lots of oil and sugar, with little bits of pork inside.  As you can expect, the crispy result is mouth-wateringly delicious.
sichuan pao cai
Due in part to the inclinations of several clients and colleagues, I had a stretch earlier this week where I ate Sichuan food on four consecutive meals.  This would be enough to repulse your average Chinese diner, and maybe even some laowai (Sichuan cuisine is generally the most Westerner embraced cuisine in China), but being somewhat of a hyper-spicy food masochist myself, I was much obliged to consume massive amounts of hot chilis and peppercorns for 2 days straight.  It all started with some pickled Sichuan vegetables (四川泡菜 si4 chuan1 pao4 cai4), one of the best ways to clear a pallet, before the onslaught of fireyness begins.
gong bao ji ding
This is Chinese kung pao chicken (宫保鸡丁gong1 bao3 ji1 ding1), served slightly different from that of Sichuan, and completely different from the kung pao chicken we grew up with in the Midwestern United States.  Kung pao chicken, when made properly, derives its taste from a variety of sweet, salty, and spicy ingredients, including vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chiles, peppercorns, salt, sugar, and MSG.  The complex, thick, flavor probably explains why it is arguably the most popular authentic Chinese dish among Westerners.
mapo tofu
Here’s another Sichuan classic, mapo tofu (ma2 po3 dou4 fu2).  One of our clients who had come out from the Bay Area, was eager to eat Chinese mapo tufu, because according to him, Californian Chinese restaurants never mix pork with any tofu dish, under the assumption that the only reason Americans would want to eat tofu was because they were vegetarians. (Maybe they just all keep kosher?)  Personally, I must say I like a little bit of pork with my tofu from time to time.  I eat this dish at least once a week.
bacon and smoked bamboo
Here’s another one of my all-time favorite dishes. 腊肉炒烟笋, or as I call it in English, “Bacon n’ Bamboo.” (I may be butchering the Chinese name of this one too)
sichuan toothpick beef
牙签牛肉 (ya2 qian1 niu2 rou4) is a spicy Sichuan dish which is almost as fun to eat as it is tasty.  Watch out for the toothpicks.
chinese dry wok Agrocybe mushrooms
Currently, my new favorite Chinese dish is 干果茶树菇 (gan1 guo3 cha2 shu4 gu3).  I’m not sure exactly how to translate it into English, other than dry wok Agrocybe mushrooms.  The stringy mushrooms are cooked along with hot peppers and peanuts, over a bed of onions, and allowed to slow cook in the dry wok.  It’s probably more of a Hunan dish than a Sichuan if you want to be technical, but most Sichuan restaurants in Shanghai serve it nonetheless.


  1. Iris China said,

    March 2, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Ok now I’m really hungry. I don’t know about the authenticity of the dishes but when we eat Chinese we inevitably have dongbei cai and fish. Tastes great and we can delude ourselves into believing that because fish is in the mix, it must be healthy. Win-win.

  2. jch China said,

    March 3, 2009 at 7:06 am

    The rice noodles don’t look at all like what I ate in Guilin. Though to be fair I was only there for a day and a half and I think at the place I ate at, the broth was optional and I opted not to get it. Otherwise, I think the Guilin ones were flat and thicker? I’m confused mainly because I had rice noodles all over Guangxi and there were different in different places.

  3. Teya China said,

    March 3, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Tang O is a shanghai dish. It is a sweet, rice stuffed lotus root. I do not think it is found in other parts of the country. You should try it.

    Hong Shao Rou is also popular. So is Kong Qing Cai.

    1221 (Yann’an Lu) is considered to be a good shanghainese joint, but it is more westernized.

    I think one of the best places in Shanghai is located on Panyu Lu between Xinhua Lu and Fahuazhen Lu across the street from the Shanghai Art Film Center. It is called Sheng something. It has light purple walls. One of my students who happens to live in the area says it is also a place her family goes to weekly.

  4. T. China said,

    March 3, 2009 at 8:01 am

    If you’re having trouble finding Shanghainese food, you’re just not looking at all. It’s all over this city – aside from the sweet, the other main flavor is VINEGAR a. 1221 is okay for Shanghainese, but I find it to be too general a Chinese restaurant – I think Jessi and Xinjishi (same restaurant, but one was founded before the change to pinyin) and Xiao Lulu are excellent and foreigner-safe Shanghaiese restaurants. The info is on dianping.com, but there’s branches of Xinjishi on taojiang near urumuqi and xintiandi, and xiao lulu is a city wide chain as well, there’s one on yan’an near shaanxi and one in plaza 66 (the mall portion).

    Also, its not cha siu rou – it’s just cha siu, the rou at the end is superfluous; the other meat is siiu yuk in Cantonese and my Mandarin is failing me at 8am.

  5. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    March 3, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    gulaorou should be 古老肉, right? Easy to remember- ancient old meat.

    And: “干果茶树菇” minor typo there? 干锅? And of course it’s Hunan. It’s simply too good to be a Sichuan dish. Mala is cheating- numb your palate so you don’t have to deal with the chilli.

  6. lei United States said,

    March 4, 2009 at 4:17 am

    it’s 咕老肉, not 古老肉.

  7. Taiwanonymous Taiwan; Republic of China (ROC) said,

    March 4, 2009 at 9:28 am

    >干煸牛肉 (gan4 bian1 niu2 rou4).

    The 干 should be first tone, otherwise you might get some funny looks. I’ve probably accidentally ordered 幹麵, when I wasn’t sure about the tones. That dish looks great.

  8. Justin United States said,

    March 4, 2009 at 11:59 am

    1) Just returned from nearly a month around Guilin (Yangshuo, to be precise) and was virtually living off Guilin Noodles…that stuff is great!

    2) Mapodofu is one of my favorite Chinese dishes, and I actually had it quite regularly while living in Japan (although I’m sure it was quite different from the “true” Chinese variety) :)

  9. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    March 5, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Ah, can comment now… lei is right about the 咕老肉. Obviously my silly little mnemonic got in the way of getting the characters right.

  10. fred China said,

    March 6, 2009 at 10:35 am

    this is making me very hungry. all kosher right?

  11. Benjamin Ross China said,

    March 6, 2009 at 11:02 am


    Interesting you mention Japanese Chinese food. While I didn’t eat much of it during two 3-day stopovers in Tokyo, I noticed it all looked pretty much like Japanese food (gotta love those little plastic food models)…except for mapo tofu which looked pretty similar to the real thing (can’t say I tried any though) and was available in EVERY Chinese restaurant. It’s around in the US, but hasn’t caught on nearly as much as say…Kung Pao Chicken, which really isn’t much like the Chinese version either.



  12. lni China said,

    April 13, 2009 at 2:02 am

    First and foremost – THANKYOU for the food guide. LNI

  13. Jet So China said,

    April 15, 2009 at 9:44 am

    “。。。the baozi explode with soup when you bite into them.”

    So you did go to no-fuss-all-frills Yang’s Stir-Fry Dumplings (小杨生煎馆) then?

  14. l tong United States said,

    June 11, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    all this food is making me hungry!

  15. KATSKY China said,

    April 1, 2010 at 2:12 am

    I went to this deli the other day with my friends while I was shopping in the Jing’an district, called City Deli I think. They were offering some buy 1 get 1 free campaign if you used the code katsky, so we tried it and we ended up liking it a LOT. the sandwiches are big and made like American sandwiches, any foreigner missing their home food would enjoy this a LOT

  16. Randy China said,

    April 1, 2010 at 2:17 am

    I love City Deli most the address is in Jing’an district in Shang Hai Authentic American food.also they were offering some buy 1 get 1 free campaign if you used the code katsky

  17. Thomas Colton China said,

    April 1, 2010 at 2:26 am

    @ Ken

    There are a few restaurants I know of in Shanghai for American cuisine however most are extremely overpriced. The only one that comes to mind meeting your specifications (close to Jing’an, delivery, clean and authentic) is a place in the Golden Eagle called “City deli”. It is a bit pricey though, between 30-60 RMB for a sandwich. I think they’re offering a BUY 1 GET 1 FREE ad that I saw online elsewhere by entering the code “KATSKY” which makes things a bit cheaper. I’m not sure if it’s still valid, but the website is http://www.citydeli.cn so you can take a look for yourself.

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