Food truly is the heart and soul of China – no matter which part you visit, there’s a myriad of different tastes and smells to alight your senses. The best part about Shanghai, the country’s biggest city, is that, due to being such a vast metropolitan, home to people from every corner of this country, you can try pretty much any Chinese cuisine imaginable here!
Breakfast is often an on-the-go affair for many workers, and every morning you will see streets lined with pop-up stalls selling an array of breakfast goods. Personally, I have a massive sweet tooth so my standard breakfast at home would be an oversized bowl of sweet cereal, or maybe oat porridge with a big spoonful of chocolate spread or jam – whereas, in China, they don’t go in for the sweet breakfasts quite so much.
Most commonly you’ll see steamed buns of various varieties (often with pork or vegetable filling), potsticker dumplings served with vinegar or soy sauce, and jianbing (煎饼).
If you find a stall with a long queue, it’s probably jianbing – a savoury egg crepe prepared fresh to order on a large cast-iron hot plate. Filled with crispy fried wonton strips, scallions, hoisin and/or chilli sauce, sometimes the vendors have other titbits you can add in for an extra yuan or two. It is then all rolled up and handed to you piping hot. I love an early morning jianbing, but my favourite breakfast go-to are some of the only sweet things available – youtiao (油条) and zi shu bing (紫薯饼).
You can spot youtiao a mile off, as vendors often have baskets of these long, puffy fried dough sticks atop their stall, ready for purchase. They are greasy, sweet and chewy, and generally paired with a cup of hot soya milk to wash them down. Definitely not the healthiest option available but they are a great simple breakfast if you’re not feeling savoury flavours at 8:00 a.m.
Zi shu bing is only a recent discovery of mine – and by discovery, I mean that one morning I just randomly pointed at them because it looked sweet. But holy moly, I’m in love. They are like crispy, flaky pastries, with a slightly chewier, sweet, warm centre. After my first bite, I instantly messaged a friend to ask what on Earth I’d just bought so I could learn to say it for future reference!
Other street breakfasts available include congee with a variety of toppings – slightly less practical for eating on the go, shuan jiang bing (涮酱饼), a thicker crepe pancake style food which is chopped up into bite-size chunks for you, and it’s also not uncommon to see noodle restaurants open for business first thing in the morning too!
People in Shanghai work hard, so lunch tends to be a simple and fast meal. No matter your location in the city, there’s always noodle or dumpling restaurants within walking distance. These meals are quickly preparing and customarily made fresh to order – which has got to be one of my favourite things about Chinese cuisine.
A popular form of noodle restaurant is a ma la tang restaurant. Here, you take a bowl and pick your own vegetables, meats and noodle type from the stocked fridges, before handing it all over to the staff who will charge you according to the weight of the items. Then, they will pass it back to be cooked – here you can specifically ask for no spice like I always do), making it a completely customisable experience and therefore perfect if you’re a fussy eater!
Another thing you can’t miss in China are tea shops – they are everywhere! Nai cha (奶茶 milk tea) and shui guo cha（水果茶 fruit tea）is insanely popular here, and super cheap too. Many people like to grab a cup to go along with their meal or to take back to the office or home with them.
Other popular lunchtime choices include Shanghai’s famous xiao long bao (小笼包), little pockets of juicy goodness typically filled with pork or shrimp, steamed and served by the basket, or buffet style restaurants lined with every manner of food you could imagine where you can pick up whichever dishes that take your fancy.
The variety of cuisines in Shanghai stretches across the entire world. Downtown Shanghai offers literally any style of food you can think of, from British fish ’n’ chips to Canadian poutine to Spanish tapas.
However, it’s impossible to come to China and not experience huo guo (火锅) – hotpot, the king of all group dinners. There are many different varieties of hot pot, but the simplest version involves a big pot of broth on a hot plate in the center of the table, to which you add your choice of vegetables and meats. You add the ingredients according to cooking times (e.g. Denser things like potato go in first, meat goes in last because it’s generally sliced super thin, so it only takes 30 seconds to cook), and then play a fun game of trying to catch all the bits you put in whilst the broth is rolling and bubbling away.
Hotpot is such a big deal in China, every city and province has its own take on it. The brews vary from simple and plain to tomato to blow-your-face-off spicy, and the meat is generally beef, lamb or seafood. It’s considered a social dinner, and it is great fun to get a group of friends together and spend an hour or two eating hot pot and chatting – the waiters will top up the broth with extra water so you can keep going for as long as you like!
As at breakfast time, street food is also a big deal after dark. Once again, stalls will pop up out of nowhere post-dinner time, and in some cities, they even have entire streets dedicated to street food.
In these cities that are famed for night markets, it’s not unheard of to skip dinner and eat your way through these streets! You can find yang / niu rou chuan (羊/牛肉串), chunks of typically lamb or beef on skewers dusted with spice and herbs, steamed buns in every flavour under the sun, grilled seafood, fried noodles, pretty much anything!
Again, it typically varies from city to city – Towns along the East coast will generally have more seafood on offer, whereas those in the central region are famed for their spicy offerings. Further South, towards Hong Kong, the offerings are usually sweeter. As with all food related things in Shanghai – there’s just a bit of everything here!
All in all, it’s pretty much impossible to remain hungry in Shanghai – there’s something for every taste, and plenty of new things to try if you’re feeling adventurous. If you stick to local cuisine, it’s dirt cheap to fill your belly, which means you can taste everything without breaking the bank!
About the Author:
Cheshire To China is the documentation of living, working and travelling in China by British expat Liss Parkes, based in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai. After interning for two months, she fell in love with the city and the variety of travel opportunities the country has to offer and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon! You can also follow her adventures in video form through YouTube.