Shanghai Food – a tour
When travelling, sampling some of the local cuisine is a must – especially for a foodie like me. Problem is, researching out what to try or where to go can be time-consuming, and actually finding the places can be troublesome. Most small shops don’t have websites or entries on Urbanspoon or Tripadvisor.
Prior to Shanghai World Expo in 2010, the Chinese government made a significant effort to ‘clean up’ the city. While this has had mostly positive consequences for visitors, such as cleaner streets and more subway lines, unfortunately it has also resulted in a crackdown on street food vendors. While plenty of them still exist, they seem to be rather hard to find.
I decided to take the lazy option and book a food tour. UnTour Shanghai runs a different culinary tour each day of the week, each with a different theme. I must admit I was tempted by the dumpling tour, but I ended up choosing the breakfast food tour, which cost USD$65.
We started by hitting some of the street food stalls.
The first thing we tried was dan bing. It was large, pizza sized thing that was kind of like a savoury pancake on the bottom and an omelette on top, which was fried, cut into squares and spread with a spicy sauce.
Next up was sheng jian bao, a Shanghai specialty. These juicy buns have a similar filling to the soupy xiao long bao, however instead of a delicate dumpling wrapper they are made of a leavened bread dough. They are cooked in a similar way to guo tie (pot sticker dumplings), with fried bottoms and steamed tops, resulting in a nice contrast between the crunchy, chewy base and soft domed top. These are a bit of a mess to eat but totally worth the trouble.
Next up was my new favourite: jian bing.
The stall we went to was operated by a couple who were in perfect sync. The lady spread the batter over the hotplate to create a savoury crepe, scraping off the excess batter in a swift movement which sent it flying into the neighbouring drum. The man cracked the egg one-handed into the centre of the crepe and tossed the shell in another fluid motion – it was magic to watch! The egg was then broken up and spread over the crepe.
It was then folded in half and topped with fried wonton crackers, spring onion, coriander, chilli and a sweet-savoury bean sauce before being folded over again and cut in two.
For something so unassuming it was heavenly. The crunch of the cracker, the soft eggy crepe and the umami-laden bean sauce mixed with the refreshing onion and herbs made for a winning combination.
I went back to the same stall for breakfast the next day.
Tofu ‘skin’ – unfortunately I can’t remember the Chinese name. This is not actually tofu, as such: it is soybean milk skin. As with regular cow’s milk, soy milk when heated and then allowed to cool forms a skin on the surface. This skin is removed and dried, and then re-hydrated when used in recipes. Suprisingly, it tastes like neither soy milk nor tofu; its flavour is somewhat eggy and it has a pleasant chewy texture.
Now, what would a Shanghai food tour be without the ubiquitous xiao long bao? Sometimes abbreviated as ‘XLB’, these parcels of hot, soupy goodness have been growing in popularity around the world thanks to award-winning Tawainese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung (if you’re in Sydney, check out one of the local outlets at World Square or Star Casino).
The ones we had on the tour were done a la Nanjing (another major city 300km north-west of Shanghai); in other words sacrilegious in the eyes of many Shanghainese, however for us foreigners it was interesting to observe the differences.
The skins were thinner and more translucent, and the filling had a higher soup-to-meat ratio. As you may notice in the picture they look a bit flatter than their perky Shanghainese counterparts. The filling is also ever-so-slightly sweeter.
As I always say, no review is ever complete without dessert.
Lillian bakery, a chain store originating in Macau, does top-notch authentic Portuguese egg tarts. The pastry is perfectly buttery and flaky and the just-set custard is amazingly creamy. This was the last stop on the tour, and after everyone else left I snuck back in and bought some more. Let’s just say I ate a lot of these in Shanghai…
We also got the opportunity to walk through one of the local wet markets, to see where many Shanghainese do their everyday food shopping.
This shop had an assortment of meat products, ranging from pre-fried fish to cows’ tongues and chickens’ feet.
One shop was had a freezer full of ready made dumplings. Wish there was a shop like this near my place…
Live sea snakes…
A shop selling fresh, handmade noodles; I could do with a shop like this near me as well…
There was a whole stall dedicated to different varieties of tofu. So. Much. Tofu. I mean I like tofu, but not quite this much…