SINGAPORE : Shanghai may be famous for its xiao long bao, but what a shame if that’s the only must-try on your food itinerary. Part of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan vibe comes from the confluence of the different Chinese cultures in one city, which is reflected in the variety of cuisines available.
In fact, when a meal at a good Chinese restaurant - with an order of three or four dishes - rarely comes up to more than S$30, you can afford to eat fancy for all your meals.
Ready? Here’s a list of where to go.
Naturally, your first stop would be for Shanghainese cuisine. Make room in your stomach though, because Shanghainese food tends to be heavy on the palate, with sweet flavours characterising many dishes.
For authentic Shanghainese cuisine, there’s the reliable Xiao Nan Guo chain of restaurants. It’s a place where Shanghainese like to take their foreign guests, an indication of the restaurant’s standards.
There are branches all over Pudong and Puxi, just ask your hotel concierge. While multiple outlets may signal a compromise in quality elsewhere, it’s the norm rather the exception in China. After all, which business worth its salt doesn’t want to take advantage of the massive population?
When there, order the si xi kao fu, a cold dish with kao fu, a kind of wheat gluten that the Shanghainese favour in their cooking. My tour guide - an expat in Shanghai - insisted that I try this item to give me my first taste of Shanghai. The bits of kao fu were chewy and tasted like dried bean curd.
Other favourites include the rich hong shao rou, or stewed fatty pork in dark soya sauce. The waistline will suffer as a result, but the Chinese will tell you that the collagen in pork fat is good for the skin.
Then, if your stomach can take it - have a go at the fried snake or the stewed soft shell turtle.
Of course, any first timer in Shanghai should probably join the famous queue for the equally famous xiao long bao at Nanxiang Mantou Dian. It is situated at the crowded Yuyuan Bazaar, a maze of touristy shops and restaurants located next to one of China’s oldest parks, Yuyuan Garden.
But you’ll have a better time at Wu Jiang Lu, also in Puxi and just a short walk from the Nanjing Xi Lu metro station. It is a short alley dedicated to food, be it takeaway or dine in. It’s less touristy than Yuyuan and you can see and smell what’s cooking.
There, you can try the sheng jian bao (pan fried dumplings) and tang bao (a soupy bun whose juice you can suck out with a straw). They are the less famous cousins of the xiao long bao but are no less delicious.
Next is a taste of China’s spice, courtesy of Hunan cuisine. Aside from its mountains and lakes, Hunan is famous for its spicy food, using spices native to the region. But if you’re used to the hot stuff, as many Singaporeans are, then it’s literally no sweat.
A good restaurant to try is Di Shui Dong. Go to the branch at No 5 Dong Ping Lu in the picturesque French Concession area in Puxi, because it’s one of the last few places in fast-developing Shanghai where you can still get a glimpse of the old days in the district’s colonial architecture.
The restaurant is situated next to a small courtyard, so it’s nice to sit by a window, especially in spring.
Be sure to order the zi ran pai gu, or fried pork ribs with zi ran, or cumin, which cures the strong smell of meats like lamb and mutton.
When in China, do as the Chinese do - ask for plastic gloves to wear before you tear into the tender, lightly-spicy ribs.
Other dishes to try are the duo jiao yu tou, or fish head steamed with an alarming amount of red chillieses and the appetite-whetting suan la juan xin xai.
The latter is a spicy and sour cabbage that is cooked with, no surprises here, chopped chilli peppers. The bits of cabbage are lightly stir-fried, so they retain their crunch.
Spicy food is also the hallmark of Guizhou cuisine, but the dishes from this region, known for its beautiful mountains and mix of ethnic groups, is also famous for its sour flavours.
Qian Xiang Ge — one of their three branches is at 171 Pucheng Lu near Dongchang Lu in the Pudong section of the city — is a lovely place to try Guizhou cuisine. The experience begins when you’re transported up to the restaurant on the third floor via a lift with traditional Chinese doors. The mock antique Chinese rosewood furniture and the pink tablecloths give the place an old world feel, which coupled with the general din of Chinese diners, makes the whole experience rather Chinese.
Start your meal with the hong you ji si fen pi, a cold dish that proved surprisingly refreshing despite the combination of greasy bits of steamed chicken served with cold flour slices and chilli oil.
Another crowd-pleaser is the deep fried fish slices with spicy Guizhou chilli. Each slice of fish is lightly coated in batter, making it wonderfully crisp on the outside and moist and flavourful on the inside.
One other dish to try is the waxed pork — China has an impressive variety of waxed meats compared to Singapore, where lap cheong dominates — with wild vegetables in spicy sauce.
Meat lovers will feel right at home with Xinjiang cuisine, while everyone else might feel a little overwhelmed. China’s northernmost region, which is well-known for its Muslim Uyghur and Hui minorities, uses plenty of meat in its cooking — especially mutton.
There are many hole-in-the-wall Xinjiang eateries in Shanghai, which can lead to hit and miss affairs — so that’s only recommended if you have time to explore the city.
But if you’re only around for a short time and looking for a fun experience — in the form of waiters who might just break out into dance if you catch them at the right time — consider the Xinjiang restaurant at 280 Yishan Lu in Puxi, about a 15-min walk from the Xujiahui metro station.
When it comes to Xinjiang cuisine, you really can’t go wrong with ordering anything with mutton in it, Xinjiang folk are experts in cooking the meat until it’s incredibly tender and more importantly, fragrant. In particular, the roast lamb and kebabs are delicious.
Another must-order is the flat bread, a staple food of the region, which is great for sopping up gravy.
Also try the la mian, particularly good cooked with lamb and herbs, as noodles, rather than the rice that is served at every Chinese restaurant, is more common at Xinjiang tables.
For a break from all that mutton, order the da pan ji, literally “big plate chicken”, which is a heaped plate of chicken cooked with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, spices and topped off with a fiery red sauce.
MIND THE TWO C’S
Cash: While restaurants are everywhere, not every establishment accepts foreign credit cards (wai ka), so carry extra cash in your wallet.
Ciggies: Almost every restaurant — air-conditioned or not — has at least one table of diners puffing away, so look around before you get seated.