Sample China's great culinary traditions... without leaving Shanghai

Culture, Travel | by Dan Shapiro
Posted: April 19th, 2010 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
Shanghai dumplings Take a culinary tour of China without leaving Shanghai! With Expo 2010 upon us, tourists are finalizing plans to purchase Expo tickets, book hotels in Shanghai, prep travel routes to and from the Expo site, and plan any number of other things to do in Shanghai. Many will hit a handful of hot spots elsewhere in China, but few, if any, will find the time to do this vast and diverse country justice. But when it comes to food, worry not: Here's your foodie-friendly rundown of Shanghai's restaurant scene with an emphasis on China's Great Culinary Traditions. Sure, Peruvian Pavilion chef Eduardo Vargas is rumored to be preparing the world's greatest ceviche and the Spanish Pavilion promise tapas filling enough to satisfy even the fiercest cravings, but aside from on-site Expo eateries, Shanghai is home to a vibrant dining culture, that, surprise, is dominated by Chinese cuisine... and we're not talking General's chicken, chop suey or fortune cookies either. While Shanghainese cuisine—which favors sweetness, vinegar, ginger, braising, pan-frying and plenty of oil—is the most prevalent (again, no surprise), Shanghai is home to restaurants serving a little bit of everything from China's 28-odd culinary traditions... if you know where to look. Shanghai Culinary Tour Sichuan FoodChinese cuisine is best known for its  Eight Great Culinary Traditions, the fiery cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan proving undoubtedly the most popular with diners. Several milder regional cuisines, namely Anhui, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, have waned in terms of public appeal over recent years, at least in their purer traditional forms. Their flavors and textures, however, are present in native Shanghai cuisine, which only makes sense considering that all three of the aforementioned "fish and rice" provinces are within a day's train ride of the metropolis. The remaining three—Shandong, Cantonese and Fujian—all have their followers as well. Rather than steer you towards a dead-end looking for hard-to-find su cai (苏菜, pronounced soo-tsai) from Jiangsu, or zhe cai (浙菜, pronounced jeh-cai) from Zhejiang, we present an edited take on the Great Traditions, compiling a list of excellent local restaurants and dishes that should make your Expo culinary experience delicious, memorable and easy on your wallet.

Shanghainese (hu cai, 沪菜, pronounced who-tsai)

We begin with the local cuisine, known for its sweet and savory flavors. While non-Shanghainese Chinese and expats have been known to deride Shanghai's food for its often-oily consistency and sugary sauces, such broad stereotypes are easy enough to dispel. One such dish is Xian Ji, or salty chicken (咸鸡, pronounced shyen-jee). Shanghai Expo Dining TourA popular starter, Xian Ji's been Hungry Dan. For some of the city's tastiest Xian Ji, try Yuan Yuan (201 Xingguo Lu, near Huaihai Lu. Tel: (021) 6433 9123), a popular Shanghainese chain that also serves a wide variety of local favorites. Perhaps not the cheapest restaurant around, Yuan Yuan's rather muted and elegant décor is perfect for a family meal, wooing clients during a business dinner or even a second or third date (but not a first one, trust me). Runner up: Jesse Restaurant (41 Tianping Lu, near Huaihai Lu. Tel: (021) 6282 9260); this legendary restaurant serves an equally good Xian Ji and a seriously mean Yu Tou (fish head, 鱼头, pronounced yoo-toe). The only problem is actually scoring a table. Reservations required.

Hunan (xiang cai, 湘菜, pronounced shying-tsai)

Expo 2010, Shanghai Culinary tour, di shui dong, hunan cuisineA favorite of Hunan-native Mao Zedong, xiang cai is renowned for its distinct spiciness and liberal use of cumin (ziran, 孜然, pronounced zih-rahn). While Hunan cuisine has many signature dishes, incuding kowei xia (spicy crawfish) and chou doufu (stinky tofu, served spicy, pronounced cho dough-foo), the most famous item from the region is no doubt their Ziran Paigu (孜然排骨, prounounced zih-rahn pie-goo), or cumin flavored ribs. Tasty, zesty, spicy and meaty, these ribs are the staple dish of local Hunan restaurant Di Shui Dong (56 Maoming Nan Lu, 2F, near Changle Lu. Tel: (021) 6253 2689), and on par with any you'd find at Changsha's Pozi Jie food street. Runner up: Guyi (87 Fumin Lu, near Julu Lu. Tel: (021) 6247 0758); an equally fine Hunan joint, Guyi is a little more upscale in appearance, which, given the Hunan preference for minimal décor, makes it a little less authentic atmospherically, but the food is legit.

Sichuan (chuan cai, 川菜, pronounced chwahn-tsai)

Shanghai Culinary tour, Ganbian SijidouArguably China's most famous regional cuisine, Sichuan food is also the spiciest of the bunch (though Hunan aficianados will debate this point). Similar to the Hunan school of cooking, chuan cai relies more on red chili and less on cumin. While my go-to Sichuan dish is the simple and tasty, ganbian sijidou (pronounced gahn-bee-yen sih-jee-dough), or pan-fried green beans with garlic and shrimp flakes, it's tough to pick a single favorite. One popular Sichuanese restaurant is Pin Chuan (47 Taojiang Lu, near Wulumuqi Lu. Tel: (021) 6437 9361), located in the French Concession, near Hengshan Lu. Owned by the Simply Group, Pin Chuan's certainly not the cheapest restaurant in town, but in addition to their succulent string beans, their house specialties include prawns in hot stone chili oil, baked spare ribs, and steamed pork with bread crumbs. Runner up: San Gu Bullfrog (883 Zhaojiabang Lu, near Wanping Nan Lu. Tel: (021) 6469 4611); San Gu serves one of the trendiest dishes in the city: spicy bullfrog (牛蛙). If downing chunks of bullfrog sounds less than appetizing to you, fear not. It's delicious. So popular is San Gu that there are lineups every night until late—attesting to the local love of frog.

Cantonese (yue cai, 粤菜, pronounced yoo-eh tsai)

Shanghai Culinary TourHeading south toward Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) and nearby Hong Kong, Cantonese food is often considered to be more delicate and refined than other regional cuisines, but it runs the gamut from fine dining to diner-style dishes. Although Cantonese food is associated with a heavy reliance on seafood, we recommend Cha's (30 Sinan Lu, near Huaihai Lu. Tel: (021) 6093 2062) gulao rou (pronounced goo-lao row), or sweet-and-sour fried pork. Also a staple of Shanghainese cuisine, gulao rou appeals to Western tastes, given its sweet and tangy sauce and similarity to Western Chinese food, and no places serves a tastier "gulao" than Cha's, an authentic and inviting Hong Kong-style diner in the Luwan District, near popular shopping thoroughfare Huaihai Lu. Runner up: Tsui Wah (291 Fumin Lu, Tel: (021) 6170-1282); a popular Hong Kong chain, Tsui Wah's one Shanghai location not only serves simple and inexpensive Cantonese food, but its trendy location near the popular 88 Bar and another Shanghai staple, Cantina Agave, making it a requisite late-night dining destination.

Dim Sum (dian xin, 点心, pronounced dee-yen shin)

Shanghai Culinary TourSticking with the Hong Kong-Cantonese theme, Shanghai features a number of excellent dim sum restaurants serving traditional favorites like xia jiao (steamed shrimp dumpling), xiao mai (steamed pork, mushroom and shrimp purse), chang fen (broad noodle), nuo mi ji (steamed rice cake stuffed with chicken and mushrooms) and luobo gao (fried turnip cube). Rather than try and single out just one dim sum dish, we're going to classify the entire cuisine as a "must try." There is a Western misconception that proper dim sum requires cart service, and although numerous restaurants in Hong Kong offer mobile service, Shanghai's most authentic dim sum destination, Zen (1 Hongqiao Lu, near Huashan Lu. Grand Gateway Plaza, 5F. Tel: (021) 6407 2615), does not. Regardless, Zen serves delicious dim sum for affordable prices, and the large banquet hall setting is as genuine as it comes. Runner up: Crystal Jade (6-7 South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123, Xingye Lu. Tel: (021) 6385 8752) might be more famous, but it trails Zen because of the inflated price tag. A popular Hong Kong chain, Crystal Jade offers dim sum daily, and their feng zhua (marinated chicken feet) are superb.

Dongbei (dongbei cai, 东北菜 pronounced dong-bay tsai)

Da qing hua, Shanghai Culinary Tour Expo 2010Polar opposite to the delicate sauces and skins of Cantonese cuisine and steamed dim sum are the hearty flavors of Dongbei ("northeastern" food). While dongbei dalapi (kale noodles topped with pork and peanut sauce) and di san xian (sautéed and pan-fried potatoes, peppers and eggplant) are delicious staples of northeastern fare, the standout Dongbei dish is binghua jianjiao (pronounced bing-hwah j-yen j-yao), or ice-fried dumplings. Available with pork, vegetable and seafood fillings, binghua jianjiao are unique to the Dongbei region and the hands-down best place to eat them in Shanghai is Da Qing Hua (198 Dapu Lu, near Xietu Lu. Tel: (021) 6302 1111), a quaint and authentic restaurant in Shanghai's Luwan District. Easy on the wallet, Da Qing Hua has a huge menu of Dongbei favorites and is almost exclusively populated by locals, making for a nice break from the gentrified vibe of many popular restaurants in Shanghai. Runner up: Dongbei Ren (46 Panyu Lu, near Changning Lu. Tel: (021) 5230 2230); a popular chain around town, Dongbei Ren offers a similar menu to Da Qing Hua and favorably priced Harbin beer.

Yunnan (滇菜, diancai, pronounced dee-yen tsai)

Shanghai Culinary Tour, Yunnan Cuisine, Legend TasteAlthough not considered one of China's Eight Great Cuisines, Yunnan food is too tasty and popular to ignore. Featuring hints Southeast Asian flavors, it is famous in China for staples including barbeque chicken wings, goat cheese and pineapple rice. In today's Shanghai, Yunnan cuisine has also been reinterpreted by several local fine-dining chefs. Local joint Legend Taste (1025 Kangding Lu, near Wuning Nan Lu. Tel: (021) 5228 9961) lies somewhere between casual and formal, with a menu that not only offers Yunnan classics, but also features several designer items, including their chef's creation, Hani changxiang ji (succulent chicken chunks topped with a special Hanei regional sauce). Runner up: Southern Barbarian (56 Maoming Lu, near Changle Lu. Tel: (021) 5157 5510); an extremely well-known expat hangout, Southern Barbarian focuses more on the basic side of Yunnan cuisine, but serves a delicious goat cheese, and sports one of the best beer selections in the city, with an emphasis on Belgian brew.

Taiwan (Taiwan cai, 台湾菜 pronounced tie-wahn tsai)

Shanghai culinary tour, taishi lurou, Taiwanese foodTaiwan, the Republic of China, Chinese Tapei... whatever you call it, the food is killer. While Taiwan is well known for its vast street food and elaborate night market culture, the island nation also prepares more refined flavors in its kitchens. Taishi lurou, or Taiwanese stewed pork, is a prime example. Simple, delicious and rich in flavor, taishi lurou goes perfectly over white rice and is one of the many late-night specialties at Charmant (1414 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Fuxing Lu. Tel: (021) 6431 8107), Shanghai's best Taiwanese restaurant. Runner up: _______; as seen in the 2009 blockbuster 建国大业 (The Founding of a Republic), the K.M.T. packed it all up really quickly in 1949, taking with them their culinary delights, making top quality Taiwanese food a little tough to come by. In sum, whether you're in search of traditional fare or contemporary Chinese cuisine, Shanghai offers anything and everything a foodie tourist could possibly desire. Check back soon for more on our Shanghai-bound culinary tour of China's great cuisines...and please, let us know what you think, whether you have your own favorites or are on your way to Expo and have a specific question about a regional dish or style. Taishi lurou photo courtesy of ulteriorepicure
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