Essential Shanghai Street Food: 14 Must-Eat Dishes

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[Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

With a population of more than 24 million, Shanghai isn't just the biggest city in China, it's also the nation's street food epicenter. In part that's thanks to the area's compelling food culture—the city sits in the Yangtze River Delta where it meets the Yellow Sea, and the often sweet, oily cuisine is especially well known for its use of freshwater fish, eels, and crustaceans, seafood, and water plants like lotus root. But mostly it's because the city is a magnificent, pulsing magnet for migrants from all over China who come to Shanghai seeking work. When they can't find the jobs they dreamed of, many start street food businesses, bringing the food culture of their home province and some of the best foods from all over China right into the heart of Shanghai.

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Those influences combine in a food lover's paradise, one in which searingly spicy aromatic bowls of Sichuan mala tang are sold alongside Nanjing's mild and sweet puffy bread jidan bing, and crispy guo tie potstickers are hawked amidst local dishes like rich, porky soup dumplings and shansi leng mian—chilled slippery wheat noodles studded with pieces of warm, meaty eel.

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Let's just say it's enough to overwhelm the senses, albeit in the best possible way. So what should you look for? I've gathered 14 of Shanghai's most popular, not-to-be-missed street foods, from traditional specialties to dishes born elsewhere in China but no less beloved by the city's locals.

Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings)

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Given how much we talk about them, xiao long bao need no real introduction here. Questions of provenance aside (Did Shanghai invent them? Or did Shanghai steal them?), they're a miracle of creation and construction—seemingly delicate, semi-transparent dumpling skins wrapped and neatly pleated around an aromatic filling of pork and a mouthful of hot savory broth.

Xiao long bao are all about the filling: ground pork seasoned with a little ginger and Shaoxing wine mixed with a gelatinized pork stock that melts on cooking, transforming into a rich, sticky soup. The addition of crab meat and crab roe from the famous Shanghai hairy crab makes for a bold but equally traditional xiao long bao in the late autumn months.

In either case, that soupy stock is the dumpling's essential element: a flavored pork aspic typically made with pork skin, chicken bones, ginger, scallions and Shaoxing wine, simmered for hours until the collagen-heavy ingredients have turned to gelatin, and then cooled until it sets. Every kitchen has its own secret recipe—my local xiao long bao joint uses cow eyeballs because they make great gelatin. Not so secret now, and surprisingly tasty.

When you eat xiao long bao, the skin or wrapper should be fine and translucent, yet strong enough to hold together when lifted out of the basket. The meat should be fresh tasting, smooth and savory. Lastly, the all-important soup should be hot, clear, and fragrant of pork. It should scald your throat a little as you swallow, because a little bit of pain and a whole lot of intense pleasure are what xiao long bao are all about. The only accompaniment needed is dark Zhejiang vinegar over angel-hair slivers of ginger, although a bowl of clear soup is often eaten alongside.

Sheng Jian Bao

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When Shanghai chefs are asked what they like to eat after a long night in the kitchen, it's not fried chicken, it's these pan-fried dumplings, crackling-crisp on the base and pillowy soft on top. Sheng jian bao are literally dumplings (bao) born (sheng) of being shallow-fried (jian). Born of the oil, so to speak.

They share a lot in common with xiao long bao, being filled with savory pork and a big slurp of piping hot broth, but are bigger, breadier, and less refined. The dough has a little yeast, so the skins are thicker and softer and the topknot of the dumpling is tucked underneath, rather than sitting on top. How is that contrasting combination of crispy bottom and soft top achieved? Street-side, the bao are closely packed into a large, shallow griddle and ladled with oil until the bottoms are crisped and browned. Then the whole panful is doused with a bowl of water and fitted with a heavy wooden lid until the tops of the dumplings are steam-cooked. As the water evaporates, the bottom gets an extra dose of heat to seal in the crisp crust just before serving.

Shansi Leng Mian (Eel Noodles)

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Shanghai is famous for its eel dishes, and you can't get more Shanghainese than shansi leng mian, or 'eel thread cold noodles,' the street food hybrid of a restaurant classic. The dish arrives as two separate components that you can choose to mix together or savor separately. First, fine wheat noodles, a little flat rather than round, served cold so they have a firmness to the bite, with a splash of light brown vinegar on the bottom and a slick of sesame sauce on the top. Second is the eels, by way of contrast served hot, swimming in the most marvelous sweet, oily, gingery, soy braising liquid.

The flavor is complex—slivers of sweet ginger, pieces of rich, oily eel, shreds of salted bamboo shoot and little wilted, caramelized pieces of scallion. But the real draw is that contrast of textures and temperatures, going from the firm, cold noodles and the viscous, warm eel sauce.

Ci Fan Tuan

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These sticky rice balls, literally 'rice meal balls' are deceptively simple-looking, but like a Faberge egg, the inside is where the excitement lies. Starting with a layer of fragrant sticky rice, the vendor adds all of the following: a salted duck egg, an entire you tiao (a fried breadstick about a foot long), a spoonful of finely chopped pickles, another of sweet-dried pork floss, and pork sauce or granulated white sugar as optional extras. Then, dark-matter-like, she rolls it all into something much smaller than the sum of its parts, dense and heavy.

The first bites are all sticky rice, nutty and sweet, but soon after, your teeth sink into a wonderful contrast of textures and flavors—the crispy crunch of the fried you tiao, the salty sourness of the pickles, and the sweetness of the pork floss. This is a typical Shanghai breakfast food, and the Shanghainese name for it is slightly different: cí vèh.

Cong You Bing (Scallion Pancakes)

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Locals will line up for hours in all kinds of weather to buy one of these flaky, buttery, scallion- and pork-studded fried pancakes from vendors, many of whom conduct their street food businesses from their kitchen doorways. Waiting three hours for a single perfect cong you bing is just another of the ways in which Shanghai food-lovers demonstrate their street food obsession.

To make the bing, the dough is rolled into a spiral with scallions, nubbins of fat pork and oil, then flattened and pan-fried for its distinctive flaky layers. To give the scallions a chance to caramelize and crisp, the bing are then baked for a few minutes inside a 44-gallon drum charcoal cooker to give them a really crisp, slightly smoky finish.

You Dunzi (Radish Fritters)

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Shanghai radish fritters are sensational. You could make them at home, but first you'd need to weld a small oval tin cup onto the end of a long metal handle to make the mold in which the you dunzi cook. Once you have one, though, the process is simple enough: A flour and water batter goes in first, followed by a big spoonful of shredded white radish mixed with chopped scallions, coriander and some salt, and then it's topped up with enough batter to fill the mold to the brim. Then, the whole spoon is lowered carefully into bubbling hot oil and left until the radish cake miraculously rises up from the tin, released into the oil to continue browning.

Once cooked, it has a hole poked unceremoniously in its top with the blunt end of a chopstick. Into this hole go the magic extras: chili sauce for saltiness and bite and bean paste for sweetness and depth. The whole oily, crispy, radish-sweet, batter-filled nugget then goes straight in your mouth, while you line up to buy another.

Cong You Ban Mian (Scallion Oil Noodles)

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Scallion oil noodles (cong you ban mian) are a deceptively simple street food packing a powerful punch. Fine hand-pulled noodles are rapidly blanched for a minute in boiling stock or water and then rinsed, cooling them to room temperature. Then they're dressed with scallion oil (made by frying julienned scallions until they become dark, crisp shreds), mixed with soy sauce, and topped with the fried scallions, along with some fried and dried shrimp.

As you stir the noodles, they become coated with the oil and soy, giving each strand a slippery coating of salty sauce, a bright contrast to the sweet and crisp fried scallions. For extra flavor, add black vinegar to the noodles as you eat.

This classic Shanghai street food dish is also a favorite in upmarket Shanghainese restaurants, typically served toward the end of a meal. When sharing, the waitress will bring a large bowl of cong you ban mian and toss the noodles tableside, serving everyone with individual smaller bowls.

Gui Hua Lian'ou (Lotus Root With Osmanthus Blossom Syrup)

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Admittedly the most stickly impractical of all street foods, guia hua lian'ou are big, slow to make, hard to eat...and totally worthwhile. Whole lotus roots are stuffed with sticky rice, prodded into place with the aid of a long pair of chopsticks, then cooked slowly in floral-sweet osmanthus blossom syrup until the white lotus roots caramelize, quince-like, into a deep rose-brown. Vendors sell them on the street, but eating one while walking is probably inadvisable—better to take it home and slice it, revealing the beautiful pattern of white rice and dark lotus root. The osmanthus blossoms are tiny and deeply fragrant, lending the syrup an aroma of flowers and ripe apricots.

Dou Hua

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Warm and savory, soft as a cloud, this soy milk custard is the Shanghai tofu connoisseur's breakfast. You may have previously tried a sweet version with ginger and brown sugar syrup, popular in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Dou hua (literally 'bean bloom') is made by pouring hot fresh soy milk into a dish containing a coagulant (usually gypsum, or calcium sulfate) and dissolved cornstarch. The starch gives duo hua its silken, just-set texture. After a few minutes, the tofu 'blooms,' setting in the center of the bowl in a quivering flower surrounded by yellow whey.

Dou hua is very delicate, scooped gently into a bowl with a spoon. The flavor is subtle and mild, but this is a dish you enjoy for its soft, silky texture. Choose toppings like finely trimmed scallions, la jiao chilli paste, or tiny dried white shrimp for a texture contrast.

Da Bing

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Bing is a Chinese go-to word describing any food that's flat and round. The fine wheat pancakes used to eat Peking Duck are bing; the small flaky scallion filled pastries of Shanghai are bing; and moon cakes, whether savory or sweet, are also bing. The word isn't exclusive to Chinese foods either: French crepes, pizzas, and tortillas are all types of bing.

Da bing (big bing) simply refers to a large, flat round made from wheat dough cooked on a giant round griddle, seasoned with salt, scallions, sesame seeds, or a spicy paste. It's eaten at any time of day as a snack, but in Shanghai, da bing are one of the 'Four Kings of Breakfast,' the others being deep fried dough sticks (you tiao); sticky rice balls filled with salted egg, pork, and pickles (cifan); and fresh soy milk (doujiang).

To buy da bing, simply nominate a monetary amount—one yuan (about 15 cents), two yuan, and so on—and the vendor will serve you a triangular slice sized accordingly.

Jidan Bing

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This eggy, chewy, light and puffy street food treat has migrated from Nanjing, but it's found new popularity in Shanghai and Beijing. Jidan (egg) bing is made of the same yeast dough as you tiao fried bread sticks, so as soon as it hits the oil on the griddle, the dough puffs up with big bubbles of air that are trapped as it cooks, giving it a texture like fried sourdough bread. Then an egg is cracked on top, scallions are added, and the egg yolk is broken so it works its way into the texture of the bread. Finally, the whole thing is flipped so that both sides get a crisp finish. The flavor? Like the best egg muffin with hoisin sauce you ever tasted.

Mala Tang

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Mala tang is a Sichuan import that has made its way all around China as a massively popular street food. It's a do-it-yourself bowl of spicy soup filled with noodles, tofu, fish balls, meatballs, vegetables, or whatever you decide would taste good in a bowl of volcanic broth. You choose, they cook.

Mala means numbing spiciness, the citrus-sharp tang that comes from Sichuan peppercorns. To this they add chili, and lots of it, so you end up with a dish that makes your nose stream and your eyes cry, simultaneously numbing your lips and tongue. Add just one extra la to mala and you have the word malala, which means searing pain. Get the picture about the kind of spiciness we're talking about now?

Zongzi

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Every season brings a special street food of its own to Shanghai, and mid-summer means the arrival of zongzi, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in bright green bamboo leaves. Zongzi are not native to Shanghai, but if you walk through Shanghai's streets and markets in June, you'll see enormous shallow dishes of the green pyramid-shaped pockets everywhere, because zongzi are traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival—when exiled poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) drowned, his devastated supporters threw small parcels of rice into the water to prevent the fish, serpents, and underworld dragons from taking his body. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, people continued to throw offerings of rice into the river as a tribute, and zongzi came to represent these offerings.

Making zongzi is about as easy as trying to tie a pocket of sand in a folded petal. A high degree of manual dexterity coupled with many years of practice is needed to make sure that tightly tied cone of rice—stuffed with pork, red bean or other delicacies—doesn't fall apart during the two hours of cooking time.

Guo Tie

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If there's one thing better than a pork dumpling, it's a fried pork dumpling. Guo tie (literally pot-stick) have a crispy fried base, made in much the same way as regular jiaozi cooked in water, but with a thicker and tougher skin to withstand frying. The filling is a mixture of pork seasoned with ginger, Shaoxing wine, a little garlic, sesame oil, and salt, wrapped in a circular skin and the edges crimped together to form the typical flat-bottomed double-horned shape.

Cooking happens in three continuous stages. First, a thorough pan-frying, then some steaming, and a final fry to crisp up the bottoms of the dumplings. The guo tie are placed in a broad shallow circular iron skillet over a gas flame, row upon row, around a hundred in every skillet. Depending on demand, the skillet may be filled half and half with guo tie and sheng jian bao because the cooking method for both dumplings is identical.

Guo tie are usually eaten standing on the street, using the miniature toothpick-like chopsticks favoured by street food vendors to wrangle the oily, slippery dumplings from a rectangular styrofoam tray into your mouth. The first bite sends hot oil pouring down your chin. The smooth and chewy top is a great textural contrast to the crunchy bottom, with the salty savory pork filling in between. Guo tie are rich, but you can dip them in a little dark vinegar to cut through the oil.