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A Taste of Old Shanghai: Classic Dishes From Chinas Paris

A Taste of Old Shanghai: Classic Dishes From Chinas Paris

Shanghai’s Culinary Heritage

Shanghai has long been renowned as a global economic powerhouse and cultural melting pot. However, Shanghai was also once known as “China’s Paris” due to its European flair and sophistication. As one of China’s most important coastal cities and international trading ports during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Shanghai absorbed diverse culinary influences from around the world. At the same time, Shanghai maintained a distinct culinary identity rooted in Chinese cuisine. Some of Shanghai’s most iconic dishes date back to this vibrant period in its history and offer a taste of the city’s rich culinary heritage.

Xiaolongbao – Shanghai’s Signature Steamed Bun

No dish symbolizes Shanghai quite like the xiaolongbao (小笼包). These delicate steamed buns are among Shanghai’s most famous culinary exports. Originally from Jiangsu province, xiaolongbao became especially popular in Shanghai due to the city’s role as a major trading hub. Their distinctive wrapping and flavor-packed filling of crab or pork broth, ground meat, and gelatin has captured global appetites. Making the perfect xiaolongbao requires skill – the wrapper should be wispy thin yet able to contain the piping hot soup without bursting. Biting into a fresh xiaolongbao and slurping up the hot broth inside is considered a hallmark Shanghai dining experience.

Dongpo Rou – Braised Pork Belly with Soy Sauce

With origins tracing back over 800 years to the Song dynasty, dongpo rou remains a timeless Shanghai classic. Also known as Dongpo pork, this dish derives its name from the great Chinese poet and culinary innovator Su Dongpo. Thin slivers of succulent pork belly are braised for hours until melt-in-your-mouth tender in a complex, savory sauce of dark soy sauce, sugar, water, star anise, and fennel seeds. The prolonged braise imbues the pork with unbelievable umami and richness. Traditionally served with steamed buns or rice, dongpo rou’s dense, sauce-infused flavors have seduced palates for centuries. Its continued popularity is a testament to Su Dongpo’s enduring legacy.

Huiguo Crab – Stir-Fried Crab in Sweet Bean Sauce

Fresh crab caught from Shanghai’s nearby waters stars in this signature stir-fry. For huiguo crab, sweet bean sauce gets caramelized with sugar into a darkly glistening glaze. Pieces of crab meat and crab roe are then stir-fried swiftly at high heat until just cooked through, coated in the sweet and savory sauce. The sauce clings lightly to the crab, accentuating its fresh taste without overpowering it. Some enjoy dipping steamed buns in any remaining sauce left on the plate. This intensely flavorful yet light dish beautifully balances Shanghai’s love of sweet and seafood flavors.

Roujiang Fan – Braised Pork Rice

With global rice consumption continuing to rise, roujian_gfan(肉酱饭) remains a perennial home-cooked favorite in Shanghai. With origins in Xinjiang province, this comforting one-bowl meal traveled east and took root in Shanghai’s culinary identity. For roujianfan, long-cooked minced pork simmers until reduced into a thick, savory sauce. This luscious meat sauce gets topped generously over warm steamed rice. Additional garnishes may include sliced cucumbers and fried shallots for freshness and crunch. The marriage of tender rice and intensely flavored pork sauce offers a nourishing simplicity. No wonder roujianfan_ remains a staple dinner and lunch option across Shanghai for its unbeatable balance of taste, nutrition and ease.

Shengjian Mantou – Fried Buns with Sauce

While dumplings and bao reign supreme in many Chinese regional cuisines, shengjian mantou holds a special place in Shanghai hearts and bellies. These tender yeast buns get deeply fried until puffed and golden. Their crisp exteriors give way to soft, airy centers. But what truly elevates shengjian mantou is its savory-sweet soy sauce and sesame based dipping sauce. Each bun gets dunked, soaking up rich flavors, before popping whole into the mouth. Shengjian mantou makes for a satisfying meal on its own or a perfect side. Their subtle sweetness and crunch hold universal appeal, demonstrating Shanghai’s unique fusion of Chinese and Western baking traditions.

Zhapusi – Stir-Fried Rice Cake Slices

While originally hailing from Shanghai’s outskirts, zhapusi has become an essential part of the modern city’s dining culture. Made from finely grated rice flakes, these delicate golden brown rice cakes hold a crispy texture yet gentle chew. For zhapusi, thinly-sliced cake pieces stir-fry swiftly over high heat until charred in spots. An irresistible sauce results from the caramelized rice cakes’ natural starches and a touch of soy sauce or oyster sauce. Many diners enjoy zhapusi as a light meal all on its own, marveling at its complexity of flavors despite humble ingredients. Increasingly popular as a shared finger food as well, zhapusi represents Shanghai ‘s inventive spirit and ability to transform staple starches into something truly delicious.

Banmian – Wheat Noodles

Perhaps no comfort food better symbolizes the ordinary yet extraordinary pleasures of Shanghai home cooking than banmian (扳面). Hailing from Jiangsu province originally, these wheat noodles soaked tender in boiling water adopt a supple, bouncy texture. More critically, banmian serves as a versatile canvas for any broths and toppings one desires. A classic preparation simply tosses the chewy noodles with a rich, crystal clear chicken broth enriched by ginger and scallions. But versions utilizing seafood , meats or bold curry and tomato sensations also abound across Shanghai. Most critical to any banmian is its ability to warm both belly and soul on a chilly day with its nourishing simplicity.

Yin Yang Fish – Braised Fish Fillets with Ginger and Spring Onion

While fresh seafood features prominently in many Shanghai dishes, yin yang fish masterfully highlights its natural sweetness. This method involves pan-braising two fillets of a mild, meaty white fish like cod or sea bass with judiciously applied aromatics. Thin half-moon slices of ginger and spring onion get layered artistically atop the fish during its gentle braise. The result resembles a yin yang symbol of balance in taste and colors. The surrounding delectably aromatic and flavor-infused braising liquid subtly enhances but does not overwhelm the main star – the tender, flaky fish fillets. For Shanghai residents historically connected to the sea as both trade lifeline and larder, yin yang fish’s restrained elegance proves a fitting tribute.

Suzhou He Cha – Jasmine Tea

No discussion of Shanghai cuisine could leave out the crucial role of tea. The city drinks more tea per capita than almost anywhere else globally. Chief among its many varieties enjoyed is Suzhou he cha, more commonly known as jasmine tea. Its delicate floral notes originate from Suzhou, a short train ride west of Shanghai. Loose leaf jasmine tea gets briefly steeped to develop peak aroma without bitterness. Sipping its warm infusion alone or with dim sum evokes Shanghai’s pastimes of leisurely afternoons spent enjoying cultural refinement. The ritual and refined enjoyment of jasmine tea personifies Shanghai ‘s reputation as China’s most sophisticated metropolis, where appreciation for delicate flavors and experiences runs as deep as the Huangpu River.



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