Overview of Shanghai Cuisine
Generally speaking, Chinese cuisine aims for a balance of textures, flavors, and ingredients. There is this idea that certain foods have yang or yin, i.e. warming or cooling properties. Thus, meals usually reflect a harmonious blend of vegetables, meat, spicy, and bland. We can find a great variety of regional cuisine, all characterized by different ingredients available in a particular environment as well as different cooking methods.
Contrary to what some may think, Shanghai cuisine is not one of the Eight Major Cuisines of China. Instead, it is better to describe it as a fusion of the most appealing aspects of the traditional styles. Also known as Hu Cai, Shanghai Cuisine basically refers to two styles - Benbang and Haipai Cuisine. A hundred years ago, the style we know today as Benbang cuisine appeared in Shanghai. The literal meaning local cuisine depicts the traditional family cooking style. The essential ingredients are chicken, fish, and pork and are usually accompanied by various vegetables. The abundant use of soybean sauce and oil gives the dishes their distinctive bright color and amazing homely flavor - sweet, mellow, and fresh.
The other style - Haipai Cuisine - is of cosmopolitan origin and was developed at the end of the famous Qing Dynasty. Namely, its literal meaning all-embracing cuisine describes the style in a nutshell. As the name itself suggests, the style reflects the fusion of the best techniques from the other cuisine styles of China. What is even more, Haipai cuisine accepted some aspects and foods from the western cuisine, making necessary tweaks to make it palatable to the locals. Unlike Benbang cuisine, Haipai cuisine is based mostly on crabs, shrimps, and fresh fish.
Although at the first glance different, these two styles actually have many things in common. Both of them make the best of the fresh produce like chicken and vegetables, especially fish. Signature dishes made from seasonal ingredients are another trait Benbang and Haipai cuisines share. Dishes are made using various cooking techniques such as roasting, smoking, marinating, frying, boiling, steaming, and braising. As opposed to cuisines such as Indian or Budapest cuisine which make use of many spices, Shanghai dishes are mellow, fresh, and with just a hint of spiciness.
Since recently, some characteristics of Cantonese cuisine can be felt in Shanghai cuisine. For instance, more expensive ingredients have found their place in Shanghai recipes, making dishes overall less oily and more delicate. Moreover, many people have turned to a healthy diet, so Shanghai cuisine rose in popularity due to its use of fresh produce.
What makes Shanghai cuisine stand out when compared to other regional cuisines is its abundant use of sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar and rice wine. Besides being oily, mellow, and fresh, Shanghai dishes are also sweet in taste as chefs use a lot of rock sugar. Dishes are also usually flavored by adding Shaoxing Yellow Wine, a wine made from rice.
Some of the popular Shanghai dishes include:
- Soup Dumplings (Xiao long bao) - steamed buns prepared in bamboo baskets
- Drunken dishes - these dishes are popular in Shanghai cuisine. Usually, crabs, chicken, or goose liver are soaked in rice wine.
- Beggar's Chicken - stuffed chicken, wrapped in clay and roasted.
- Yang chun-noodle dish-10 cent noodle - typical Shanghai noodle soup with greens and a hint of soy sauce
- West lake carp xi hu cuyu - a whole fish, usually grass carp, sea bass, or snapper, is poached and glazed with a sweet vinegar sauce.
- Yan du xian-pork soup - salty pork soup with bamboo shoots and tofu.
- Egg tarts for dessert - crispy dough shells filled with egg custard.
- Shanghai Cai Fan-Rice Dish - rice with greens and salty pork.
Administratively speaking, Shanghai is a province with 16 districts. Each of the districts has its own special place where the hustle and bustle go on, but the real city center is actually surrounded by Nanjing Rd to the north, Huaihai and Old City Temple to the south, and Bund to the east. Shanghai is known as a river and sea port thanks to its nice location. Namely, situated along China’s coastline, it enjoys the benefits of the Yangtze River that pours into the East China Sea. The mighty Yangtze river is the dominant geographical feature of the region and gives it the name the land of fish and rice. Together with a number of lakes rich in fish, the river makes the land fertile and perfect for rice cultivation. The mountain area, on the other hand, has good conditions for growing tea, the most famous being the oolong tea and the white tea.
In terms of the population, Shanghai is the most populous city in China. Based on the records from 2016, its population is just over 24 million. The city is dubbed the Paris of the East and the Pearl of the Orient, which only stands to prove its magnificence.
In the 1940s, the city covered the area of 636 sq km. However, the rise of the city began after 10 years when it took over 10 areas from Jiangsu Province - Chongming, Qingpu, Fengxian, Nanhui, Chuansha, Jinshan, Songjiang, Shanghai, Baoshan, and Jiading. Thus, the area under the city’s jurisdiction expanded to 5,910 sq km.
Planning your meal
Shanghai dishes are rich, sweet, velvety, and oily. The rich and magnificent Yangtze River is a natural garden with fertile soil for a range of vegetables and fruits, whose flavors mingle together to make unique flavor blends. Fish dishes braised with sugar, soy sauce, and just a touch of vinegar are a specialty of Shanghai cuisine. Shanghai people usually start their meal with cold appetizers. At parties, there is a range of these, but you can try this simple one:
Di Shi Dong Ribs - Hunan Cumin Ribs
5 cloves garlic, minced
½ tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice
½ tablespoon 5 spice powder
5 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons tomato puree
1 teaspoon ground bean sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons honey
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 star anise, ground
1 tablespoon minced sweet pineapple
2 large racks of ribs
2 cups water
Whisk together all the ingredients, except the water and ribs, spread over the ribs and leave to marinate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325F, line a roasting pan with foil and set aside.
Pour the water into the pan, set a roasting rack on top of the pan and arrange the ribs on the rack.
Roast the ribs in the preheated oven for half an hour. Flip and then roast for an hour.
As the water evaporates, add more to keep the ribs moist.
When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly and serve.
While your guests enjoy the appetizer, you can go on preparing the main dish. You won’t make a mistake whichever of these you choose. Each of these will reward your taste buds with fresh and mellow flavors that make the whole experience light and enjoyable.
Yang chun noodle dish - 10 cent noodle
Ingredients for 1 serving:
1 serving noodles
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sugar
2 cups liquid chicken stock
1 green onion, finely chopped
Pour the chicken stock into a pot and heat over medium heat.
In a small serving bowl, combine the sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and green onion and set aside.
Fill a pot with water and bring to the boil. When it begins to boil, add the noodles and cook accordingly.
Add the chicken stock to the serving bowl.
Once the noodles are cooked, transfer them to the serving bowl and serve hot.
Shanghai Fried Noodles
Ingredients for the pork and marinade:
6 ounces lean pork, sliced into thin strips
½ teaspoon light soy sauce
¾ teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
⅛ teaspoon dark soy sauce
A pinch of sugar
Ingredients for the rest of the dish:
3 tablespoons oil, divided use
1 pound noodles
8 shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 ½ teaspoons soy sauce
2 ½ teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 small bunch choy sum, rinsed and trimmed
¼ teaspoon sugar
In a bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients. Add the pork to the bowl, toss to coat and set aside for about 10 minutes to marinate.
Add a teaspoon of oil in a wok and heat on high. Add the marinated pork and fry, stirring continuously until browned.
Reduce the heat, transfer the pork to a plate and add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the wok.
Add the mushrooms and saute for about 2-3 minutes on medium.
Add the noodles to the wok breaking them with your hands.
Drizzle the soy sauces, sprinkle with the sugar and give it a good stir to coat the noodles nicely. If you want the color to be more intense, add more dark soy sauce.
Add the greens, mix well and serve hot.
You Bao Xia - Shrimp Stir-Fry
1 cup oil
1 pound medium shrimp
3 slices ginger
2 scallions, only white part
½ cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
¼ teaspoon Chinese black vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Salt, to taste
Prepare the shrimp by chopping off the top part and the legs. Devein, rinse well, drain, and pat dry.
Pour the oil in a wok, heat on high and when the oil gets smoking hot, add the shrimp and fry for about 10 seconds. Work in batches.
Transfer the fried shrimp to a metal strainer to get rid of excess fat and set aside.
Heat the oil again, return the shrimp to the wok (working in two batches again), and fry for 5-10 more seconds.
Turn off the heat and pour out the oil leaving only 1 tablespoon. Remove the shrimp from the wok.
Add the scallion whites and ginger, turn the heat to low and cook for 2 minutes or until fragrant.
Pour in the chicken broth, Shaoxing wine, vinegar and sprinkle with the sugar. Mix well, turn up the heat and allow to simmer for half a minute, stirring continuously.
Discard the ginger and scallions.
Add the fried shrimp and drizzle with the sesame oil.
Fry for 10 more seconds, stirring continuously to coat the shrimp with the sauce.
Season with salt and serve hot.
Hong Shao Rou
2 tablespoons oil
3/4 pound lean pork belly, chopped into small chunks
3 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon sugar
½ tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 cups water
Fill a pot with water and bring to the boil.
Add the pork and blanch for a few minutes, remove from the pot and set aside.
Pour the oil into a wok, add the sugar and heat on low.
Once the sugar has melted slightly, add the pork, turn up the heat to medium and continue cooking until the pork is lightly browned.
Reduce the heat to low again and mix in the soy sauces, wine, and water.
Leave to simmer covered for about 45-60 minutes or until the pork is cooked through.
Check and stir every 5-10 minutes to prevent burning. If the liquid evaporates quickly, add more water.
Once the pork is tender, check the liquid; if it is still watery, turn up the heat and cook, stirring continuously, until the sauce has thickened and become glossy.
Shanghai Cai Fan - Rice Dish
1 ¼ cups water
1 cup rice
1 tablespoon lard
¼ cup salted, cured pork, diced
½ teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon oil
½ pound bok choy, rinsed and finely chopped
Pour the water into a clay pot, add the rice and leave to soak for 45-60 minutes.
Drain, sprinkle over the pork and add the lard.
Place the pot on medium and bring to the boil.
In the meantime, heat the oil in a wok on medium. Add the ginger and saute until lightly caramelized.
Add the bok choy and saute stirring continuously until wilted and remove from the heat.
When the pot starts boiling, reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer covered for about 8 minutes.
Remove the lid, add the wilted bok choy, cover and leave to simmer for 5 more minutes.
Shanghai people love their dishes sweet, so it is a common ingredient in meat dishes as well, such as Beggar’s Chicken. Combined with ginger, garlic, and their native Shaoxing wine, it makes for a delicious dish. Check out these egg tarts - a traditional fluffy and crispy sweet, and Shanghai pancakes - fluffy crepes topped with a crunchy peanut mix.
Ingredients for the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup butter
1 dash vanilla extract
1 egg, beaten
Ingredients for the cream:
1 ½ cups water
⅔ cup white sugar
9 eggs, beaten
1 cup evaporated milk
1 dash vanilla extract
Combine the flour and confectioners’ sugar in a bowl. Add the butter and mix it in until it resembles small crumbles.
Add the vanilla and the egg and mix well to form a dough. If the dough seems dry, add more butter; if it is greasy, add more flour.
Shape the dough into balls, place one ball in each tart mold, press them to fit the mold and cover the bottom and sides (the edges should slightly fall over the mold).
Preheat the oven to 450F/230C.
In a medium-size saucepan, combine the water and white sugar and bring to the boil.
Once the sugar has dissolved, remove from the stove and leave to cool.
Use a sieve to strain the eggs, add them to the dissolved sugar along with the vanilla and evaporated milk and mix well.
Transfer the filling to the sieve, strain it and fill the tart shells.
Bake the shells in the preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown.
Once puffed and golden brown, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly and serve.
Dan Hong Gao
Ingredients for the pancakes:
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
¼ cup oil
1 cup water
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon instant yeast
Ingredients for the filling:
¼ cup sesame
½ cup roasted peanut
¼ cup granulated sugar
Sift together the sugar and flour into a bowl. Add the oil, egg, water, and milk.
Mix well until you get a smooth batter. Whisk in the yeast and leave to sit covered for half an hour.
Preheat a small pan on low, grease it and pour about 2-3 tablespoons of the batter. Rotate the pan to cover the bottom of the pan. Fry until set.
To prepare the filling:
Meanwhile, add the sesame, peanuts, and sugar to a food processor. Pulse until crushed and set aside.
Add the baking powder, mix well, cover and keep near the cooking area. When it begins to bubble, spoon it on the pancake in the frying pan and fold the pancake over. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Shanghai cuisine is proud of its beverages as well, especially its wines, beers, and teas. Shaoxing is a native red wine of the region which is both enjoyed locally and exported worldwide. It is used as an ingredient in many dishes to give them a unique taste. Another wine that has its place in Shanghai recipes is ginger wine. The wine is fermented from glutinous rice and tastes like sherry. You can drink it warm, and it is mainly used in cooking. As a matter of fact, there are many Shanghainese dishes where food is marinated in Shaoxing wine.
Other beverages that Shanghai cuisine has to offer will not only cool you down during hot summers but will also boost your health. The most popular of these refreshing drinks for beating the heat include teas such as:
roasted barley tea - the beverage is a staple not only in Shanghai but across China, Japan, and Korea. The flavor is toasty and a bit bitter and is a favorite summertime refreshment.
sour plum drink or Suan Mei Tang - this traditional drink, made from smoked Chinese plums, originated a thousand years ago. The drink is said to improve digestion, and Shanghai people enjoy its sour and sweet flavors with just a hint of smoky and salty aftertastes.
mung bean soup - this is a hearty soup that can be enjoyed either with rice or on its own. Besides flavorful tastes, it is also very nutritious.
salt soda - a sweet carbonated drink with a hint of mint and lemon.
Beer holds an important part in Shanghai cuisine. The city can offer a surprising variety of traditional beer but craft beers as well. Typically, Chinese beer is a yellow, see-through beverage, basically, a pale lager, that pairs nicely with Shanghai food. Since these dishes are mostly greasy and rich in flavors, the sweet and light note of these lagers helps with cutting down this greasy factor. So, the richness of the dishes won’t overwhelm you if you enjoy your meal with a glass of beer. Traditionally, besides barley, these beers are brewed with rye, sorghum, and rice as well.