As a proper foodie, I couldn’t be more excited with the opportunity of immersing myself into Chinese food and culture. As soon as I heard about the food tour in Shanghai I had no doubt that I would love it. So, I decided to join them by myself on a rainy Wednesday night and explore the hidden gems of Shanghai.
When I arrived to the meeting point I instantly felt comfortable with the other guests. The tour guides, Leigh and Chang, introduced everyone to each other and were happily guiding us through all the spots on the itinerary. Their energy and history knowledge instantly earned our trust and throughout the night the guests were getting more excited and engaged. As an expat in Shanghai for already 2 years, I was surprised that I could still learn so much from them. Leigh and Chang didn’t just teach us about the food and its origins, but also about Shanghai's roots and development. Let me share with you what I learned and, most importantly, what I ate!
Brief History of Shanghai
Shanghai, the ‘’City on the Sea’’, started as a small fishing and agricultural village. Its development started during the Qing dynasty, becoming China’s main trading port. By that time, Shanghai was controlled by British, French and Americans which lead to a strong western influence and mix of cultures. The city was also the center for international trade of opium smuggling - later banned by the Shanghai Municipal Council. In the 1930s and ‘40s the Japanese invaded and occupied Shanghai and at the height of World War II most foreigners had left. During that time, Shanghai also became the hub for Jewish refugees, quickly increasing their population number in the city. China continued its civil war until 1949, when the Communists declared victory and the People’s Republic of China was established. Shanghai though, was not the place it used to be, now dominated by famine, reform and suppression. In 1989 Shanghai as we know it, started to rise with the encouragement of domestic investment and tax reduction. Rapidly the urban population grew, factories and buildings were built and the economy developed.
The Food Tour
The fact that UnTourFoodTours were sharing the history of Shanghai made us have a specially connection with the places we were visiting and the food we were eating.
We started by trying some street food at Doungzhu’anbang Rd. Our first dish was the stewed pork sandwich called roujiamo, which some locals claim to be the world’s oldest sandwich (or hamburger) since this bread dates back to the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) and the meat to the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BC), so it has about 2,000 years on the Earl of Sandwich’s alleged invention. If you want something tasty, cheap and on the way you can find it in several street food shops around Shanghai.
On the same street we walked into a cantonese restaurant. All decorated with neon lights we felt we were in the middle of Hong Kong streets. This is a "Cha Canting", which is a Hong Kong diner that became popular right after WWII. We sat on a round table and several dishes were served: roasted pork, roasted duck, dry fried rice noodles with beef, pineapple bun and mango pudding.
Still with some stomach for more food, we visited a Ningbo Restaurant (Jiu Kuan). This area is known as the land of fish and rice because it's next to the sea and one of the most agriculturally abundant area. I found the food to be quite sweet, pure and light here. We tried the fried yellow croaker & seaweed, fried bamboo, stir-fried cakes and mashed fava beans. There is a lot of vinegar in these dishes which for me was ok since I love vinegar. Part of the experience we got to try some local Baiju just before the meal. I personally don’t like baiju that much but I recommend you to try at least once in your life. My favorite thing about this place was actually the ambience. It is a super local and cozy place with no western people around. Definitely coming back with some guests.
After the Ningbo Restaurant, we went for a walk of about 15min. The guides were also showing us some of the old and historical buildings in town which was super interesting. We headed to Shy Pepper Restaurant, a restaurant from Chengdu in the Sichuan region. As the name says, the food here is quite spicy since they use a lot of traditional peppers and fiery flavors. We had the opportunity to try some odd dishes such as rabbit’s head, cowpea noodles, chili wontons and brown sugar rice cakes.
After the odd rabbit’s head experience, we went to some more well-known Chinese dishes place: the Fu Chun Xiao Long restaurant. It is one of the few places where you can eat Shanghai style xiaolongbao (thicker wrapper, sweeter soup, fatter meatball) without paying through the nose. We got to try soup dumplings, celtuce and rice ball soup. These warm dishes were the perfect ending to the evening.
UnTourFoodTours have been scouring China’s hidden food scene for decades, and leading guests to the city’s hidden gems since 2010. They take pride in the restaurant, food and city history knowledge. Their guides go through a rigorous training process and are active in the F&B industry – from food writers to industry professionals, their bilingual guides get rave reviews. Find their tours at https://untourfoodtours.com or https://www.247tickets.com.
About the author: Ana is a portuguese foodie and nutritionist based in Shanghai. Her fascination for food and travel encouraged her to have her own blog where she shares her experiences around the world and inspires people to do the same. You can read more at www.terrafoodtravel.com