Shanghai boasts one of China’s most distinctive cuisines – and that’s saying something. Informed in many ways by its port-status, Shanghai’s flavors lean sweeter than anywhere else in China, and seasoning is frequently delicate and subtle.
Below we’re giving you, first, our recommended plates – followed by our recommended snacks.
1. Pigeon-Egg Dumplings（鸽蛋圆子）
With the shape of a pigeon’s egg, this dumpling weighs about one tenth of a liang (5 grams). Made from glutinous rice paste seasoned with mint, osmanthus and sugar, these dumplings are eaten in the summer months. Consistency is soft and fine, and tastes subtly floral.
This delicacy is only served at Osmanthus Hall, located opposite Zigzag Bridge ad the Yu Yuan Bazaar.
2. Eyebrow-Shaped Shortcake（眉毛酥）
If it’s cut right, this cake resembles and eyebrow. Sort of. Fillings can be both sweet or salty, depending on the variant. Eyebrow-shaped shortcakes are served at the Surging Waves Pavilion Restaurant at the Yu Yuan Bazaar, and the quality has been consistent for years.
3. Pork Ribs with Fried New Years Cake（排骨年糕）
Although it seems to have been invented only about fifty years ago, the pork ribs with fried New Year cake is already a bonafide Shanghai classic. Preparation goes roughly like this: pork ribs are coated with flour, five-spice and egg, soaked in soy sauce, sugar, cooking wine, chopped spring onion and ginger, then wrapped with New Year cake strips. Finally, they’re deep fried until the surface turns golden brown.
The new Year cake is prepared from glutinous Songjiang rice, pounded and kneaded. This makes it tender, sticky, and more nutritious.
The most esteemed spots to grab your pork ribs with fried New Years cake would have to be Xiandelai and Xiaochangzhou.
4. Crab Shell Cake（蟹壳黄）
This one of a kind Shanghai dish is also a type of shortbread, baked with fermented flour, oil, sesame seeds and sweet or savory fillings depending on the occasion. Crab Shell Cake gets its name from its particular shade of brown, which resembles the shell of a crab, and not for creative gastronomic use of arthropod chitin.
You can find many fillings if you keep your eyes open: spring onion, pork, crab, shrimp, sugar, rose petal, bean paste and jujube paste. The cake is crispy with sesame notes. Along with pan-fried pork buns, these crab shell cakes are one of the most popular snacks in Shanghai bar none.
5. Leisha Dumpling（擂沙圆）
Leisha dumpling is one of the signature snacks of Shanghai’s Qiaojiashan Restaurant with a history of over 70 years. It was said that in the late Qing, an old lady surnamed Lei sold sweet dumplings with soup, and that in order to increase her sales, she tried to identify the properties of the dumplings that would keep them fresh longer- making the easier to transport. She tried coating the dumplings with glutinous rice flour, and discovered that red bean flour was the best choice. Now the dumplings are this innovator’s namesake, and you will thank her on each tasting.
These round dumplings, filled with sweetened bean paste, pork or sesame, are boiled, drained, and rolled in dry red bean flour. They can be a sort of purple-red, and generally have a refreshing red bean flavor.
6. Begonia Cake（海棠糕）
Begonia cakes are one of the snacks popular with the older generation of Shanghaiers. Bean paste is wrapped in flour dough and coated with slices of fruit preserves, sunflower seeds, and sesame and barley ginger. They’re visually striking, molded into the shape of a begonia flower, and taste very sweet. These are best served, and consumed, very hot.
7. Fried Tofu Soup（油豆腐线粉汤）
This soup is traditionally served with many other Shanghai snacks, but is a standalone in its own right when done well. Fried tofu soup uses very little salt or oil, and therefor pairs well with greasier snacks like pan-fried buns stuffed with pork. Fried tofu, bean starch noodles and minced pork wrapped in bean sheets in soup is a long-running hit with locals, and certifiably brilliant.
8. Tiaotou Cake and Mint Cake（条头糕、薄荷糕）
All over China, Shanghai’s cakes have a good rep, Tiaotou cake and mint cakes perhaps especially so. These two are double-filled cakes, and can be found in many varieties. Mint cakes are made from sick rice flour mixed with mint, the taste of which helps the locals cope with the summer heat which, if you’ve been to Shanghai, you know is no laughing matter.
The Tiaotou cake is made of rice flour mixed with bean paste, garnished with dried rose petals. It’s got a soft, lingering mouth feel and is serviceably sweet.
9. Cheese Butter Lobster（黄油焗龙虾）
This is a relatively new dish to Cantonese cuisine that also crops up in Shanghai, but there’s something to it- as attested to by its rapidly growing popularity. The flavors are creamy, fresh and ultimately mellow, and it’s basically a Western fusion dish, very popular in Japan and Southeast Asia as well as Shanghai.
10. Nanxiang Steamed Bun（南翔小笼包）
Nanxiang steamed buns have a history of over a hundred years. The skin of the bun is very delicate, and it’s stuffed with lean pork meat, pork jelly, ground sesame, bamboo shreds and shrimps. The bun itself is so carefully constructed that its skin is said to contain fourteen layers of folded bread, and the flour used for ten Nanxiang steamed buns weighs exactly .1 kilogram. Appearing vaguely translucent, it’s important to savor every bite from these savory buns.