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Shanghai – the food (jian bing, noodles and xiao long bao and more)

So this is my final post from my visit to Shanghai.  Later this week Jen has the difficult task of posting a serious recipe (her dashed off blueberry muffin retort to the EXPO from last week is here) inspired by a trip she didn’t go on and has only experienced through my smug messages about how amazing the food was in Shanghai and I really wished she could have made it.

So to the food. Apparently the government shut down at least 50% of Shanghai’s street food vendors whilst the EXPO was on to protect the image of the city.  This is a real shame as for someone who loves food, it is the city.

Still it is there.  Well it is everywhere.  As you will probably stay in the French Concession if you ever visit Shanghai (or should as it is particularly nice and an easy entry point to the city) I thought I would give my street food suggestions from that area. You can get all of the below from Tianping Lu (or anywhere else you see a throng of hungry locals).

Jian Bing or a Chinese crepe

My first recommendation is a jian bing which is China’s version of the French crepe. You will know it when you see it as there will be a little guy with a ghetto crepe stand (probably an old oil drum) and a crowd of people round him.  Think a crepe batter with extra goodness inside.  Like the Vietnamese banh xeo there are different textures with a crunchy fried layer and then your fillings such as cheap sausage, scallions, a gloppy sweet sauce.  You will cry with joy.

Kung Pao chicken noodles

One of the best dishes I have ever eaten from a Chinese greasy spoon on Tianping Lu

The second was a bowl of noodles we had in Shanghai’s equivalent of a greasy spoon cafe.  The one we went to was at 220 Tianping Lu and I would travel a long long way to have as good again.  But you will find similar places dotted around the French concession and Shanghai.  Whilst this isn’t strictly street food it had the same type of atmosphere and immediacy (and price). What we choose was the most expensive bowl of noodles on the menu which had kung pao or gung po chicken on top and a rich broth.  It was transcendentally good. It cost 12RMB or £1.00.

La mian or stretched noodles

Roadside stretched noodles up in the Jewish quarter

The third was stretched noodles or la mian which we had multiple times.  It is not actually a traditionally Shanghainese food and derives from the poorer Muslim regions of Western China.  However, stretched noodles can now be found in most Chinese cities and are basically the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti.  The best version we had was actually up in the old Jewish quarter (which ironically now seems to be the new Muslim quarter).

To watch them prepared is quite frankly amazing. So impressive that I actually took a little video of one.  Just like good Italian pasta they retain a texture and bounce to them.

Xiao long bao or Shanghainese soup dumplings

Din Tai Fung's crab meat XLB - insane

You may have noticed that I have not yet talked about the dish that Shanghai is so famous for. Indeed the dishes I have talked about above are more generically Chinese and throw in various influences from the region and Europe. So to xiao long bao (XLB) –  the dumplings with a soup filling.

But, and here is the twist that anyone from Asia will already know, the most renouned version of XLB’s are actually from a Taiwanese chain called Din Tai Fung.  The photos of the XLB in this post are from there, where humble soup dumblings are refined into delicate beasts filled with crab or scallop meat.  That said for a rough and tumble snack nothing can beat the ones you buy on the street corner.  For the price of one Din Tai Fung dumpling you can buy eight street dumplings.

Din Tai Fung preparation area

The fancy stuff

Of course I didn’t just eat the cheap stuff.  In one week the pure size of Shanghai meant that we cycled over 200 miles to try and see as much as possible so I pretty much felt like I could eat anything and not get too fat. Out of the myriad non street food places we visited a couple of places stood out.

The bar of El Coctel in the French Concession
  • Name: El Coctel
  • Address: 2/F, 47 Yongfu Lu, Shanghai

The first of these was El Coctel in the French Concession.  As near perfect a place you will find in any city place to get drunk expensively. Discreet, stylish and tasty and highly recommended. If it is full, the Apartment just by it is a good bet as well.

Ji Shi in the French concession - tofu skin

  • Name: Ji Shi
  • Address: 41 Tianping Lu, Shanghai

Another highly recommended place is Ji Shi (also in the French concession). It is a tiny little hideaway serving some of Shanghai’s best food.  You can tell it is good because the locals are joyously holding up the menus in front of their faces to have their pictures taken with them.

More Ji Shi
  • Name: Dongbei Dong Bei Si Ji Jiao Zi Wang (not the shortest of names)
  • Address: 1791 Huaihai Zhong Road, Shanghai

Then to Dongbei which serves North Eastern Chinese cuisine. Think more dumplings, think fried stuff, think smashed chicken with spices and flavours you normally associate with Islamic cuisine (cumin, lamb etc.). Result is joy for a tenth of the price of any other country.

  • Name: XiBei Oat Noodle Village restaurant
  • Address: 1535 Dongfang Lu, near Pujian Lu, Shanghai

And finally to an Inner Mongolian restaurant which led me to realise that one of the great things about Shanghai is that like any world city you can get all the tastes in one place.

XiBei - a Chinese steamed oat pasta called mian wo wo (oat noodle nest)

Whilst we ate a lot of Shanghainese food we also took the chance to experiment with some other regions (quick tip, New Zealand food in Shanghai is worth a miss).  One of the most interesting was some Northern Chinese food at XiBei which made use of grindstone tofu and oat pasta.

XiBei - grindstone tofu

Now call me ignorant but I didn’t know that one common bit of (fake) “food history” is that Marco Polo was supposed to have introduced pasta to Italy from China having been inspired by Chinese noodles.  The reality was that it developed in both countries independently but the fake story (apparently invented by the Italian macaroni industry) is indicative of a true fact – Chinese cuisine does pasta.

Random Northern Chinese restaurant - spaghetti made out of extruded potato

And this goes beyond the Chinese spaghetti or hand pulled noodles I’ve already spoken about above.  The meal we had at XiBei Northern Chinese restaurant in Shanghai was actually quasi Italian with steamed pasta (see two pics above), oat noodles and a type of potato pasta that had presumably been pushed through a machine like Play Doh.  It was quite remarkable to realise this was a whole style of food that… well… I didn’t even know Chinese food broached.

So, that is about all I can manage on Shanghai. I’m exhausted.  It is a remarkable sprawling city that deserves hard work to get the most out of it.  I can’t wait to go back and continue to experiment.


  1. Now that you mention it – those were quite a few days! I’m going to show that guy your video – tell him he’s world renowned and I deserve a free egg on top of every plate of noodles for a year.

    Awesome headline shot by the way.

    • It was due to my special power of eating the bowl of noodles in 2 minutes as it was amazing that I had the time. That is the first place I will revisit next time.

      Man I miss Shanghai street food and hard fixie cruising.

  2. A great post that brought back memories of my own trip to Shanghai last year. I love the fact that you featured so many noodles, in particular the potato ‘spaghetti’ – how weird were they?

    I don’t want to sound churlish but I can’t believe you didn’t feature sheng jian bao. The crispy bottomed cousin of the xiao long bao is one of my favourite Shanghai street foods.

    • The spaghetti definitely looked better than it tasted. But still what variety and who knew? It just means I have to approach mainland food with a renewed vigour!

      And you are right to sound churlish. The embarassing thing is that every pic I took of the street food was pretty much uniformly out of focus. Every morning we would go and grab some xlb or sjb and I guess I was so hungry that my hands were shaken or I was mentally impaired. I felt that without a proper picture I didn’t want to post. And there will def be further trips!

      As an aside, it is interesting that one documents big meals perfectly but often forgets to document the smaller (better) cheaper meals.

  3. Really loved this post – sounds like a proper food adventure and makes me want to kick myself for never having been to China yet.

    How were those ducks(?) in your first picture being prepared?

    • Really interesting pic isn’t it. I had to have it explained to me. That is how they make roast duck or goose, seal all the orifices and then heat up the barrel and slowly cook. So simple, but brilliant. The end result is what you see in the windows of Chinatowns round the world but this is the street version!

  4. wonderful insightful post! a real food odessy! and great photography! please also do more videos – its great!

    PS I hate you! the food looks amazing!

  5. Interesting that the best XLB is from a Taiwanese train. Great, informative post. Really makes me want to go to Shanghai.

    • Gourmet Chick – A lot of the best Chinese food in the world is found in Taiwan. After the Communists won the Chinese Civil War, many top chefs fled to Taiwan and set up restaurants. And then you had those refugees, who with no other way of earning a crust, setting up food stalls. The end result is some of the best Chinese food around at both high-end joints as well as the wonderful street food in the night markets.

      Tom – on that note, you need to get yourself to Taipei for a long weekend.

    • GC – thanks for the comment! Yup – as Noodles pointed out in his recent post at lot of the better food in Asia is actually found at small to moderate sized chains like Din Tai Fung or Lei Gardens etc.. They are nothing like our “chains” and are exceptional. Din Tai Fung is one of the most renouned – esp for the XLBs.

      Noodles – Taipei and Taiwan generally is right at the top of my list. It basically reads:

      1. Beijing
      2. Taipei
      3. Malaysia

  6. Beautiful beautiful beautiful photos. crab meat XLB *YUM*. in fact everything very yum.

  7. Great fotos and post. Ee onc had those steamed pasta in a small restaurant in Pingyao in Shanxi province. Excellent they were.
    I really have to get my arse back to China one day soon.

    • I haven’t even visited Shenzhen yet and that is really close. I’ve heard really good things about the influence of all the immigrant workers on the food has wrought. Can’t wait to hit it.

  8. If you like jianbing, you should definitely come try it in Beijing/Tianjin, where they were created. The Tianjin variety is really the best stuff, sprinkled with sesame seeds and scallions. There’s nothing better you can have hot off the griddle on a cold winter’s day.

    Also, not to sound like a grump, but it bothers me that we call Chinese noodles ‘pasta’ or ‘spaghetti’ – so laden with cultural references! – when we can instead learn something about what they are through using their native names. There’s a world of difference between describing something as ‘pasta’ versus ‘pasta-like’ – one is cultural imperialism and one is an analogy. We don’t call tarte tatin upside down apple pie, or soba noodles Japanese spaghetti, do we?

    Apologies if I sound grumpy – especially as I don’t know what your Chinese level is! I know we are all here for the wonderful food.

    • My next big trip is going to be Beijing which will have to be next year now due to a busy schedule. The advantage is that I can devote a whole week to really exploring (and eating).

      I understand your point and the difficulties with cultural assumptions built into certain words. Unfortunately I speak no Chinese and even finding the names of the dishes above required much googling, showing pictures to friends over here and posts on Chowhound.com. Still worth it.

      I am curious, is there a generic Chinese name for “spaghetti” type dishes or is it acceptable to simply use the word “noodles” for all of them? Especially the extruded potato spaghetti – neither English or Italian has any word to quite explain them!

  9. Wow – this something of an epic journey around an epic city. Makes me want to go all the more. I really like the look of the fine food at Ji Shi – what was the tofu skin like? It’s something I’ve never tried. I also loved the video – I am always amazed at the skill shown by street side cooks, whether they;re pizza throwers in Napoli, omleteers in Bangkok or noodlemeisters in Shanghai. They go about it with an unfussed nonchalence that you just don’t see in the open kitchens favoured by fine dining places in the UK. Street food is SO where it’s at.

  10. What a great post! You sure did some serious eating there. So glad you went to Jishi, it’s probably one of my favourite restaurants of all time. I was actually just reminiscing about a meal I had there almost exactly this time last year when I cam across your post. And those mian wo wo look spactac. Reminds me I must get some dongbei food education asap.

    • Jishi/ Jesse really is fantastic. I really feel there is so much more to see in Shanghai and I can’t wait to revisit which I will undoubtedly do sometime soon next year. But Beijing as well.

      I always knew China was big (well you would have to be pretty stupid to not realise that) but the variety of food is astounding. The food from Dongbei restaurant (and I guess area) was pretty special though. So accessible and delicious.

  11. Hey Tom. Your photos are amazing. Loved the post. I became a liitle addicted to Jian Bing on a trip to Beijing last year. Would love to visit Shanghai though. Great post.

    • It is a pretty incredible dish and apparently there are loads of varieties (regional and according to produce). I am going to see if I can make that sticky sweet sauce as I think that is the key. That said, I would be curious to know what goes in the batter as I bet it is even more unhealthy than one realises!

  12. I don’t think there’s much “generic” terms except for very general stuff – when it comes to food, everything is so regionalized that people from different provinces or even areas will have different names for the same thing. I think the type of potato noodles you’re referring to from Xibei are called yuyu, literally “fish fish” (not 100% sure because many of your photos are blocked from within China – are you hosting on flickr?). That kind of noodle, and its name, seem to be quite unique to Shanxi/Shaanxi/Inner Mongolia. There won’t be anything like it down south, or in the east.

    Xibei is a fabulous place by the way! I always want to order the entire menu when I’m there. Let me know if you want any restaurant recommendations when you’re in Beijing 🙂

  13. Your food writing is stellar as usual, but I have to compliment you on the Cutest Photo Ever up top there. I just went out for burritos with friends, and the big-eyed baby at the next table could not take her eyes off us. Killer Mexican food AND cuteness!

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