Before venturing north, south or west, after I first arrived in China, east was my first port of call; magical Shanghai in fact, where truly local Chinese cuisine was first impressed upon me.
The fiery flare of Sichuan woks is tantalising, for sure, and Yunnan’s south-Asian flavours are mouthwatering indeed, not to mention the hearty noodle, bread and meat dishes from the north which are certainly more than gratifying. For me, however, Shanghai street food will always hold a special place in my stomach, for it was my first and will probably be my last taste of mainland cuisine.
Famously, not so long ago a sleepy fishing village, Shanghai was not known for its cuisine until its rise began in the 1800s. It was not long until the city became flooded with westerners, which is when Shanghai food took another turn. Originally known as Hu Cuisine (沪菜), it is now considered a popular style around the country. Regardless of its 400-year-old history, it is one of the youngest amongst China’s 10 major cuisines.
It is said that Shanghainese families only started eating fish daily in the 20th century and, as meat was a luxury, most days dinner consisted of rice, vegetables and beans. It has also been reported that meat was only eaten on “dang hun” days; the 2nd, 8th, 16th and 23rd of each lunar month.
Most will agree that when Hu Cuisine comes to mind, notable dishes and flavours include sweet and sour tastes, rich red sauces, soup, fried dumplings and hairy crab. Locals refer to it as “Benbang Cuisine” (本帮菜), shaped by the influences of neighbouring provinces, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and more recently, the West.
Hu cuisine is favoured by those with a sweet and sour palate and is prepared according to colour, aroma and taste. Very little, if no chilli at all, is used in Shanghai dishes and while some are positively swimming in thick, rich sauces, others are presented light, fresh and seasoned sparingly. Recently, the Shanghainese have adopted a low-sugar, low-fat method of cooking and have improved nutrition.
Often red and shiny as a result of pickling in wine, “drunken” dishes cooked with spirits reflect the somewhat playful spirit of the Shanghainese. Salted and smoked meats along with baked quail eggs all play a huge part in “hu cai”. That which is “lajiao” for Sichuan, is sugar for Shanghai, creating the majority of dishes that are quite sweet.
As Russians fleeing their country crowded into Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century, not to mention Shanghai’s large French concession area amongst other foreign enclaves, there came too the introduction of western cuisine.The Shanghainese began adopting their dishes and making adaptations of their own, such as Chinese borscht (罗宋汤), Shanghai fried pork chops (炸猪排) and potato salad (土豆沙拉).
These days, for many an expat living in China, eating in Shanghai means quality Western dining (go figure); an overlooking of the local cuisine is the inevitable result. So with that in mind, the next time you’re on the high-speed train to Shanghai for champagne brunch or steak and wine, be sure to throw into the mix some Benbang specialties.
Shanghai Hall of Fame
- Xiaolongbao (小笼包)
- Red Braised Meat Dishes (红烧肉)
- Steamed Hairy Crab (毛蟹)
- Shengjian Bao (生煎包)
- Beggar’s Chicken (叫化鸡)
- Drunken Chicken (醉鸡)
- Kou San Si (扣三丝)
- Yan Du Xian (腌笃鲜)