Expats arriving in China bring varying degrees of familiarity with Chinese cuisine, from foodies eager to compare the pungent flavors of Sichuan tofu to their favourites in San Francisco to those who have merely sampled the China Buffet. Whichever end of the spectrum you’re coming from, you now have endless opportunities to try some of the world’s best and most interesting dishes from all over the country. When possible, make reservations and be aware that Chinese restaurants are far less likely than their international counterparts to accept plastic. China has a vast number of regional cuisines, which have traditionally been classified according to four styles.
Shanghai cuisine is generally sweet, light and oily. Much of its character is derived from adding ginger, sugar and sweet rice wine. Fish and shrimp are considered essential to any respectable meal. The popular Drunken Shrimp dish is simply live shrimp that are drowned in wine. Crawfish are a popular local comfort food, and are eaten with fingers. Sweet and sour ribs are an excellent option, as is the unmissable local treat Beggars’ Chicken, in which the entire bird is wrapped in lotus leaves, sealed in clay and oven-baked. Shanghai fried noodles, similar to chow mein, are everywhere, and make a great cheap, quick lunch. And, don’t overlook the classic Shanghai dumpling. Named Xiaolongbao in Chinese, these are delicious and filled with pork or shrimp and soup and served with ginger and vinegar. When you try them, ask yourself how they got the soup inside. The answser will surprise you.
Widely considered the most refined of Chinese cuisines, Cantonese dishes from southeastern China emphasise freshness and lightness, with steaming and stir-frying the preferred cooking methods. Just about anything edible is fair game, but the most popular items with expats are Cantonese dim sum – which offer almost infinite variety, including little morsels of shrimp dumpling, crisp barbequed pork and egg tarts.
Originating in the moist interior of southwestern China, Sichuan cooking generously uses chillies, peppers and garlic. Sichuan hotpot is a favorite, as are spicy chicken and peanut dishes. Migrants from southwestern China often complain that the local preference for all things sweet and salty has tarnished their food’s authenticity. Other southwestern cuisines, such as Guizhou, Hunan and Yunnan, tend to be spicy and sour.
Cuisine from northern China is typically characterised by strong flavours and hearty ingredients, a testament to the frigid climate. Pork and lamb are the most common meats, and the carbohydrate staples are noodles and breads rather than rice. The legendary Peking duck is arguably China’s most famous dish, and feasting on hotpot with friends and family is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Lao Zheng Xing
This classic restaurant has been serving up non-greasy Shanghai cuisine since 1862. The atmosphere is a bit glitzy, but the traditional rice and stew dishes are varied and reasonably priced.
556 Fuzhou Lu
No one has a bad word to say about this long-time expat favorite. 1221 serves excellent shrimp, squid, eel and duck dishes. The pan-fried sticky rice and sweet bean paste from the dim sum menu make excellent local desserts. This place is very popular, so call ahead.
1221 Yan’an Xi Lu
One of the most highly regarded and popular Shanghainese chain restaurants offers signature local dishes as well as Hong Kong-style dim sum. The atmosphere is classy, but doesn’t distract from the excellent food here. House specialties include tea- smoked duck, noodles with scallions and small shrimp.
Puxi: 3/F, Hong Kong Plaza South Tower, 283 Huaihai Zhong Lu
1121 Yan’an Zhong Lu
1/F, Huatai Building, 388 Zhaojiabang Lu
Pudong: 877 Dongfang Lu
You can’t go wrong with Yunnan classics like chicken wings, potato pancakes and the extra-spicy soups at Southern Barbarian. If you’re feeling adventurous, try some lesser-known favorites like eel and mint noodles. This venue is hugely popular with expats as a primer for a night out, which may explain the amazing selection of microbrews on tap.
Mon-Fri 11am-2pm, 5-11pm
2/F, Area E, Ju’Roshine Life Art Space, 169 Jinxian Lu, by Maoming Nan Lu
The Pudong branch of this city staple offers stunning views of the city or in front of the glass-paned kitchen, where dozens of chefs work the woks. South Beauty features both Sichuan spicy dishes as well as milder Cantonese options. Petty habits like charging for paper napkins and tea make it seem lower-end than it wants to be.
Pudong: 10/F, Super Brand Mall, 168 Lujiazui Lu
Gubei/Hongqiao: Unit B7-B8, Shanghai City Center, 100 Zunyi Lu
French Concession: Unit 1, 28 Taojiang Lu, by Hengshan Lu
Well-crafted Sichuan food in a minimalist setting makes this restaurant a smash hit with locals and expats, and the atmosphere is fun and family-friendly with menus featuring colourful pictures to help you decide what to try. Favourites include the bobo chicken, potato tower and the shuizhu niurou.
Puxi: 3/F, 1028 Huaihai Zhong Lu, K.Wah Center
Pudong: 5/F, 601 Zhangyang Lu
400 100 1717 (all locations)
Di Shui Dong
Rivaling Sichuan cuisine in spiciness is the lesser-known cooking of Hunan Province. Highly recommended are ziran paigu (cumin ribs), gan guo ji (chicken in chili pot), and the suan doujiao rouni (mashed pork with sour beans). If it’s too spicy, wash it down with cold beer. This restaurant is very popular with expats, offering cozy decor on a quaint street in the French Concession.
5 Dongping Lu, by Hengshan Lu
Yi Long Court
For a very elegant Cantonese dining experience, make a reservation at Yi Long Court in the Peninsula Hotel. Under the guidance of Peninsula Tokyo star chef Tang Chi Keung, this restaurant serves up arguably the finest Hong Kong-style Cantonese haute cuisine in the city. If possible, reserve a table facing the Pudong skyline.
The Peninsula, 2/F, 32 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, by Beijing Dong Lu
Shanghai Tang Café
Café is misleading – this spinoff of the swanky Shanghai fashion brand is super chic.
Sun-Thu 11am-12am, Fri-Sat 11am-2am
2-3/F, 333 Huangpi Nan Lu
This is an ideal place to get to know local dim sum. The dumpling skins are perfectly tender and the steamed buns come out light and fresh. The occasional lines out the door testify to its distinguished place among dim sum and noodle places. In addition, it has a gigantic menu including some familiar Western-style Chinese dishes.
Mon-Sat 11am-10:30pm, Sun 10:30am-10:30pm
2/F, No.6-7 South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123 Xingye Lu
Asian Fusion Restaurants
It’s a bit of a puzzle getting through the tricky front door (part of the fun), and there’s just as mystical an interior on all three floors, making People 6 an ideal place for an interesting and alternative dining experience. The lunch is great value and the first floor is a slick cocktail bar with an industrial flavor.
150 Yueyang Lu, by Yongjia Lu
Beijing Duck Restaurants
Although you’ll have to travel to Beijing for a truly authentic version of the legendary Peking Duck, Lao Beijing provides one of the best options in Shanghai. Peking Duck has been prepared since the imperial era, and is now considered one of China’s national foods. The dish is prized for the thin, crisp skin, and is traditionally prepared in front of the diners by the cook. Ducks bred specially for the dish are seasoned prior to being roasted in a closed or hung oven. The meat is eaten with thin pancakes, spring onions and hoisin sauce. Lao Beijing’s decor is classic with a large dining room and costumed waitresses.
1 Henan Nan Lu, by Yan’an Dong Lu
Quan Ju De
The original Beijing branch of this restaurant has been the place to get Peking Duck since 1864. The first Shanghai branch opened in 1998, and the duck is just as popular. The ambience here is old Chinese almost to the point of absurdity, complete with hostesses dressed in traditional imperial outfits. The menu has pictures and English text to explain the numerous duck options.
Puxi: 4/F, 786 Huaihai Zhong Lu
Pudong: 3/F, Purple Mountain Hotel, 778 Dongfang Lu
Shanghai Street Food
For all of Shanghai’s world-class restaurants located in the colonial edifices of the French Concession or glittery skyscrapers in Pudong, some of the city’s tastiest and most authentic food can be found in street stalls or holes in the wall. Shanghai popular street classics include congyou bing (scallion pancakes), xiaolongbao (pork-filled soup dumplings), the Muslim-influenced yangrou chuan (spicy grilled lamb skewers) and the most tempting of all, the jidan bing (egg pancake), which is a kind of Shanghai breakfast burrito where batter is poured onto a griddle to form a pancake and filled with an egg, bean paste, chili sauce, chives and mustard greens.
These snacks are available on many Shanghai street corners, but the highest concentration of notable vendors are along Huanghe Lu near People’s Park; around Yu Garden; on Yunnan Lu near People’s Square; and on Zhapu Lu, a short walk from the Bund. If you avoid the seafood, most of these street stalls are safe, though it’s best to evaluate the overall cleanliness of a stall or little restaurant on a case-by-case basis before taking the plunge.