French Concession, Shanghai
3 Meals in Shanghai, China
Few people in the world enjoy their food as much - or as loudly - as the Chinese. Boisterous conversations are interspersed with the smacking of lips and clashing together of glasses to yell 'Gambe!' ('Bottoms up!'). Cigarette breaks are taken in between bites. Burps, belches and the occasional spit (yes, even on a restaurant floor) are all common during, and after, a meal - they're nothing but proof of a well-fed customer.
It might seem badly mannered to anyone in the West, but for a country that brought the world feng shui, it's only normal that the Chinese would have their own philosophy regarding the enjoyment - as well as ordering - of one's food.
Apart from snacks, meals are always shared with your dining companions - with protocol dictating that they be varied in their texture, temperature and ingredients. This practice is called se xiang wei ju can - or "colour, fragrance and taste in complete harmony" - which means that fish, beef, tofu, soup, rice and vegetables will all usually make their way to your table.
Of all the cities in China, Shanghai offers perhaps the most varied - and most elegant - of dining options. Shanghainese take their food very seriously, with Sichuan, Yunnanese, Beijing, Uighur, Taiwanese and Tibetan restaurants popular choices. Beautifully architected, and often very expensively (and interestingly) decorated, the city's dining rooms are places to see and be seen - although that doesn't discredit the city's food stalls, either.
What to look out for:
Shanghai is most famous for its shengjianbao (pronounced "shang-jen-baow"), sesame seed and shallot-encrusted dumplings plump full of tender pork and scalding broth. Delicious, decadent and a dieter's nightmare, even the Shanghainese take care not to eat the so-called 'steam buns' more than once a fortnight.
Their trademark purveyor is Yang's Fry-Dumpling, a nondescript hole-in-the-wall famed for its secret recipe. Order yours from the window on the left and watch the staff on the right marinade, mix and knead the pork into the dumpling dough, fold it over and then fry it in oil, beads of sweat saturating their concentrated brows.
Shengjianbao can slip easily out of grip and splatter embarrassingly onto your plate, so lightly douse the dumpling in soy and chili sauce first, then hold one end tightly in your chopsticks whilst biting a tiny hole to slurp out its juice. A napkin bibbed around your neck will help wonders, as will not sitting at the front tables: hungry customers waiting for their own shengjianbao have nothing better to do than watch you eat yours, so if your chopstick skills still need some practice, be sure to sit in the back.
Street food lovers interested in trying out the unusual should head straight for the bazaar at Yuyuan Gardens. Here a large selection of specialties like stinky tofu (it does), thousand-year eggs (duck eggs left underground for long periods of time and turned to blackened jelly) and pig's trotter can all be found; the street market on neighbouring Danfeng Road can sometimes provide even more daring cuisine like silkworm and scorpion, though the crowds can be ferocious.
Traditionalists looking for that Shanghainese up-market experience will admire the Art Deco-inspired French Concession's Lost Heaven, a restaurant specialising in folk cuisine from Yunnan, southwest China. Spicy cod in banana leaves, fried pumpkin pancakes, wild mushroom crepes and the sumptuous Dai tribe chicken in seven spices are all delivered to your mahogany table by waitresses in tribal skirts and shimmering headdresses. Later, a kiwi cocktail in the 1930s-inspired bar downstairs, with its red lanterns, red couches and black walls, will remind you that Shanghai's past glory is still very much alive today.
- Yang's Fry Dumplings 101 Huanghe Road (Metro: People's Square)
- Lost Heaven 38 Gao You Road (Metro: Shanghai Library)
- Yuyuan Gardens Middle Fanbang Road (Metro: Yuyuan Garden)
Kate Hodal is a freelance writer and photographer currently travelling through Asia. Photographs and features of her journeys can be found at www.katehodal.com