Shanghainese love to eat. They
may not go to restaurants every day, but they still want to eat
well. Even with ordinary ingredients like turnips and garden greens
they will carefully prepare dishes that demonstrate a culinary enthusiasm
A full meal is often referred to as “a small bite,” while snacks
sometimes constitute an entire meal. Sometimes, small bites can
add up to a huge meal
Typical Shanghai snacks include noodles in a clear broth with chives,
fried dumplings with meat stuffing, and steamed buns filled with
shrimp, all of which can become complicated to make. Restaurants
become famous for a snack specialty, which must be prepared with
no less care than formal dishes.
As for mainstream (“official”) Shanghai cuisine, there are two schools:
traditional local dishes and so-called Haipai dishes. The latter
developed from absorbing essences of other provinces into traditional
Local cuisine is based on the daily catch south of the Changjiang
River: local varieties of fish, shrimps and vegetables. Usual preparation
methods include stewing in soy sauce, steaming, stir-frying, simmering,
deep-frying and “pickling” in liquor. Consequently, there are diverse
tastes, both heavy and light, all with a typically Shanghainese
dash of sweetness.
Popular dishes cater to local tastes and strictly speaking do not
rank among the best-known types of Chinese cuisine. The official
“Grand Four” categories of Chinese cooking are from the regions
Sichuan, Shandong, Canton and Hangzhou. Shanghai is considered only
a “subcategory” of the more famous Suzhou cuisine, which itself
only places in the top eight.
It was not until Shanghai became prosperous towards to end of the
19th century and the so-called “Sixteen Categories” (cuisines gathered
from various areas) arrived that “Haipai dishes” emerged, which
satisfied the discriminating palate of a metropolitan city.
The distinguishing feature of Haipai dishes is adaptation; the addition
of Shanghainese accents to traditional cuisines from other regions.
The dishes remain distinct but have Shanghai characteristics added
These revisions are refined in taste and artistic in presentation.
Since they require lots of time and energy to make, they are most
often served in top-quality restaurants with prices to match. And
since dining in Shanghai is a well-rounded pleasure, tasteful décor
always accompanies tasty food.
Shanghai is also quick to follow new trends in eating: food streets
were popular for several years. Then Hangzhou cuisine became fashionable,
later replaced by “New Shanghai cuisine.” Most recently, sumptuous
designer restaurants are in with white-collar workers. In Shanghai,
people seek novelty in their dining.
But in the end, whether they belong to the thrifty, cost-conscious
class of diners or to the wealthier group who follow fashion and
frequent the new and expensive restaurants in renovated, historic
villas, Shanghai gourmets put food above everything else. No matter
what they eat and how they eat, dining insiders will never compromise
on their taste.