Shanghai's cuisine, like its people and culture, is primarily a fusion of the forms of the surrounding Jiangnan region, with influences sprinkled in more recently from the farther reaches of China and elsewhere. Characterized by some as sweet and oily, the method of preparation used in Shanghai, it emphasizes freshness and balance, with particular attention to the richness that sweet and sour characteristics can often bring to dishes that are otherwise generally savory.
Shanghai local cuisine or Shanghainese food is also known as Shanghainese cuisine, and authentic Shanghai cuisine, mainly features freshness, especially the fresh fish and shrimps, bright colors, and original flavors. Boiled eel(锅烧河鳗), three yellow chicken(三黄鸡), fried shrimp (油爆河虾), Shanghai drunk crab(上海醉蟹), etc. are the typical local cuisine.
The name "Shanghai" means "above the sea," but paradoxically, the local preference for fish often tends toward the freshwater variety due to the city's location at the mouth of China's longest river. Seafood, nonetheless, retains great popularity and is often braised (fish), steamed (fish and shellfish), or stir-fried (shellfish). Watch out for any seafood that is fried, as these dishes rely far less on freshness and are often the remains of weeks' old purchases.
Shanghai's preference for meat is unquestionably pork. Pork is ubiquitous in the style of Chinese cooking, and in general, if a mention refers to something as "meat" (肉) without any modifiers, the safe assumption is that it is pork. Minced pork is used for dumpling and bun fillings, whereas strips and slices of pork are promulgated in a variety of soups and stir-fries. The old standby of Shanghainese cooking is "red-cooked [braised/stewed] pork" (红烧肉), a traditional dish throughout Southern China with the added flair of anise and sweetness provided by the chefs of Shanghai.
Chicken takes the honorable mention in the meat category, and the only way to savor chicken in the Chinese way is to eat it whole (as opposed to smaller pieces in a stir-fry). Shanghai's chickens were once organic and grass-fed, yielding smaller birds offering more tender and flavourful meat than its hormone-injected Western counterparts. Unfortunately, these hormones have found their way to China, and today most chickens are little different from what can be found elsewhere. Still, the unforgettable preparations (drunken, salt-water, plain-boiled with dipping sauce, etc.) of whole chickens chopped up and brought to the table will serve as a reminder that while the industrialization of agriculture has arrived from the West, the preservation of flavor is still an essential element of the local cooking.
Those looking for less cholesterol-laden options need not fret. Shanghai lies at the heart of a region of China that produces and consumes a disproportionately large amount of soy. Thinking tofu? There's the stinky version that when deep-fried, permeates entire blocks with its earthy, often offensive aroma. Of course, there are also tofu skins, soy milk (both sweet and savory), firm tofu, soft tofu, tofu custard (generally sweet and served from a road-side cart), dried tofu, oiled tofu and every kind of tofu imaginable with the exception of tofurkey. There's also vegetarian duck, vegetarian chicken and vegetarian goose, each of which looks and tastes nothing like the fowl after which it is named but is rather just a soy-dish where the bean curd is expected to approximate the meat's texture. Look out also for gluten-based foods at vegetarian restaurants, which unlike tofu, do not come with the phytoestrogens that have recently made soy controversial in some countries. If you are vegetarian, do be conscious that tofu in China is often regarded not as a substitute for meat (except by the vegetarian Buddhist monks) but rather as an accompaniment to it. As such, take extra care to ensure that your dish isn't served with peas and shrimp or stuffed with minced pork before you order it.
Some other Shanghainese dishes to look out for:
- xiǎo lóng bāo (小笼包, lit. buns from the little steaming cage; fig. steamed dumpling). Probably the most famous Shanghai dish: small steamed buns - often confused for dumplings - come full of tasty (and boiling!) broth inside with a dab of meat to boot. The connoisseur bites a little hole into them first, sips the broth, then dips them in dark vinegar (醋 cù ) to season the meat inside. Of special mention is Din Tai Feng, an ever-popular Taiwanese restaurant boasting its designation as one of The New York Times 10 best restaurants in the world, with a handful of locations in Puxi and one in Pudong.
- shēng jiān bāo (生煎包, lit. freshly grilled buns). Unlike steamed dumplings, these larger buns come with dough from raised flour, are pan-fried until the bottoms reach a deliciously crispy brown, and have not made their way to Chinese menus around the world (or even around China). Still popular with Shanghainese for breakfast and best accompanied by vinegar, eat these with particular care, as the broth inside will squirt out just as easily as their steamed cousins.
- Shàng hǎi máo xiè (上海毛蟹; Shanghai hairy crab). Best eaten in the winter months (Oct-Dec) and paired with Shaoxing wine to balance out your yin and yang.
- xiè fěn shī zi tóu (蟹粉狮子头; lit. crab meat pork meatballs).
For local eat outs, see below. Do not be too surprised by the low prices for the same dishes you may pay for in restaurants, these are where the local gems reside:
Yang's Dumpling, 88号 Huanghe Rd, Huangpu District. One of the best places to try the local bun specialties. Their menu is in English as well as Chinese, ironically except for the famous buns which are listed on the left of the menu in Chinese only. They're 4 for ¥6 and after ordering them you take a slip up to the counter across from the register and someone will give them to you scalding hot. All other things will be brought to your table.
南翔馒头店 著名小笼包专卖店, Yuyuan Bazaar. 南翔馒头店 著名小笼包专卖店 （Nán xiáng mántou diàn zhùmíng xiǎo lóng bāo zhuānmài diàn） is a dumpling take-out window in the Yuyuan Bazaar which apparently serves food regardless of the customer’s dietary needs (you are warned!), so if you are delicate, to avoid.
The traditional alcoholic drink of choice for the Shanghainese is Shaoxin rice wine, and this can still be found in most restaurants.
Western-style cafés and bars have also become commonplace. Prices of drinks in cafés and bars vary like they would any major metropolis. They can be cheap or be real budget-busters, with a basic coffee or beer costing ¥10-40. In a high-end hotel bar, one basic beer may cost as much as ¥80. There are internationally-known chains, like Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, as well as popular domestic and local java joints to satisfy those looking to relax. Hong Kong-style tea cafes are also common, as are Asian "pearl milk tea" or "bubble tea" bars. Some traditional tea houses can still be found, especially in the Old City.
Tsingtao, Snow and Pearl River beer are widely available. Major foreign brands are produced domestically, and smaller brands are typically imported. There is also a local brew known as REEB (beer spelled backward). A large bottle (640 ml) of any of these costs anywhere from ¥2-6.
Shanghai is filled with amazing nightlife, complete with both affordable bars and nightclubs that pulsate with city energy.
There are many magazines for expats that can be found at hotels and other expat eateries that list and review events, bars, clubs, and restaurants in Shanghai. The most popular ones are That's Shanghai, City Weekend, and Time Out. Shanghai also has an English newspaper, Shanghai Daily, and an English-medium TV channel, International Channel Shanghai or ICS; most expats find these better than the corresponding national media outlets, People's Daily and CCTV channel 9.