A Culinary Tour of Shanghai

To appreciate the cuisine is to understand the city

Issue: May 2010

Shanghai pan-fried pork buns
Shanghai pan-fried pork buns or shengjianbao are lightly crisp on the outside and moist with broth on the inside, a favourite breakfast meal among Shanghai locals

The cosmopolitan city of Shanghai is an intoxicating blend of past and present, East and West. More than any other city in China, this is one city with strong links to the rest of the country. And nowhere is the character of Shanghai more evident than in its cuisine. You can literally have a taste of Shanghai through its food.

Because of the city’s history as a major crossroad, not just for China but for the rest of the world, the gourmet delights of Shanghai also reflect this hodgepodge of influences. Shanghainese food borrows freely from the cooking styles of the surrounding provinces such as Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi. As a result, it does not have a distinctive style of its own.

What can be considered quintessentially Shanghainese, however, is the liberal use of sugar, rice wine, rice vinegar, and soy sauce in their dishes (and that’s why dishes like sweet and sour spare ribs are typically Shanghainese). This mixing of the sweet with the savoury tinged with the tangy is much like the culture of the city itself which boasts just a little of everything.

Diminutive but Dynamic

At Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, their signature xiaolongbao or small steamed buns that hail from eastern China including Shanghai and Wuxi are filled with crab roe and pork
One of the best-known dishes from Shanghai is the xiaolongbao or soup dumpling, which is a type of baozi from eastern China including Shanghai and Wuxi. The Shanghainese prefer their portions delicately sized, perhaps as a mark of refinement (a trait sometimes mocked by other Chinese). Even their baozi are smaller, measuring only about four centimetres across, compared to palm-size ones in other regions.

The Shanghai-style xiaolongbao originated in Nanxiang, a suburb of Shanghai in the Jiading District. It soon became so popular that it was sold in downtown Shanghai and then in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang region and beyond. The distinctive feature of this dish is the broth within. Each sack is filled with pork, minced crab and the broth. Eating it is an art in itself.

A well-made xiaolongbao must have dough that is firm enough to contain the broth without tearing but soft enough to yield when bitten. The recommended method of eating this delicacy is to take a nip off the top, savour the soup and then dip the rest of the bun in the sweet and spicy shredded ginger sauce or in vinegar.

At Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, one of two famous xiaolongbao restaurants in Shanghai, eight types of xiaolongbao are available. The restaurant, more than a century old, is considered a culinary icon in Shanghai and its xiaolongbao has won international awards and accolades. Now, it has opened a branch in Singapore’s Bugis Junction.

“Our aim is to introduce this authentic Chinese delicacy in Singapore so that diners can experience the cuisine without travelling to Shanghai and to provide our customers the most authentic and traditional food from Shanghai,” said managing director, Alfred Lee.

Slow and Steady

pring Onion Sauce Noodles with Braised “Lion’s Head”
Spring Onion Sauce Noodles with Braised “Lion’s Head”, reminiscent of home-style cooking in Shanghai
Of the ten major cuisines of China, Shanghai cuisine, known as Hu Cai, is the youngest, with a history of only a little more than 400 years, dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The fact that it is younger in its development years is yet another reason why Shanghai food bears strong influences from those other parts of China.

A cooking method commonly associated with Shanghai is stewing. Known as “red cooking”, it involves first marinating and then lightly cooking the food before simmering the meats and vegetables with wine and sauces until the dish is infused with the flavours and turns a deep red. The use of wine is not surprising because China’s best rice wine is produced in Shaoxing in eastern Zhejiang province, a region whose cooking has a strong influence on Shanghai cooks. The complex flavours in the dish are the result of the generous use of sauces and seasoning.

Braised Lion’s Head is a meatball dish that adopts this method of cooking and is so named because (with some imagination), the giant-sized meatball and accompanying greens look like the head of lion complete with a mane. Originally from the regions of Yangzhou and Zhenjiang provinces, the dish became partly Shanghainese due to an influx of migrants in the 19th and early 20th century.

At Nanxiang Steamed Bun, this dish is given a new twist by combining it with yet another Shanghainese staple – noodles. Most Shanghai households use fried onion oil as a condiment. At the restaurant, the noodles are flavoured with a mix of savoury sauces and topped with fried onion and oil.

“These two dishes are typical of home-cooked food in Shanghai. Our Lion’s Head has a special crunch because we add water chestnuts to give it more texture,” said pastry chef, Dai Anling, who hails from Shanghai.

Treasures of the Sea

Pan-fried scallop scented with bay leaf from the Herb Garden & cauliflower mousse
Pan-fried scallop scented with bay leaf from the Herb Garden & cauliflower mousse.
As much as history has bearing on the cuisine of any place, geography also has a part to play. Facing the East China Sea, Shanghai cuisine also favours seafood. Of these, the favourite is probably crab: specifically the Chinese mitten crab, prized for its roe. Best eaten in late autumn when these crustaceans are at their juiciest, the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab is usually prepared with a light touch to retain the natural flavour.

The flavours of Shanghai are the result of its history – from its importance to China’s economic and cultural development over the years, to the booming 1930s when it became an international oasis, to its current status as one of China’s most modern cities. All these have contributed to creating a cuisine that, while generous in its use of sauces, sweets and condiments, still retains a surprisingly delicate taste.

You can savour the flavours of Shanghai at

Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant
200 Victoria Street #02-53 Bugis Junction Singapore 188021
Tel: (65) 6835 7577

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