Shanghai Local Snacks


Shanghai Local Snacks

Walk down one of Shanghai’s celebrated snack streets and you’ll be met with a dizzying array of aromas, each one more tempting than the last. From sizzling skewers of tender beef to steaming containers rich with plump dumplings, you’ll be sure to find a treat to suit anyone’s palate. Shanghai cuisine is characterised by its emphasis on three elements: colour, aroma, and taste. Popular ingredients include fresh fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, soy sauce, sugar, and various vegetables. Over time, this has resulted in a myriad of snacks that are light, fresh, and bursting with the natural flavour of their ingredients!

Xiaolongbao (小笼包)

SHANGHAI XiaolongbaoOf all the local delicacies in Shanghai, this is undoubtedly the most well-known. With over one hundred years of history behind it, local vendors have had plenty of time to perfect this sumptuous snack! Xiaolongbao, also known as Shanghai dumplings, are a type of steamed bun made with a thin skin of dough. They are commonly stuffed with pork, although some variations use minced crab meat and crab roe. Xiaolongbao are wrapped and sealed differently to other types of dumpling, and this is because of their one unique ingredient. Each tiny parcel is filled to the brim with a delicious broth!

This is usually made by mixing Shaoxing rice wine with pork jelly, which melts as the dumplings are cooked. That being said, each vendor has their own secret recipe for their signature soup! Although the wrappers may seem delicate, a well-made xiaolongbao will hold in the soup even when it is lifted up with a pair of chopsticks. A batch of these tasty treats are typically steamed in a bamboo basket before being served with a sauce made from black vinegar and, in some places, shredded ginger.

Remember, these aren’t just your average dumplings, and you’ll want to eat them in the correct way to avoid a scalded tongue! The best way to eat xiaolongbao is to place it on a spoon, bite off the top, drink the soup, then dip the remaining dumpling in the vinegar sauce before eating it. The most well-known type of xiaolongbao, known as Nanxiang Xiaolongbao, is usually stuffed with pork, pork jelly, ground sesame seeds, shredded bamboo, and shrimp. It comes from Nanxiang Township in Shanghai’s suburbs, although it can be found throughout the city.

Shengjianbao (生煎包)

Shengjianbao or Pan-Fried Pork Buns are Xiaolongbao’s chubby cousins. They’re bigger, bolder, and bursting with flavour! Like Xiaolongbao, Shengjianbao have been a popular local snack in the region for over a hundred years. They are made by wrapping fresh pork and pork jelly in a dough made from half-risen flour. This dough is made using yeast, meaning it’s a little thicker than your average dumpling skin, and the topknot is tucked underneath rather than sitting on top.

The buns are pan-fried, with cold water being periodically added to the pan. A lid is used to cover the buns and keep in the steam. This results in the bottoms of the dumplings being fried, while the tops are steamed. Right before they are fully cooked, a smattering of chopped spring onions and sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of the buns. The perfect Shengjianbao has a thin skin, a fragrant filling, and a crispy golden base. Many restaurants throughout Shanghai serve variations on this simple treat, including ones filled with chicken and crab meat.

Cifantuan (糍饭团)

CifantuanKnown as one of the “Four Heavenly Kings”, Cifantuan is one of the four most popular breakfast foods in China. It originates from Shanghai and is made by wrapping a piece of fried dough, known as youtiao, in glutinous rice. It comes in two varieties: sweet and savoury. Sweet Cifantuan is made by simply adding sugar and sometimes sesame paste to the filling, while the savoury version includes ingredients such as pickled vegetables, salted duck eggs, and shredded pork floss. They are particularly popular in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and eastern China, where they’re eaten with sweet or savoury soy milk as part of a balanced breakfast. Modern variations on the traditional Cifantuan have been adapted in Taiwan and Hong Kong before being re-introduced to Shanghai.

Crab Shell Cake (蟹壳)

Crab Shell CakeDon’t let the name fool you, Crab Shell Cake is named for its colour, not its content! The name derives from the snack’s distinctively yellowy brown hue, which is said to resemble that of a cooked crab shell. The outer casing is a type of shortbread made from flour, oil, and sesame seeds, which is stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings. While some variations of Crab Shell Cake do contain crab meat, other popular ingredients include pork, shrimp, sugar, rose petal paste, sweet red bean paste, and jujube paste. The cake’s delightfully crispy exterior is complemented perfectly by the smooth texture of its filling.

Yangchun Noodles (阳春面)

yangchun noodlesAccording to the Chinese lunar calendar, the tenth month is referred to as “Little Yangchun”, and it is a local Shanghai-ese custom to use “yangchun” as an alternative term for the number “ten”. When these noodles first became popular in the area, they only cost a meagre 10 fen[1], so the local people naturally began called them Yangchun Noodles. Like an embarrassing nickname, this title seems to have stuck! These noodles are served simply in a clear soup, usually with a dash of scented scallion oil to give them an added kick.

[1] Fen: A unit of currency that is used throughout China. One fen is equal to one-hundredth of a yuan or one-tenth of a Chinese jiao.

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The Bund

shanghai bund

The Bund has become something of an emblem for the city of Shanghai and is widely considered to be its most well-known tourist attraction. Its name serves as a testament to the city’s cosmopolitan nature, as it was coined by British expats and derives from the Persian word “band”, which means embankment or levee. As a harbour city, Shanghai has seen more foreign merchants, visitors, and residents over the years than some Chinese cities will see in their lifetime. Yet these expats weren’t just content to live in the city; they had to make their mark on it too!

Traditionally speaking, the Bund centres on a stretch of Zhongshan Road that runs alongside the Huangpu River, beginning at Yan’an Road in the south and ending at Waibaidu Bridge in the north. Futuristic skyscrapers belonging to the Pudong District rise up on the east bank, while the west bank is flanked by 52 buildings dating back to the 19th century. These distinctly colonial constructions adhere to a variety of architectural styles, including Eclecticist, Romanesque Revival, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival, Baroque Revival, Neo-Classical, Beaux-Arts, and a number in the Art Deco style. It’s a History of Art major’s paradise; or nightmare, depending upon their tastes!

After the First Opium War (1839-1842), China signed an agreement known as the Treaty of Nanking, which named Shanghai as one of five Chinese seaports to be opened up to unrestricted foreign trade. In 1846, Great Britain established its consulate on the Bund and, not long thereafter, several foreign countries followed suite. The area surrounding it became one of the first foreign concessions in Shanghai and, when the British concession was combined with the American one in 1863, it became known as the Shanghai International Settlement.

In the early 20th century, it swiftly evolved into Shanghai’s political, economic, and cultural centre, with numerous banks, businesses, hotels, newspaper offices, and luxurious gentleman’s clubs setting up on its expanse. Granite from Japan, marble from Italy, fixtures from England; all of the finest materials were imported into Shanghai in order to construct these lavish buildings. In short, no expense was spared! During the 1920s, it became the hottest piece of real estate in the city and companies from across the globe scrambled to make their mark on the place. From Belgium and France right through to Russia and Japan, foreign countries were eager to carve out their own little slice of the Bund.

Nowadays it hosts some of the most noteworthy buildings in Shanghai, including the Shanghai Club (No. 2), the HSBC Building (No. 12), the Customs House (no. 13), Sassoon House (No. 20), and the Bank of China Building (No. 23). The Shanghai Club was originally constructed in 1861 and was the principal social club for British expats living in Shanghai. However, it was torn down and replaced with a building of more neoclassical design in 1910. Its opulent interior incorporates black and white flooring made entirely of marble and an entrance staircase crafted from imported white Sicilian marble. Talk about extravagant! Its lavish décor meant it was easily converted into the Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai Hotel in 2010.

Although Building No. 12 now belongs to the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, it is better known for having once been the Shanghai headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). It was built in 1923 according to the neoclassical style and was, at the time of its construction, the second largest building in the world. By some bizarre coincidence, it now faces the Shanghai Tower in the Pudong District, which is currently the world’s second tallest building. Hopefully the area isn’t always doomed to be second best!

Its central dome and six white columns are reminiscent of traditional Greek style architecture, and its interior has been lavishly decorated with marble and monel. According to a local saying at the time, it was known as “the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait”. It is perhaps most famous for its stunning ceiling mosaics, which have been fully restored and can be viewed from inside the entrance hall.

Alongside the HSBC Building, the Shanghai Customs House is perhaps the most iconic building on the Bund, as it features a large clock tower that was constructed in the style of England’s Big Ben. It was built in 1927 on the site of an older Chinese-style customs house and follows a neoclassical design. As with the HSBC Building, it features large stone columns stretching from the third to the sixth storey, which resemble those of traditional Greek style architecture.

shanghai nightThe nearby Sassoon House was masterminded by Victor Sassoon in 1929, who had invested huge amounts of capital into Shanghai at the time. Known to many as the “Rothschilds of the East”, the Sassoon Family were an extraordinarily wealthy Iraqi merchant family whose business eventually extended from Central Asia all the way to China. This colossal 13-storey mansion features elaborately decorated eaves and a distinctively green pyramidal roof topping its eastern façade. It is now part of the Peace Hotel and is still renowned for the live jazz band in its café. With that in mind, a trip to the Sassoon House is sure to clear up those homesick blues!

Its next-door neighbour, the Bank of China Building, was rather unsurprisingly the original headquarters of the Bank of China. It was built in 1937 and is perhaps most well-known for its somewhat stunted appearance, which is often attributed to Victor Sassoon’s insistence that no other building on the Bund could be taller than his. Evidently Sassoon had what we’d like to call “short-building syndrome”!

Originally the Bund was flanked by numerous bronze statues of foreign dignitaries, but these were all removed when the Communist Party took over in 1949. Today only one statue remains, that of Chen Yi, the first Communist mayor of Shanghai. This statue and Huangpu Park, which lies at the Bund’s northernmost end, are frequented by locals of all ages and make for an ideal place to relax. A number of pleasure cruises still operate from the Bund’s wharves and typically take visitors down to an estuary of the Yangtze River, which altogether is about a 3 hour round trip. So if you want to experience what life was like for Shanghai’s wealthy expats, perhaps a luxury river cruise is on the cards!

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The City God Temple District

The City God Temple is considered so integral to the history of Shanghai that there is even an old local saying which states, “Anyone who fails to see the City God Temple, fails to see Shanghai”. So, if you’re braving that long flight to China and stopping off in the city, you surely don’t want to be accused of missing out! It is located in the old, walled part of Shanghai and nowadays the name applies not only to the temple but also to the surrounding district, including Yuyuan Garden, Chenxiang Pavilion, and over a hundred shops. Most of these stores are over a hundred years old and have retained their antique charm, proving that modern technology isn’t always the way forward!

The temple is dedicated to the “Chenghuangshen” or “City God” of Shanghai, which was regarded as the guardian of the city. Chenghuangshen literally means “God of the Moat and Walls”, but is frequently abbreviated to “City God”. The term originally applied to a deity belonging to Chinese folk religion who was charged with the protection of a particular village, town, or city, and its corresponding afterlife location. This tradition dates back over 2,000 years and over time the term gradually changed in meaning, being applied not to a deity but instead to a deified deceased official or leader of the city. It was believed that this deity held sway over the souls of deceased citizens from the city and could also intervene in the affairs of living citizens.

In times of crisis or during natural disasters, residents would appeal to their City God for help. From the 19th century onwards, the City God would even be called to serve in three official processions every year and perform certain administrative duties: on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month, he would let the spirits of the dead out of their winter quarters; on the 1st of the 7th month, he would take a census of all the spirits and ensure they were well-fed; and on the 1st of the 10th month, the biggest event of the three, he would provide the spirits with winter clothing and return them to their winter quarters. So, after a lifetime of serving the government, it seems a civil servant’s work is never done, even after death!

The Shanghai City God Temple is in fact dedicated to not just one city god, but three. Evidently it is true what they say; three really is the magic number! The first of these is a famous chancellor named Huo Guang (unknown-68 BC), who rose to prominence during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). He is fondly remembered for having been one of the only officials to depose a young emperor not for personal gain or to replace him, but in the interests of the state. This has earned him accolade as one of Chinese history’s most noble officials, and he was made the original City God of Shanghai County during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

The second is a scholar named Qin Yubo (1295–1373), who once lived in Shanghai and served the Yuan Dynasty as a civil servant. After the Hongwu Emperor founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), he summoned Yubo to serve him at court twice, but each time Yubo declined the summons. He eventually relented and became the chief imperial examiner, but his refusal to become involved in corrupt court politics earned him the respect of the Emperor and he was anointed as the City God of Shanghai on his death. In short, he is perhaps the first man in recorded history to have been rewarded for not listening to the Emperor!

The final one is Chen Huacheng (1776–1842), a Qing Dynasty general who was responsible for the protection of Shanghai during the First Opium War (1839-1842) and gave his life defending the Yangtze River area from the British. Each of these three decorated figures is represented by their own respective statue within the temple.

city god temple of shanghaiOriginally the temple was called Jinshan or “Golden Mountain” Temple and was dedicated to the worship of Jinshan, an island just off the coast of Shanghai. It was converted into the City God Temple in 1403, during the Ming Dynasty, but didn’t reach its peak popularity until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Huge crowds of residents would flock to pray there on such a regular basis that it prompted several businesses to set up shop in the surrounding streets. The success of these stores meant that the district soon transformed into a bustling marketplace, making it a haven for both spiritualists and shopaholics!

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the temple was closed down and the main hall was used as a jewellery shop for many years. Eventually governance of the temple was passed on to the Shanghai Taoist Association and they gradually transformed it into a Taoist temple, removing several statues of Chinese folk deities, such as Yama (Judge of the Dead), in order to place emphasis on Taoist beliefs. By 1994, the temple had been fully restored to its former glory and even had a substantial constituency of resident Taoist priests.

Nowadays, alongside worshipping, visitors to the temple can watch folk performances, try their hand at calligraphy, buy a few souvenirs, or sample some of the heavenly delights that the surrounding restaurants have to offer. This district is regarded as a mecca for some of Shanghai’s finest snacks, so it’s a must visit for gourmands and gluttons alike. From saucy barbecue pork buns to steaming hot crab soup, these tasty treats are sure to send you to seventh heaven!

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Shanghai

With a population of over 24 million people, Shanghai is the largest municipality by population in China, so it goes without saying that things can get a little crowded there! The municipality consists of 18 districts and several islands just offshore in the East China Sea, while the city itself is located right on the coast between the mouth of the Yangtze River and the bay of Hangzhou. With its humid, subtropical climate and four distinct seasons, Shanghai is a bustling metropolis with a quaint coastal charm.

“Shanghai” literally means “Above the Sea” or “On the Sea” and the earliest mention of the name occurred in the 11th century, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). There are numerous theories as to exactly why it was named this way, but historians have largely concluded that, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the town developed on the seashore itself. After all, sometimes the simplest answer is the right one! The city’s nickname of “Shen” (申) derives from the name of Lord Chunshen, whose fiefdom included the Shanghai area during the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC).

Right up until the 7th century, the Shanghai area was severely underdeveloped and, during the Song Dynasty, the city of Shanghai was just a small, isolated fishing village. But change was soon to come in the form of northern immigrants, who were desperately fleeing from the invading Mongolians. They began settling in the area surrounding Lake Tai and boosted the economic growth of the region. So it seems one man’s tragedy turned out to be Shanghai’s treasure! Soon thereafter people started to realise Shanghai’s potential as a port and shipping centre, as its naturally auspicious location placed it near both the coast and the banks of a major river. Like a struggling actor in Hollywood, Shanghai was finally starting to get noticed! It began rapidly expanding and, by the 13th century, the area had been designated as a county seat.

Unlike other coastal towns, which suffered greatly when maritime trade was banned during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shanghai continued to prosper as one of the major production centres for cotton. Even though it was still only a county town, it was considered valuable enough to warrant the building of city walls in 1554 and it was rewarded with a City God Temple in 1602, which was an honour normally reserved only for prefectural capitals or cities of political importance. In spite of its low political status, the region’s economic significance was undeniable.

In 1684, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the Kangxi Emperor finally lifted the ban on maritime trade and in 1732 the Yongzheng Emperor moved Jiangsu’s customs office from Songjiang to Shanghai, enabling the city to rise as one of the wealthiest seaports in the country. When the First Opium War (1839–1842) ended, a contract known as the Treaty of Nanking was signed and this dictated that five Chinese seaports, including Shanghai, were to be opened up to unrestricted foreign trade.

Similar treaties, such as the Treaty of Bogue (1843), the Treaty of Wanghia (1844), and the Treaty of Whampoa (1844), gave the United Kingdom, the United States, and France significant political power in China, allowing them to carve out concessions and enabling more expats to live and work in seaports such as Shanghai. The colonial, neoclassical, and art deco-style architecture that can be found in these old concessions bear witness to the powerful influence these foreign countries had on the city. Yet, not content to share the glory, Shanghai soon outranked its competitors and rose to be the major seaport for foreign trade. The city of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) in Guangdong province was once its main rival but, during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), it was cut off from the mainland and Shanghai was able to flourish uncontested. The city’s wealth and power eventually led to it becoming a municipality in 1927.

shanghai04Perhaps one of the most famous parts of the city is the district of Pudong, which rests on the eastern banks of the Huangpu River. It was established in 1870 as one of the city’s earliest industrial areas but, believe it or not, it was originally notorious as Shanghai’s most depraved slum! Nowadays it is renowned for its unusual and futuristic skyscrapers, which include the Shanghai World Financial Centre, the Shanghai Tower, and the Oriental Pearl Tower. At over 490 metres (1,600 ft.) in height, the Shanghai World Financial Centre is the eighth tallest building in the world, while the colossal 632-metre-tall (2,000 ft.) Shanghai Tower ranks second in height only to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Unlike this burgeoning modern borough, the centre of Shanghai is characterised by its random and labyrinthine street pattern, a throwback to its days as a simple fishing village. Until the 20th century, this old part of the city was still surrounded by ancient city walls. These two districts serve as an embodiment of the dichotomy in Shanghai, as modern-day advances wrestle with ancient traditions. From the Bund and the Lujiazui skyline to the City God Temple and the 16th century Yu Garden, the city is a hectic mixture of contemporary architecture and ancient Chinese history.

Museums and theatres such as the China Art Museum, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, and the celebrated Dashijie or “Great World” theatre have helped Shanghai become the cultural mecca of southeast China. This, along with the numerous public parks, French-style gardens, and vibrant greenery dotted throughout the city, have come together to make it one of the most scenic and unforgettable cities in China.

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