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Shanghai: The City and its Food
Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan
Summer Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(2) page(s): 34, 35, 36, and 37
This huge city attracts folk from all over China, and from all over the world. Many return many times to a city where the mayor has said its population is more than twenty million. Many say it the largest city in the world, but are they counting the seven million-plus who live nearby outside the city limits? Have they every wondered how many eateries and markets are needed to feed them no matter their proximity to downtown?
The city of Shanghai is both old and new. Old includes traces of human remains found at some twenty-five city-sites dating six thousand years ago, most in the Songjiang, Qingpu, and Jinshan areas. Data on Shanghai as a town ranges in the neighborhood of some seven hundred years; and as an important port city it is only two hundred years old. Old, perhaps, but not in the realm of China's antiquity.
The city of Shanghai began as a small walled area near anchorage provided for fishing and trading vessels. It was a port and place of safety for sailors and merchants from the many sailing vessels that came to call. That said, its role as an important major port is really new in China's scheme of things. New, too, is and was the foreign presence in this city. That only dates from 1842 and the Treaty of Nanjing. This particular treaty was an agreement that followed China's defeat after what westerners call the 'Opium War.' It dictated that China had to open five ports to international trade, and Shanghai was one of them.
Many Americans and British citizens flocked to Shanghai as soon as they were allowed to even though they could not wander or live where they wanted to. They were relegated to specific areas within the city; some became specific places for foreigners from one particular country or another to live and do business. The two largest were the American Concession and the British Concession. After 1863, these two places amalgamated and became known as The International Settlement. The French Concession, established seven years after the treaty, never became part of this amalgamation.
Though Shanghai began as a sleepy port, it quickly emerged as China's financial center, thanks to and with the help of many foreign influences. By 1920, the city census indicated more than a million inhabitants, about twenty-seven thousand of them foreigners; a large mix of nationalities.
A recent visit showed us that the city is newer, bigger, and trendier than any other place in China. As an 'in' place in the 1920's, Shanghai was nicknamed 'The Paris of the Orient.' Virtually every foreign visitor then and since manages to take at least one walk along The Bund, the embankment on one side of the Huangpo River; we did, too. People walk and witness many original international buildings across it's wide traffic-choked street with continuing construction. There are some three hundred or so huge buildings, many now office, hotel, embassy, club, bank, and others still showing some foreign flavor. Most were built by British, American, and French citizens, a few thanks to a mix of folk from other nations. Most are now occupied by Chinese businesses seeking a fine international address.
Looking at these buildings, folk see wrought iron entrances, clock-towers, turrets, and colonnades, among other things. They note each building's distinctive appearance with its own special charm. One main attraction is the Customs House. Another, the People's Municipal Government Center which used to be home to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The Shanghai Foreign Trade Bureau now, once was the British Consulate. Another building folks gaze at is where Mao lived; it is now an office building. There is much more to see, any single day on the Bund brings memories to returnees, wonderment to first-time visitors.
Beside viewing buildings on The Bund, people check out the Waibaidu, Yangpu, and Nanpu bridges. They span the Yellow River, the English name of the Huangpo. Residents delight in telling new folk that the Yangpu is the world's largest suspension bridge and the Nanpu, the world's third largest double-tower cable-braced bridge. They smile with pride when advising visitors that their city has the tallest building in Asia; it is the third tallest in the world. Appropriately, it is named: The Pearl of the Orient.
Visitors coming back and those in Shanghai of the first time admire these sites, and they shop and admire lots more in this river-divided two-part city. Gourmets and gluttons among them dine with delight at all kinds of restaurants on either side of the Huangpo. The Western part, called Puixi, is the older side with many museums and historic places. It was once the only prosperous side of the river. The Eastern side, called Pudong, was a sleepy farming area feeding Shanghai residents and its many visitors. Now Pudong is prosperous, loaded with residential and commercial high-rise buildings.
The river-front in Pudong, is called Lujiazui. It looks across to The Bund. On the river itself, years ago folk saw sampans, steamers, and ferries. These helped folk go from one side to the other. Now, Pudong is an economic powerhouse, a place many want or need to get to. The Dupuquai is the best way to get to its 'other side;' this tunnel, is a new and great connector to the Puixi or Bund side.
When one visits old Shanghai, folk flock to the Songjiang Xi Lin Tower, the Ming-dynasty Brisk Screen Wall, the Qing and Yuyuan Gardens, and the Longhua, Jade Buddha, and Jinan Temples. They visit the Shanghai Folk Museum and the Dong Tai Road antique market. They walk Nanjing Road, the main and partly pedestrian street and marvel that it is always seems crowded with people. They check out places to shop, others do lots of shopping there. It has many seeking out fine restaurants and smaller eateries on Nanjing Road and on side streets that come off of it. Seems there are always people spending cash or using credit cards to indulge and taste wonderful foods at its many restaurant and snack venues.
People use Nanking Road to get to People's Square and visit the Shanghai Museum; we did, too. They marvel at its round elevated part sitting on a square base. Most do not know that this dual shape symbolizes an old Chinese saying: Heaven is round, the earth is square. Know it or not, they should take time to see the wonderful exhibits here, all labeled bilingually in Chinese and English.
On our very first trip to Shanghai we went to Pudong not to purchase vegetables nor see its sleepy nature. We went to visit siblings of a New York acupuncturist and herbal doctor, a friend born and raised in Shanghai. We crossed the Huangpo in a small sampan, and returned to bed down at the Peace Hotel at the intersection of Zhongshan Road East and Nanjing Road.
We wondered about that building then—it was 1980--and we still do. However, now we now why this hotel originally was two-buildings, each in totally different architectural style. It once was two separate hotels, the Palace and the Cathay. Long before our first visit, the Cathay was nicknamed the Sassoon Building because it had been built by E.V. Sassoon, a Jewish merchant who came to Shanghai via Bombay from Baghdad. You may recognize that name. His family had a son, or was it a grandson, who became a well-known clothing designer in the west whose name was Vidal Sassoon. Do you own something whose original design was his? My elegant granddaughter probably does or at least hopes to add it to the many items in her closet.
Besides buildings, and thoughts of those who live in or work in them, Shanghai reminds of then and now. One item of both eras are the rickshaws. They are back and fashionable, too, and add to its nostalgic component. One item strictly today and modern are the stretch limousines; they ply city streets and carry the rich and perhaps famous; and they point to the future.
Eating in Shanghai is also a mix of old and new. There are old restaurants looking just as they did dozens if not hundreds of years ago. There are old restaurants refurbished for today's young and old. There are new eateries serving the traditional foods of years ago and others serving the new and fusion foods of today. There are some places serving foreign foods, and there are all too many Starbucks, Burger Kings, McDonalds, and the like. There are western food choices and Chinese food selections from every culinary region. There are historic restaurants and newer Chinese ones and American and Chinese fast food chain outlets; the latter include Shanghai Ronghua Chicken, Zhengding Chicken, Taiwan's Mei You Mei, and Hong Kong's Dong Dong, among others.
Snacking is still popular in Shanghai, and dumplings top the list of things to indulge in. The best-known ones are their soup dumplings filled with pork and crabmeat. Westerners and Chinese folk both eat lots of them. And, they opt for other dumplings such as those filled with fermented snail meat and sweet bean paste. When in Shanghai, try both and the dozens of others with different fillings. Try stuffed buns and many sweet items stuffed with a plethora of fillings. The people of Shanghai have always had a sweet tooth. Lines outside dumpling emporia, upscale eateries, and sweet shops attest to the many places and the many foods served at them.
Beside dumplings, sweets, and other foods, the Shanghainese like foods with many different herbs, lots of vegetables, a good smattering of sausages, soybeans, and soups, and many, many sweets. They like their meats long cooked, their pork shoulder with meat falling of the bone, so many dumpling delights, and they like lots of tea. There is something for every taste. When we were there years ago we have our fill of river eels, sweet water shrimp, and all manner of fish. When there more recently, we ate lots of them again, and also indulged in quite a lot of unusual regional food.
Where to eat, what to see, and where to shop could fill volumes. The Pearl of the Orient, a TV tower with eleven large and small 'pearls' or balls decorating it is an exceptionally tall unusual building on the Pudong side of the river. It is pictured with this article; and is a place where many local foods can be tried in the largest of its 'balls.' It turns around and is a revolving restaurant. Rare is the visitor who does not stop by to eat and drink there as they enjoy a panoramic view of the city from one of its many tables. A drink or meal or just a visit to this restaurant includes a trip on the building's ultra-fast elevator. The 'view-from-the-top' experience is beautiful looking at this continually growing city. Many like it best at dusk when the lights turn on making night turn to day. Others prefer the view across the river and when walking on The Bund in the evening. When lit and viewed from there, it is equally majestic.
Before going up to its top, do check out Yaohan, Asia's biggest supermarket. You will need a couple of hours to do that. While on the subject of 'biggest' folks like to go to the Temujin Barbecue Shop at Xujiahui to see the largest Mongolian grill ever in a very large glass-enclosed area. There, folk peer in to see their meals and those of others prepared by a few BBQ grill chefs who cut and toss ever so speedily. There are so many sights to see on both sides of the river, we would be remiss not to mention the open-air restaurant on The Bund. Visiting there day or night one sees, eats, drinks, and watches others doing likewise.
Where to eat in this largest of three cities directly under China's central government; Beijing and Guangzhou are the other two. Replying really can fill several issues of this one magazine. We did not collect business cards to show, on our most recent visit, we forgot to ask for them. Sorry about that; but here are some past and present places we suggest you consider.
Beginning with local food, try LAO FAN DIAN at 242 Fuyou Road; phone 6328-9850. Also known as the 'Old Town Restaurant,' this eatery specializes in Shanghai cuisine. Eight Delicacies is delicious, and we loved their strong bean paste sauce. Soft-shelled Turtle is a winner, too, as are ever so many other dishes at this well-known Old Town. It is also a good place to try hairy crab, when that delicacy is in season. Another great place for these crabs is at THE BANQUET HALL on the fifth floor of the Central Hotel Shanghai at 555 Jiujiang Road; phone 5396-5000. A reservation is a must to try their simply steamed hairy crabs. They are large and worth enjoying, but do keep in mind that the shells are very hard, their contents easily 'spill'on you, and are very juicy. Plan ahead to go to Shanghai from early fall through February, sometimes March, and do make travel and dinner reservations early. Folks enjoy these crabs with shark fins, as crab meat balls, as dumplings, and just as plain steamed hairy crabs.
A great bastion of Shanghai buns is the NANXIANG STEAMED BUN RESTAURANT at 85 Yu Yuan Road; phone: 6355-4206. Shanghai buns are also great at FENGYU DUMPLING SHOP at 216 Fengyang Road; phone 6327 7005. Also try them fried at YANG'S FRY DUMPLING at 60 Gourmet Street; phone 6267 6025. Check that street out as there are lots of other food facilities there.
Check out YANGZHOU RESTAURANT at Nanjing Road East; phone 6358-7988. They prepare a super jelly-like pork, great steamed crab balls, and a mashed fish with pine nuts not be missed. Want steamed fresh-water eel, a local favorite? You might want to go to XIJIAOTING SEAFOOD RESTAURANT on Nanjing Road West; phone: 6279-0279. This classic super Cantonese restaurant makes a great rendition of this eel dish. For vegetarians and those who adore vegetables, visit GONG DELIN RESTAURANT at 445 Nanjing Road West; phone: 6237-0218, and yes, while there do try their crab, eel, and fish. They are mock-style taste treats looking and tasting like the real thing. Should you want fine Muslim foods, get to HUIFENG on Hunan Road South; phone 6328-1795.
Steamed dumplings can be enjoyed at many places, and we have devoured them at LU BOLANG on Yuyuan Road; 6328-0602. For Chinese upscale food on The Bund, get thee to TAN WAI LOU CHINESE RESTAURANT at Bund 18, but not without a reservation. One needs to keep in mind this is a Michelin 3-star restaurant. Last, but not least, for those who want contemporary Chinese food, you might want to visit the WHAMPAO CLUB at Three on the Bund, phone 6321-3737 or enjoy an historic view and food at the DRAGON AND PHOENIX RESTAURANT at 20 The Bund; phone 6321-6888.
There are so many other places worth knowing about. For Cantonese dim sum, there is CRYSTAL JADE at 123 Xingye Road; phone 6385-8752. For Taiwanese food, try FLOWER PALACE RESTAURANT at 4 Hengshan Road; phone: 6467-7266. Want to meal in a fine hotel that does not break the bank, visit and enjoy one as we did at OLD SHANGAI JINJIANG HOTEL on Maoming Road; phone 6258-2582.
If you are not able to make it to Shanghai soon, you do not need to miss out on great Shanghainese food. Try the recipes below, one for each day of a week to taste this city's cuisine. Also, try any one of the many Shanghai restaurants all around the world.
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