Culinary Street Cred: A Guide to Shanghai Street Food

This past summer, I bought myself a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, what I consider to be the culinary holy grail of worldly food adventures and an insightful literary masterpiece on all that is exotic, beautiful, unfamiliar, and edible. It changed my perspective on food and media in the best way possible and motivated me to value spontaneity and see opportunity in anything.

I came to Shanghai with no other common characteristic other than the fact that I am a quarter Chinese. I don’t speak Mandarin and have never once traveled to mainland China. Regardless of my unfamiliar surroundings, I planned on immersing myself into Chinese culture through the one common discourse that I knew both myself and locals around me could communicate with: food.

Lucky for me, most of the Chinese vernacular that manages remain in memory consists of food terms and monetary values. There’s no better way to experience a different world than through cheap, fresh-off-the-burner food parked on the street side or in a hole-in-the-wall.

Around almost any corner, vendors hawk steamed buns (baozi) out of stacks upon stacks of bamboo steamers. I have yet to find one that serves a more pillowy bun than the woman at the stand on Dingxi Road between Xuan Hua Road and Anhua Road.

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Her supply of baos seem to be endless–they are sold day in and day out from the early morning to evening. A variety of fillings are offered, including juicy pork, vegetable filling with minced bok choy and tofu, stir-fried noodles, red bean, black sesame, and sweet braised cabbage.

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Pictured below is Shanghai-style siu mai (shao mai), wonton skin wrapped around glutinous rice that’s seasoned with pork, shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and onions.

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A short walk down to my favorite intersection on the corner of Anhua Road and Dingxi Road, a hole-in-the-wall sells niu rou bao, a beef bun with a crispy exterior and juicy five-spice seasoned meatball, sheng jian bao, a juicy pork bun sprinkled with scallions and sesame on one side and fried golden on one side, and guo tie (pot stickers) filled with a juicy pork filling.

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Shanghai street food is notorious for its sugary, carb-obsessed characteristics. One of the healthier options, kao hong shu (baked sweet potato), is a more nutritional alternative.

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Once its insides become fluffy and fibrous, the potatoes rest on top of the heated surface. Yams are roasted in a large cylindrical furnace until their skins char and caramelize and their insides become a fluffy, fibrous meat. The potatoes rest on top of the heated surface–the perfect snack to keep your hands warm on a chilly day. 

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After the day has passed and the afternoon lull has subsided, the neon-lit nights of Shanghai churn in a new rush of street vendors, ready to sell their specialties. You’ll notice a stinky tofu stand before you’ve even laid eyes on it from its poignant stench.

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The tofu is fried till golden brown and topped with a mild chili sauce and sprinkle of cilantro. This streetfood has yet to win me over; but once you get pass its pungent odors, the tofu retains an enjoyably silky center.

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Pictured below is a pan of fatty tendon braising in chili sauce.

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Usually parked in areas with a thriving night scene are the men hawking shao kao (skewers) and naan bread alongside coal burners. I have yet to find a shao kao vendor that does it better than the man who stands outside the hole-in-the-wall on Dingxi Road and Anhua Road.

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