Shanghai, “Upon the Sea” after its location on the estuary of the mighty Yangtze River, needs little introduction. The “Pearl of the Orient” is China’s largest city and its undisputed commercial hub.
Sadly, I’ve only managed visit Shanghai once in the dim antiquity of 2004, on my very first trip to mainland China, and even that was just a long weekend. (I was supposed to finally go back in 2020, but as we all know, COVID had other ideas.) One telling statistic of the growth since then is that back then it had 2 subway lines, while as I type this it has 18. Yang’s Dumpling (小杨生煎 Xiǎoyáng Shēngjiān), in 2004 just a busy little stall in the backstreets of Wujiang Rd dishing out 4 shēngjiānbāo dumplings for 4 yuan, is now an empire of 250 shops well entrenched even in Australia. In Sydney, we were regulars at Ashfield’s Little Shanghai, a strip of half-a-dozen Shanghainese restaurants of varying degrees of authenticity but a great deal of popularity among Chinese and Westerners alike.
Shanghai cuisine (沪菜 Hù cài) is broadly similar to the cuisine of Jiangsu, the surrounding province: lots of “red braising” (红烧 hóngshāo) in soy and sugar, “drunken” dishes stewed in rice wine, and the famed xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包) “little basket” dumplings with soup inside. Thanks to its status as an international trading port, there’s even a “Shanghai Western” cuisine called Haipai (海派, “ocean style”) with dishes like borscht and potato salad given a local twist, not entirely unlike Hong Kong’s fusion food.
This blog features mostly everyday fare, but this time around we started off with a table for two at Yan’s Dining (嬿青私房菜, “Yan Qing’s Private Kitchen”), almost certainly Singapore’s most upscale Shanghainese joint. The interior looks like a small hotel ballroom complete with chandeliers, round tables and cream white everything, as well as a museum-style glass case of pre-war Shanghai memorabilia, but it’s inside the upscale Mandarin Gallery shopping mall. Our excuse for the splurge was that it was the season for Shanghai hairy crab (上海毛蟹 Shànghǎi máoxiè), thus named after the brown fuzz on their legs, whose females are full of bright orange, gooey, lip-smackingly umami-laden roe during the narrow October/November window, but at $48++ a pop they don’t come cheap. Yan’s offers both drunken (cooked in wine) and steamed crab, but we opted for the latter, and they came steamed to perfection — not overcooked, not raw — and were mighty good eating, we didn’t even bother with the vinegar and ginger dip on the side. Alas, once the roe is scraped out, these fellows are pretty stingy on the meat (a typical hairy crab weighs under 200g) and you’ll need the provided gloves, crackers, scissors and picks to scrape out a few extra calories.
Since dismantling hairy crab armor probably burns more calories than you gain from eating them, we had a good excuse to sample a few more Shanghai delicacies. The Jiangnan Crispy Eel (江南脆鳝) was deep-fried and almost candied in syrup, tasting more like a dessert than a starter; I was reminded of the Japanese brown sugar puff candy karintou. The Shanghai Braised Pork Meatball in Brown Sauce (上海红烧狮子头, “Red-Braised Lion’s Head”), a cousin of the Lion’s Head soup we had earlier at Nanjing Impressions, was very tasty but also very meaty, with a chunky texture not unlike some European sausages. The Crab Roe Tofu (蟹粉豆腐) was extremely rich, perhaps a little too much so after we already ate two whole crabs. Last but definitely not least, the boringly named Shanghai Stewed Rice (上海砂锅菜饭, “Shanghai claypot vegetable rice”) was downright delicious, premium short-grain rice tossed with shreds of bok choy, spring onion, bamboo shoot and ham. With a couple of pots of Dragon Well (龙井 Lóngjǐng) tea from nearby Hangzhou to wash it down, the total damage came to a whopping $240 for 2. It had been a good 10 years since we last ate hairy crab, so the meal was still worth it, but this is not exactly everyday eating.
A more proletarian Shanghai experience can be had at Dingtele (鼎特乐), literally “Three-Legged-Cauldron Special Fun”, but suspiciously close to Taiwanese dumpling masters Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰). Located in Kovan, the narrow restaurant has a bit of a retro classroom vibe with chalkboards along the wall and a glass box full of chefs busily cranking out dumplings.
Like Yang’s Dumpling, the house speciality is the shēngjiānbāo (生煎包) dumpling, available in regular (pork) and “double” (双拼) with prawn as well. These were hot and juicy, with a crispy bottom and soft top, and while I’m not sure adding prawn improved the flavour, it didn’t hurt either. The xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包), however, would not have passed quality control at DTF, they were misshapen and the skin, which is supposed to be paper-thin, was way too thick.
There’s more to the menu than dumplings, so we sampled the pick-your-own-adventure Appetizing Platter (冷菜四拼 lěngcài sìpīn, “pick four cold dishes”). Pick #1 was Shanghai drunken chicken (上海醉鸡 Shànghǎi zuìjī), which true to the name had a strong note of Chinese wine. This is served cold, with the broth and the wine forming a layer of jelly on top of the meat. #2 was mixed black fungus (拌木耳 bàn mù’ěr), crunchy with a strong chilli kick and surprisingly nice. #3 was coriander with “Bean Product” aka “vegetarian duck” in Chinese (香菜拌素鸭 xiāngcài bàn sùyā), a rubbery cake of layered beancurd with virtually no flavor. Last and least, some cold blanched gai lan with, as far as I could tell, no spices whatsoever.
The cold Shanghai noodles (上海冷面 Shànghǎi lěng miàn) brought back memories: back in my student days, I once ended up with a 1 kg tub of Middle Eastern sesame paste tahini, and a version of this, attempted without ever trying the real thing, became a staple for a while. Much to my surprise, at least based on this I wasn’t too far off the mark, the dish consisting of noodles with sesame and peanut paste in a broth of soy, vinegar and just a touch of chilli. Quite nice. The other hit of the day was the Noodles with Braised Pork Chop (大排面 dàpái miàn), with a generously sized slow-cooked pork chop so soft you could tear it apart with your chopsticks. The Fried Rice with [Fried] Pork Chop (猪排炒饭 zhūpái chǎofàn), on the other hand, had a reasonable if somewhat plain pork chop, but the rice failed to meet with DTF bar, with the rice a bit too wet and gluggy. Overall verdict: shēngjiānbāo, noodles and braised pork quite good, but skip the rest.
I’ll finish with a plug for my favorite Shanghai restaurant, which I sadly haven’t had the chance to visit recently with a camera in tow: Shanghai Renjia (上海人家, “Shanghai Family Home”) in Ang Mo Kio, not to be confused with another identically named restaurant in Geylang. True to the name, this is a tiny 8-table family-run operation in an HDB block, with dishes that are by and large pretty similar to Dingtele (xiǎolóngbāo, shēngjiānbāo, pork chop noodles, etc); Eatbook.sg has a good review. It’s cheap, it’s friendly, it’s tasty, it’s really slow because everything is made to order, and it’s virtually impossible to get a seat without a reservation, so call ahead and trot out your best Mandarin because the Shanghainese husband-wife couple running the show speak virtually no English.
And with that, we bid farewell to Shanghai. Here’s hoping to visit you again someday.