A Local’s Guide to Food in Shanghai: Restaurant Specialties & More!
In this Shanghai food guide, you’ll have everything you need at your fingertips to find the best food in Shanghai! Everything from the must-try dishes, to specific Shanghai restaurant specialties, to delicious Chinese desserts, and where to have tea in Shanghai. Even the best areas for foodies, Shanghai food culture, and how to eat certain Shanghai foods. Like I said, EVERYTHING!
Shanghai Chinese food
Imagine cooking for 24 million people. This is exactly what Shanghai does every single day, and by looking at the growing population and visitors to one of the world’s largest cities, she must be doing something right with the food in Shanghai. After all, no one stays anywhere too long if the food is terrible.
Shanghai is a place where the past, present, and future effortlessly intertwine. This manifests in the culture, architecture, fashion, and exciting Shanghai food scene. All of this makes Shanghai one of the best places to visit in China. Like everywhere we go, we believe that the best and fastest way to connect with the culture of the city is to tuck into its food. And man, are you in for a culinary treat when eating Shanghai Chinese food.
Shanghai is the Chinese dream. People from all corners of China dream of coming to Shanghai to make it big. They arrive with stars in their eyes, big dreams, and of course their pots, pans, and family recipes. That’s not only true for the Chinese, but also for foreigners coming to the Paris of the East in search of their fortune. Shanghai food is indeed an eclectic melting pot of tastes and dining experiences as you’ll find when exploring the Shanghai Chinese restaurants.
Shanghai Food Culture
Like elsewhere in China, food is the glue of Shanghainese society, whether it’s a simple dish from a hole-in-the-wall in the suburbs, or a decadent meal at a posh Shanghai restaurant with a view of the city’s famous skyline. As the city races towards the future, Shanghai cuisine is transforming with the skyline. Not long ago, the Chinese diet would mainly consist of rice and vegetables, and eating was a means to survive. These days, many Chinese living in cities eat meat every day, and not only to survive, but to enjoy.
Eating in Shanghai
Eating in Shanghai is a communal affair and meant to be shared. When going out for dinner in Shanghai, several dishes will be ordered and shared between all the guests, family style. Etiquette dictates that one dish per person should be ordered, plus an extra two for the table (if there are 3 people, you’d order 5 dishes). Hosts will always order more for the table though, to prevent the embarrassment of being perceived as cheap.
Chinese Street Food in Shanghai
As Shanghai embraces the future, old neighborhoods are bulldozed to make space for skyscrapers at an alarming pace. Unfortunately, Shanghai street food stalls also have a target on their backs as the city’s mantra is to be civilized, hygienic, and modern. And Chinese street food stalls are seen as unhygienic and uncivilized. Popular Shanghai street food spots have transformed into small hole-in-the-wall establishments over recent years. While this is sad, the food is still damn good.
What remains the same in the food is the emphasis on flavor, color and taste. Fresh, seasonal ingredients dictate what’s on a Shanghai menu, and as always meals are meant to be shared. While small establishments have mostly replaced the stalls of street food in Shanghai, the vibe is still energetic, and you don’t need to speak any Chinese to enjoy Chinese street food in Shanghai. Most of these small eateries specialize in one or two dishes only, so simply pointing at what is on display would get the job of ordering done.
Chinese Cuisines Found in Shanghai
There are eight classic Chinese cuisines named after the province they originate from: Anhui, Fujian, Sichuan, Cantonese (Guangdong province), Shandong, Hunan, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu, and you can find them all in Shanghai.
Shanghai is a relatively young city and due to its importance, it is also a province on its own. Up until 1927, Shanghai was actually part of Jiangsu province. Due to this, the food in Shanghai shares most of the characteristics of the food of Jiangsu province. Shanghai’s famous crab comes from a lake near Suzhou in Jiangsu province.
Shanghai food is characterized by the use of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine and Shaoxing, which gives it a sweeter taste compared to other Chinese cuisines. Dishes are often braised in a soy, sugar, Shaoxing, and a five-spice rich broth giving the food a shiny, reddish-brown color. This style is known as red cooking and is very common in the Yangtze river delta.
Shanghai Food Delivery
Food delivery is BIG everywhere in China. You can order from any eatery, coffee shop, bakery, or dessert shop (even convenience stores) and it should be at your door within half an hour or less. If you’re too tired to leave your hotel room, simply ask the concierge to recommend his favorite takeout and get it delivered.
What food is Shanghai known for?
When visiting Shanghai, you may be overwhelmed with food choices especially since you can get every type of Chinese cuisine in Shanghai. Our list of Must-Try Shanghai Foods (below) will give you the traditional Shanghai dishes not to miss, everything from breakfast in Shanghai, to Soup Dumplings, to Hairy Crab. Additionally, our list of Best Shanghai Restaurant Specialties (below) has unique Chinese food experiences that we highly recommend for visiting foodies.
Must-Try Shanghai Foods
Do not leave Shanghai without trying these 5 famous Shanghai foods!
1. Xiao Long Bao (小笼馒头):
Perhaps the most famous of the Shanghai foods are steamed soup dumplings. Best enjoyed straight from the bamboo basket in which they were steamed in, they’re served with rice vinegar and thinly sliced ginger. The best way to eat these gems of Shanghai cuisine is to scoop a little vinegar into your soup spoon and add a single sliver of ginger. Put the dumpling in the spoon and make a little hole in the dumpling with your chopsticks to let the soup run out into your spoon. Then eat/drink it all together in one go.
One basket is just enough to get your appetite excited, so don’t fool yourself into thinking one serving of this popular Shanghai dish will be enough. Xiao Long Bao is often eaten for breakfast in Shanghai, but why limit yourself only to the morning hours? They’re seriously good at any time of day or night.
2. Pan fried dumplings (生煎包):
The more rugged but equally tasty cousin of Shanghai’s delicate Xiao Long Bao, the Shengjian Bao or pan-fried soup dumpling is another must eat in Shanghai food. The soup dumplings are lined up in a shallow pan and fried until the bottom becomes incredibly crispy, while the top remains soft and tender. The dumplings are traditionally filled with pork, but shrimp, spinach or chicken are also popular. During the fall, crab meat or roe are added to the pork and it’s truly sublime.
You might be tempted to bite right into this Chinese specialty, but don’t! Doing this will cause a micro explosion of the soupy goodness on the inside and you will ruin your clothes and that of those around you. Rather bite a small hole in the upper, soft part of the dumpling and suck out the soup. Once all the soup is out, dip it in the rice vinegar and indulge to. Your heart’s content.
Wujiang Road or Xiangyang Road are the best places to get your fill of Shanghai’s best breakfast dumplings.
3. Hairy Crab (清蒸大閘蟹)
No Shanghai food guide would be complete without Hairy Crab. Fall is crab season in eastern China and having this prized delicacy must not be missed when in Shanghai during this time. Chinese obsess over hairy crab all year long, and it can be enjoyed year-round, but for plump, buttery and absolutely heavenly crabs, October to early December is prime time.
The prized hairy crabs (also known as mitten crabs) of Yangcheng lake near Suzhou make its way into most seasonal dishes enjoyed during fall, from congee to Xiao Long Bao and Shengjian Bao.
Hairy crab can either be steamed and served hot, or it could be soaked in a mixture of salt, sugar, Shaoxing and alcohol for a day and then served cold. When ordering crab in Shanghai, not only do you have to specify how you want them to be prepared, but also whether you want male or female crab.
Males have a bit more meat on them, while females are prized for their sweet meat and of course that incredible orange roe that just burst with flavour and texture.
Forget your table manners when eating crab – there is no graceful way to extract that goodness without getting your hands dirty. First remove the legs and claws before breaking open the shell.
4. Youtiao (油条)
Youtiao is also a very popular Shanghai breakfast item, for obvious reasons. Basically, it’s a Chinese version of a cruller or perhaps a fluffier version of a churro. Slightly salted and deep fried to golden perfection, a footlong youtiao is best enjoyed straight from the fryer, and the Chinese way to do them justice is to dip it in sweet, warm soymilk.
This is such a popular breakfast in Shanghai that it’s even on the McDonald’s breakfast menu. Of course, it’s much better when you get it from the granny from the small eatery.
We get Youtiao delivered to our house every Sunday for brunch and dip them in …MAPLE SYRUP for a decadent brunch with coffee. Don’t tell any Chinese person though – they will get a heart attack when they find out about this scandalous disrespect to their beloved breakfast youtiao.
5. Bings (餠)
Half pancake, half flatbread, bings come in many shapes and sizes, and are another staple Shanghai breakfast food. They could either be steamed, fried, or baked. Our favorite is Xiao-Yang-Guo-Kui (雪菜锅盔) a paper thin, baked bing and comes with many different sweet or savory fillings. I always get two, one with preserved plum and scallion (tastes a little like marmite) and the other with honey.
Top 4 Shanghai Restaurant Specialties
There are a few quintessential Shanghai culinary experiences that you absolutely should not pass up. This includes the incredible specialties of some Shanghai Chinese restaurants with unique offerings from Shanghai cuisine as well as other Chinese cuisines.
1. Xie Zun Yuan: Best Hairy Crabs in Shanghai
Most Shanghai restaurants will have some kind of crab on the menu during fall, but for a decadent meal of the best hairy crab in Shanghai, head to Xie Zun Yuan in the French Concession. The crabmeat and roe are removed from the shell, claws and legs, and each part is served in a separate bowl. Each bowl has a slightly different taste and texture.
The crab is served with either rice or noodles and vinegar and ginger. Take a scoop of crabmeat, roe, rice and mix it with a little vinegar and ginger, and be prepared to arrive in culinary Nirvana seconds later.
The set menu at this Shanghai restaurant comes with a hefty bill, RMB 888 to be exact. However, it is totally worth it is you’re looking for a once in a lifetime meal that you can only find in Shanghai. The number eight is also considered to bring good fortune in China, so the triple eight on the bill will soften the financial blow in exchange for triple the amount of good luck.
The set menu is the signature dish at Xie Zun Yuan, but other cheaper crab meals are also available on the menu. Expect a long wait to get a table any time of year.
Shanghai restaurant, Xie Zun Yuan address: No. 21, 889 Julu Rd
2. Ho Hung Kee: Dim Sum
I’ll probably upset some people with this statement, but here goes: The best brunch there is in the whole wide world is Dim Sum.
Originating from Guangdong province in Southern China, Dim Sum is Cantonese food at its best. The best way to describe this to Dim Sum virgins is to think of it as Chinese tapas. Dim Sum is often steamed, but could also be fried or baked, and usually served in small round bamboo baskets that can be stacked on top of each other to save space on the table. Typically, each basket will contain 3 bite-size dishes.
For the absolute best baked pork buns, steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed custard buns, and Honk Kong style Wonton noodles, head to Ho Hung Kee (何洪记) in the Taikoo Mall. We discover something extraordinary to eat every time we go there. Our latest find is a deep fried, coconut flavored ball of rice cake filled egg custard and rolled in almond flakes. It’s as good as it sounds!
You’ll definitely be hungry by the time that you get a seat – there is always a long line at this Shanghai restaurant, but it’s definitely worth the wait.
Shanghai restaurant, Ho Hung Kee address: 3rd floor of the Taikoo Mall, No.789 Nanjing Road (West)
3. Yú Xìn Chuāncài Restaurant: Sichuan Food
Known for its WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!!!!???? level of spicy food, Sichuan cuisine is very addictive once you get over the initial burn. Sichuan hotpot establishments are scattered all over Shanghai and are surprisingly popular in the hottest months of the year. Chinese believe that the sweat inducing soup will actually help you cool off! Ordering hotpot in Shanghai restaurants is quite intimidating though for those who don’t speak Chinese, as there are so many variables.
The fantastic Yú Xìn Chuāncài restaurant (渝信川菜), just off Nanjing Road East is a Michellin star rated Sichuanese restaurant in Shanghai, and has a very handy picture menu in English, which makes ordering easy.
The Dandan noodles (担担面) are as good as in Chengdu and hits the perfect balance between spicy and nutty. Minced pork, mustard stems, preserved vegetables, Sichuan pepper, chili oil, sesame paste, and peanuts come together in the tastiest way imaginable in every bowl of dandan noodles.
Mapo tofu is another dish from Sichuan that you should try at this famous Shanghai restaurant. The Sichuan peppercorns in this dish of silky tofu cubes, ground pork and scallion are so spicy that it has a numbing effect on your tongue, but that’s the beauty of Sichuanese cuisine. You won’t realize how spicy it is as long as you keep eating it. It’s when you stop that it really hits you! Sips of canned coconut milk helps you rebound until you’re ready for the next bite.
Shanghai restaurant, Yú Xìn Chuāncài Restaurant address: 5th floor, 399 Jiujiang Rd, Huangpu
4. Friday Muslim Market: Uyghur cuisine
Everyone in China knows that the best barbeque comes from Xinjiang Province in far west China. For the best halal barbeque, look out for the green Arabic Script on shops anywhere you go in China. Green+Arabic=Best Lamb (that’s easy to remember).
You can get Uyghur cuisine at the Friday Muslim Market held outside the Huxi mosque after prayers. However, check before you trek on over as due to COVID, they may still be shut down.
The area around the mosque is home to the best Uyghur food in Shanghai. We always get some lamb skewers, garlic stems, eggplants, nan (similar to central Asian flatbread) and osmanthus cake, all of which go on the grill.
Other than the incredible barbeque, you can also get hand pulled laghman noodles, dumplings, plov (central Asian rice dishes) and dried fruit from Xinjiang province.
Friday Muslim Market address: 1328 Changde Lu
Butterfly cookies at the Park Hotel
The Park Hotel is literally the center of Shanghai, that’s what the man and plaque in the lobby claim at least. The Park Hotel, completed in 1934, is one of the city’s most historic and spectacular Art Deco hotels. Even if not planning to spend the night here, you should definitely come for the famous butterfly cookies. The Park Hotel bakery is known all across China for its buttery and flaky palmiers, or Hu Die Su in Mandarin, which basically translates to Butterfly Cookies.
There is a line as long as the Great Wall all day, every day in front of the Park Hotel Bakery, whose entrance is on the side of the building. Much better is to go inside the hotel itself, and order a few butterfly cookies and tea to enjoy in the stunning Art Deco lobby lounge.
The Park Hotel is also very popular with locals longing for some nostalgia from the old Shanghai afternoon tea.
Lilian Bakery (莉莲蛋挞):
One of Shanghai’s hottest bakeries these days is Lillian Bakery. New branches continue to pop up all over China. The first branch opened in Shanghai in 2001, and people are still lining up twenty years later! Lilian’s forte is its incredible egg tarts. The recipe for these flaky crusts filled with sunshine and egg custard comes all the way from Lisbon, eventually made its way to the Portuguese colony of Macau. From here it made its way to dim sum menus in Macau and Hong Kong before taking the mainland by storm. Grab a box (half dozen) or two and head to one of Shanghai’s beautiful parks for an impromptu picnic. People’s Park is particularly beautiful with many benches in serene spots.
(More than 50 locations in Shanghai)
Tea in Shanghai
You can’t come to China without drinking its marvellous teas. And forget about tea bags, sugar, or milk! Tea in China is always loose leaf and drunk without milk and sugar. The traditional teahouses in Yuyuan gardens are extremely atmospheric, photogenic, but more often than not, overpriced.
The Huxinting Tea House right in the centre of the pond is very picturesque spot for tea, even if grossly overpriced. You will get a pot of tea of your choice, and thermos with hot water to refill as much as you like, and some snacks like boiled quail eggs, mochi, and sunflower seeds or nuts.
Tianshan Tea Market Shanghai (天山茶城)
A much better experience is to go to the Tianshan Tea Market in Shanghai and sip your way through the four floors of Oolong, Longjing, Puer, Maofeng, Biluochun (or whatever your heart desires) tea shops until you find your perfect cuppa. Tea from Shanghai also makes for a great gift for family or friends back home.
Most merchants speak enough English and will treat you to a little tea ceremony, giving you different samples of tea until you have found your match.
Best Areas in Shanghai for foodies
Shanghai is huge, both horizontally and vertically. Tourist visitors and foodies alike will find more than enough to keep them busy for weeks in central Shanghai.
Fine Dining Restaurants in Shanghai
A good starting point is People’s Park, right in the centre of Shanghai. A stroll down Nanjing Dong Lu (Nanjing Road East) will take you to the Bund and the Huangpo river. There are some fantastic places to eat on, and just off, Nanjing Road East. Along the Bund you will find amazing views and some of the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in Shanghai and the world.
Head west along Nanjing Lu from People’s Park and you’ll be heading towards the leafy avenues of the former French Concession. Keep an eye out for the largest Starbucks in the world as you walk this way.
Plan your walk to go along Wujiang Road or Xiangyang Road, as this is where you’ll find some of the city’s best hole in the wall restaurants in Shanghai. The best time to come this way is in the morning. Here you can get delicious steamed and pan-fried dumplings, scallion pancakes and other flat breads and fried delights for an on-the-go bite. It’s the best Shanghai takeaway!
Instagramable Food in Shanghai
The Yuyuan garden area, also known as Old Shanghai, is a beautiful area, and visitors flock here to see the classic Chinese garden and old buildings of the Yuyuan bazaar. Yuyuan has plenty of places to eat, and the food is often displayed beautifully. The classic Chinese setting, and beautiful food make it the perfect place to get some great snaps for your followers in Instagram.
Trendy Food in Shanghai
The picturesque avenues of the French concession are where you’ll find some of the trendiest and hipster places to eat. Julu Lu (Lu = street) is the place to be if you’re looking for excellent restaurants, trendy coffee shops, cafes, bakeries, and rooftop bars.
Final thoughts on Food in Shanghai
Shanghai is an amazing destination to visit. The best advice I can give anyone is to eat as much as you can, every opportunity that you get. I bet that you’ll remember the tastes and experiences you get when eating for much longer than you’ll remember the looking at the skyline.
About the Authors
De Wet and Jin from the Museum of Wander love to travel and to eat. They believe that the best way to experience the culture of a country is to eat the food and talk to the people. They have been living in China for the last four years.
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