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How to Eat Like a Local by Day in Shanghai

guantangbaoSoup dumplings

Of all the cities in China Shanghai is perhaps second only to Beijing in providing the tourist with the means to escape the reality that they are in China. After all, it is far more comfortable to simply stop at one of the plethora of French cafes with familiar foods than try to negotiate a meal of Chinese food out of a weary local. But unless you leave your comfort zone and seek out the local food and culture you can't leave China with the satisfaction that you have truly experienced or understood it.

Aside from the cultural experience, going local is the cheapest way to live in Shanghai, and so over the course of two articles, we will give you the highlights of the local diet you can experience in a day whilst not setting you back more than 150 RMB. You need one word to get what you want, point and say 'zhe ge' (pronounced jay-gur). Barring the odd anomaly, pointing and a bit of persistence can get you what you want.

Shanghai Breakfast Food

Broadly speaking, for a typical Shanghainese breakfast on a budget there are two options, the fresh market or the breakfast canteen. For the inexperienced a fresh market will be a better place to find food than a canteen, which are often noisy, full, and rather unwelcoming to tourists so unless you have a willing local to help you out it is likely to be more pain than it is worth.

The Shanghainese tend to have savory food for breakfast, and a common Shanghai staple is the 2 RMB (liang kuai qian) egg pancake. Make sure to eat it whilst it's hot though; they taste bland when cold. Another South-east Asian favorite to look out for is youtiao, a stick-shaped donut normally eaten with soy sauce, but equally good with sugar.

As a breakfast drink Chinese people usually have soymilk, but be aware that this is not soymilk as you know it, more of a 'beany' tasting soybean juice. To put it kindly it is an acquired taste, and if there was one place to stick with something Western, it would be to have coffee instead.

The Typical Shanghainese Lunch

Xiao Yang Shengjian is one of the best local restaurants in Shanghai, and used to be the focal point of Wujiang Lu,  the best street snack road in Shanghai. Now though, thanks to a gentrification project it is one of the few remaining eateries left on the street, but thanks to its enduring popularity your are guaranteed to queue, rest assured though, it's worth it. They specialize in shengjian, a fried dumpling with a minced pork and broth filling. The big mistake people make is to try and eat the dumplings too quickly, but all you will end up with is a burnt mouth and amused attention from locals, so be careful.

Following the demise of Wujiang Lu, Yunnan Nan Lu has become Shanghai's premiere food street, and with no Western restaurants on it, Yunnan Nan Lu promises to be a truly local experience, providing you with a multitude of Chinese point-and-chose dining options. It is hard to talk about food in Shanghai without mentioning Din Tai Fung, whilst it caters towards more wealthy locals it is nonetheless a mainstay of the shanghai food scene. There are seven restaurants spread across Shanghai, famous for their xiaolongbao — thin skinned steamed dumplings with a meat and broth filling. Every time friends and family come to visit me Din Tai Fung is one of the first restaurants I take them to.

Din Tai Fung's success has been built on the two principles of good food and good service, and it's a reliable antidote to the jetlag and culture shock. Part of that is down to the fact that Din Tai Fung is a worldwide, Taiwanese owned chain found more often than not in shopping malls, so the setting rather neutral.

Din Tai Fung's success and popularity speaks for itself though so you will need to reserve a table if you can, otherwise be prepared to wait. Their headline xiaolongbao are ably supported by a range of tasty rice, noodle, or cold vegetable dishes, and for about 100RMB per person few come away with a bad word to day about it.

By this point in the day you should still have at least 30 RMB left for food for the rest of your evening, and in part two we'll show tell you just what a Shanghai local would do with that.

Key places

  • Street food: Yunnan Nan Lu
  • Xiao Yang Shang Jian: 2F, 269 Wujiang Lu, near Taixing Lu 吴江路269号
  • Din Tai Fung: G/F, Shanghai Center, 1376 Nanjing West Road;
    123 Xing Ye Road;
    168 Fangbangzhong Lu, near Zhoujin Lu

Eating like a Local with China Highlights

China Highlights tours take you to authentic local restaurants to give you a chance to taste the best real Chinese food that is available. Most of our Shanghai tours have evenings free to allow you to explore

Though we don't recommend street food or small local food retailers generally to avoid stomach upsets from unfamiliar or unsanitary food, if you would like to try Shanghai's local fare there is plenty that is both safe and tasty. You can easily customize any of our private Shanghai tours or start from your ideas to include a guided street food experience. Our consultancy, individual tour designing, and quoting for special experiences is all free.