Ask anyone who lives in Shanghai about street food and you can be guaranteed one of two responses. Locals and expats alike, you either love it, or won't go near it. We decided to head out and explore different popular street food spots in Shanghai and experience a night of eating from the mobile carts dotted around the city.
While there are innumerable places in the city where you will find street food hawkers, you also need to ensure that the food meets a certain standard of hygiene and cleanliness combined with great flavors. The trick is to always go to those spots which have the maximum crowds. We have listed below some of the popular and, more importantly safe, street food vendors for all you foodies who love their shaokao (烧烤 'Chinese BBQ').
1. Fangbang Xi Lu
Fangbang Road has a major street food market in Shanghai's old town section, quite hidden away, but very popular with tourists and locals. It is around the corner from the famous Yu Yuan gardens, and can pack quite a crowd.
You will enjoy walking down the narrow lane, taking in all the smells, from stinky tofu, crayfish, giant lobsters, steaming wontons, fried dumplings, to fried noodles. Behind the stalls, there are low-priced restaurants, all in a line, serving up delicious regional food. This is a haven for those who are looking to find the backbone of Shanghai's street food scene.
2. Kangding Lu / Yanping Lu junction
These guys set up their ever-expanding stall after 10 pm and serve till 2:30–3:00 am. Perfect to end a late night after partying.
It is run by a husband-wife duo, assisted by more family member, and they are very friendly. Happy and energetic, they would eagerly set up a tiny table-chair for you to sit and enjoy your quick meal. Try their skewered meats, especially the chicken and pork ones. Pair your dish with a few beers from the Family Mart right next to the stalls, and enjoy the dishes.
3. Xinzha Lu / Wanhangdu Lu junction
There is this one food stall adjacent to a local hot pot restaurant and a Lianhua grocery store, run by a super enthusiastic fellow, who is quite the expert with the wok and fried noodles (炒面) or fried rice (炒饭). He is also one of the rare vendors who serve the noodles and rice with generous helpings of meat. But the best part is that he is fluent in English and very friendly, which explains the line of expats at his stall. Apart from rice and noodles, he has a full variety of skewered yummies — we would recommend the squid.
4. Zhenning Lu / Yuyuan Lu junction
This stall is at the cross-section signal, and is a very large enterprise. Run by a group of 3–4 young men, this place opens to customers — locals and expats — around 6 pm, and is open till late. They have a lovely pavement seating arrangement, even provide each table with its on tissue rolls.
Given they are so busy pretty much through the evening, you can expect to wait a while for the food to arrive, but the best part about this vendor is the variety of items on offer. They even make barbecued bull frog — rare in the street food culture. The other items that you must try here are their scallops, oysters, fish, pork, mushrooms and eggplant — all skewered and expertly roasted on the grill, and spiced.
5. South Bund Fabric Market
Though this place is most popular for their fabrics and tailors, and the fact that you can get a suit custom made in no time, or a wedding dress, or whatever you fancy in a fashion catalog, the other very good reason to visit the fabric market is to sample the street food on offer at various stalls in the area around the fabric market.
Lots of vendors and unusual mix of dishes to choose from will promise you an evening of yummy munchies while you shop for clothes!
Some popular street food dishes you are likely to come across in Shanghai:
Cōng yóu shao bing (onion oil pancake)
It is…an oval shaped crusty flat bread, served either sweet or salty.
The Verdict: a safe start to the evening and a good way to line your belly.
Shou zhua bing (hand grab cake)
It is…a Taiwanese delight, which the vendor has been selling since 2008. He stretches what looks like pizza dough and spreads the disc onto the hotplate and it bubbles and browns. We choose toppings of cheese, egg, lettuce and chili sauce.
The Verdict: a great snack with a peppery aftertaste. Warms the belly and the fillings create a substantial snack.
It is…domino-sized pieces of spongy tofu with visible chili toppings.
The Verdict: too much msg in this one for our liking and unfortunately it can't be served without. The chili does its job to keep us warm though.
Wild Potato from Shennongjia
It is…baby potatoes which have been roasting on the hotplate for hours and are served with mixed spring onion, black sesame seeds and a dash of salt.
The Verdict: it sure humbles the traditional western roast potato and we fight with our skewers to get more.
Shanghai Street Noodles
It is…a mobile cart featuring a selection of noodles, vegetables, meats, sauces and condiments. We opt for flat rice noodles with egg, bean shoots, bok choy, soy sauce with a sprinkling of unknown seasonings from old congee tins.
The Verdict: This one came with atmosphere. The expert cook was clanking his wok over the blue flames while we waited at a tiny table with our knees around our ears. The noodles were fresh, perfectly seasoned and substantial. This one did, however, come with a warning… "It's OK to eat it once per month," said my Chinese friend, "but not too often, as the oil is no good." If she's eating it, I'm good to go.
Liu Shi Roasts the Pear
It is…a one of a kind cube-shaped contraption with eight round drawers. Slide these out and you have pears that have been roasting for 2-3 hours. "My brother made it," the vendor says as we inspect the device that looks like it belongs in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. She checks a thermometer, twists a knob, pulls a lever and out comes the delicious juice. "It's good for a sore throat," she promises.
The Verdict: Being the only one of its kind in Shanghai (and I'm guessing the world), talk moves to how we could take one home. The sweet, soft, mouth-watering pears are a delicious winter warmer.
Wok Prepared Fish
It is…an non-descript fish prepared with Chinese red wine, ginger, red and green peppers, chili and spring onion. But don't "flip it" to scrape the fish from the other side. Apparently, the phrase can be mistaken for flipping a boat and it's extremely bad luck to those out at sea.
The Verdict: The sauce tastes as good as it smells but the fish makes me uneasy. I think it's straight from the Huangpu.
Street Food in General
Street food rules vary from district to district. Often you won't see any out until after 9pm. Ordinary streets are transformed into bustling al fresco dining spaces, complete with tiny tables, plastic seats and colourful characters.
Street food. It is...just as much about the atmosphere as it is about each daring mouthful. As we stroll further and further into Old Town, we're swept away by a street cleaner's bamboo broom, dazzled by the colours of the fruit stalls, puzzled by the number of pyjama wearers and lured this way and that by the interesting smells. We see blankets, DVDs, shoes, gloves and brooms for sale, as well as fur hats, lanterns, wool, curtains and anything else that doesn't fit into a category.
The Verdict: Definitely a budget night out with some good friends and good laughs.