Shanghainese Food: What to Get and Where to Eat

For most Americans, Chinese food is about Fried Rice, Chow Mein and the occasional Kung Pao Chicken. But China’s a big country, and just like in the States, each region has its own specialties.

For example, the food in Northern China is very different from Southern China. You’ll find a lot of stir-fries and rice dishes in the South, which is much more common in American Chinese restaurants.

Up North, though, the winters are longer and colder, hence their food is richer and tends to be a little heavier (braised meats and doughy noodles and dumplings). It’s good comfort food.

The food from Shanghai is no exception. Here are some tried and true favorites you’ll find at a typical Shanghainese restaurant. If they do these dishes well, you’ll be golden.

Lion’s Head Meatballs are named aptly for the way this dish was supposed to look. The dish usually has three ginormous pork meatballs, and is served on a bed of greens, which resembles the lion’s mane.

You can usually find this dish as a soup or braised. I prefer it braised, personally. The sauce is much richer and deeper in flavor. They start with ground pork and add in some finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and sometimes water chestnuts for texture. But a truly good version of this dish will also have the addition of anise, cinnamon and cloves, usually from a five-spice powder blend. The meatballs are then fried and braised. The flavors are very different, yet the ingredients are totally familiar. It’s such a fabulous dish that has a lot of warmth from the spices and goes great with some steamed white rice.

Pork Chop Rice With Greens is a very traditional homestyle meal. What makes this dish different is that chopped bits of baby bok choy and smoky ham are all cooked together with white rice to get a wonderful melding of all three flavors and a stickier rice. Add to that some golden fried pieces of pork chop and you’ve got a one-pot meal, Chinese style.

This is a wonderfully unusual take on veggies. Here, soybeans (edamame) are stir-fried with preserved mustard greens that add a nice tang and crunch. For protein and even more texture, tofu skin strips are thrown into the mix. It’s a dish that’s both mild and flavorful at the same time. It’s great mixed into a bowl of soup noodles, too.

Soup Dumplings (or Xiao Long Bao) are probably the most recognizable Shanghainese food item to those even remotely familiar with the cuisine. They’re called soup dumplings for the pocket of meat juices that end up on the inside of that delicately thin dough. If the doughy exterior is too thick, that’s a restaurant you don’t want to go back to. Getting the perfect mix of thin dough and flavorful meaty interior is an extremely difficult task. And you want to eat these babies when they’re fresh out of the steamer, otherwise they get gummy.

For novices, just place one dumpling very carefully (so you don’t rip the dough) onto your Chinese spoon. Take a small bite out of the skin and let the soup spill into your spoon. Yummy soup is another good sign of a great dumpling. After you slurp that up, dip the dumpling into the accompanying black vinegar and ginger sauce.

Enjoy…and if it’s good, you definitely will.

So if you love Chinese food, you might want to think outside the takeout box and look for more regionalized Chinese fare. You’ll never look at Kung Pao Chicken the same way again.

Shanghainese Restaurants I’d Recommend:

SHANGHAI DUMPLING SHOP (Michelin recommended in 2010)
455 Broadway, Millbrae
(650) 697-0682
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Stir Fried Rice Cake

HAPPY CAFE
250 South B St., San Mateo
(650) 340-7138
Must try: Pork Chop Rice, Spicy Dry Cold Noodles w/Cucumbers & Pork, Boiled Chicken w/House Dressing

SHANGHAI DUMPLING KING
3319 Balboa St., San Francisco
(415) 387-2088
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Lion’s Head Meatballs Soup, Soup Noodles w/Pork and Preserved Vegetables

*This post is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

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