Editor’s note: This week we are celebrating street food, in all its fascinating, delicious and sometimes offbeat forms. Each day, we’ll take a look at the top street foods in a different city that Culinary Backstreets covers. This feature from Shanghai is the first installment.
A Shanghai specialty, shēngjiān mántou (生煎馒头) – or shēngjiān bāo (生煎包), as they’re known everywhere else in China – are juicy pork buns wrapped in bread dough, then arranged in a flat, oil-slicked wok in which the bottoms are deep-fried till they are crispy. Although shengjian mantou can be found on most street corners in the morning, we’re especially fond of the delicious misshapen buns at Da Hu Chun. A Chinese Time-Honored Brand (老字号, lǎozìhào), Da Hu Chun has been splattering grease since the 1930s and, nearly 80 years later, has six restaurants across Shanghai. The venue’s chefs use the rare “clear water” technique, frying the pinched side of the dough face-up to create little Frankenstein buns that might not be as photogenic as the more common “troubled water” variety, but that have a thinner skin that gets extra crisp – and we’ll sacrifice good looks any day if it means better flavor.
A popular morning snack that gets your arteries clogging early in the day, guōtiē (锅贴) translate literally as “pot stickers.” Like their thicker-skinned cousins, shengjianbao, they are first fried on the bottom to create a crunchy foundation for the pork filling, then steamed with water under a wooden lid to soften the dumpling skin and cook the meat. You can find vendors hawking both shengjianbao and guotie out of the same shallow wok, but for the best bite, head to the specialists: Huji Potstickers. They fire up their woks at 5:30 a.m. inside their narrow alleyway kitchen in the former French Concession, usually selling out well before lunch rush. Packed in like an edible jigsaw puzzle, nearly a hundred dumplings line the shallow wok, manned by a laconic cook who spins the pot with a pair of greasy pliers, ensuring that each guotie base gets a liberal swirl of oil and ends up a delicious golden brown. Be warned: these greasy pork-filled bites come out sizzling, so take a small nibble (or chopstick poke) and suck out all the juice before popping them whole into your mouth.
Address: 209 Pu’an Lu, near Taicang Lu普安路209号(近太仓路)Telephone: No phoneHours: 5:30-11amMenu: Chinese menu only
3: Congyoubing Cōngyóubǐng, or scallion oil pancakes (葱油饼) – savory golden rounds slicked with lard, stuffed with salty pork and bright green scallions, then pan-fried in standing oil – are a common breakfast treat in Shanghai, but you haven’t tried them until you’ve sampled the ones from A Da Congyoubing. The grizzled chef, Mr. Wu, is one of the few street vendors in town who can command a following that will line up patiently for over an hour just for a bite of his edible wares. He huddles over a scalding grill for up to nine hours a day – no easy task, especially for a man who was born with a disability that left him a hunchback. But without fail, Mr. Wu single-handedly churns out the best scallion oil pancakes in the city six days a week, using a process he’s perfected over the past 30 years. The secret is crisping them up at the end, which he does by rolling back the slick griddle and placing them inside the makeshift 40-gallon barrel, where they are licked to a dark brown crisp by the kerosene-fueled flames.
Head to any well-trafficked bar strip in Shanghai and you’ll find plumes of smoke rising above the drunken revelry. Shāokǎo (烧烤) is Chinese barbecue – and the perfect late-night snack whether you’re three sheets to the wind or a teetotaling night owl. Hungry patrons pick and choose from tables laden with bamboo skewers (串儿, chuànr) threaded with a grocery store’s worth of meat and vegetables, putting their choices on a silver tray before handing it to the guys manning the grill. They nestle the skewers into the narrow charcoal grill, painting oil onto the kebabs and sprinkling their secret barbecue powder (usually a combination of ground cumin, paprika, chili powder, red chili flakes and Sichuan peppercorn) onto the grilled goods while wafting handheld fans at the coals to channel the smolder for a smoky finish.
Try the juicy lamb from Xinjiang province (羊肉, yángròu): the skewer is pushed through two chunks of meat, then an unctuous cut of fat before being capped off with two more chunks of meat – it’s the perfect flavor ratio for glistening meaty kebabs. Or opt for whole yellow croaker fish skewered from tail to tongue (黄鱼, huángyú). Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and lotus root hold up best to the flames, but leek is another surprisingly tasty option, with its slender green shoots adding an earthy flavor to the mélange. We recommend trying the huge variety of skewers on offer on Fangbang Lu food street.
Location: Sipailou Lu near Fangbang Lu四牌楼路, 近方浜中路Hours: Open till very late
Sometimes called Chinese crepes, flapjacks or burritos, jiānbǐng (煎饼) are served up streetside on flat griddles. Originally from Shandong province, jianbing were invented almost two millennia ago – the legend says – to fuel a wok-less army, who fought out of an ambush after the simple but efficient meal. While the original version of jianbing consisted of little more than flour mixed with water and cooked on a flat surface over a blazing fire, today’s jianbing are beefed up with a scrambled egg cracked atop the millet flour pancake. Cilantro, green onions and pickled mustard tubers are sprinkled over the egg as it cooks, adding a burst of green freshness. The pancake is folded in half, then slathered in umami-laden soybean paste and spicy chili flakes. Add a deep-fried wonton wrapper – or sub in a yóutiáo (油条), or fried dough stick, for extra crunch – and then watch as the pancake is wrapped around all the ingredients and thrown into a plastic bag, making for a great handwarmer on a cold winter day, and the perfect on-the-go meal for any season. Streetside jianbing slingers can be found every few blocks in the morning, but after 11 a.m. it’s darn near impossible to find a vendor, except for one entrepreneurial woman who caters to all-day jianbing cravings outside the wet market on Wulumuqi Lu.
Location: Wulumuqi Lu, in between Fuxing Lu and Wuyuan Lu 乌鲁木齐路, 在复兴路和五原路中间
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