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Dining like a local in Shanghai often requires a small leap of faith. You have to forget about ambience and brave tough crowds with even tougher elbows to join the raucous, slurping masses with their steamers of the city’s famous soup dumplings, xiǎolóngbāo. Even with its thriving economy and sky-high construction boom, Shanghai still has a street food culture that is deliciously cheap and easy to find. To become a part of the appetizing fun, just look one street off the main road or wander into the city’s disappearing lilong (里弄, alleyways), which more often than not are teeming with Chinese pancake hawkers, wonton shops or makeshift grills emitting the smoky aroma of charred lamb kebabs.

Of course, in this city that displays its immense wealth like a badge of honor hand-stitched on a new Louis Vuitton handbag, eating like a local means that there are more Western and high-end Chinese options than ever. Although the Michelin Guide steadfastly refuses to cross the Hong Kong border into the Mainland, that hasn’t stopped world-renowned chefs and award-winning restaurants from entering the market. A decade ago, the trend toward expansive, hotel-style dining rooms took over Shanghai’s restaurant scene, but the last few years have witnessed a noticeable shift to smaller, more intimate spaces, causing some of city’s famed fine dining spaces to shutter their doors for good. Young, new chefs fresh off the boat from Paris, New York City, San Francisco and Melbourne are wowing guests with innovative food to feed their small, exclusive dining rooms.

While importing cheeses, chocolates and some oils is the norm in most of Shanghai’s Western restaurants, domestic sourcing and locavore dining is en vogue, with these new chefs and suppliers getting competitive over discovering high-quality ingredients within China’s borders. Diners are finding three-year cured pork from the mountains of Anhui on high-end charcuterie platters, while wine lists proudly include varietals from China’s Grace Vineyards. There’s even local caviar and fresh Gouda made at a rural collective in Shanxi province gracing menus around town. In just the last several years, Western and Chinese chefs have been able to secure just about every ingredient under the sun to create exciting fusion on levels never before seen by diners in Asia, making the focus on locally sourced and organic products increasingly strong.

This trend toward domestic discovery has trickled down to Shanghai’s wet markets, the neighborhood grocery stores where most street food vendors and mom-and-pop restaurants get their daily ingredients fresh every morning. These are not your typical “grocery stores,” with price tags and automated cash registers, but more informal markets where bargaining over piles of produce is the norm. The term “wet market” comes from the fact that the floor is generally wet, both from vendors cleaning the market by throwing water on the ground and from live fish flopping around and splashing water everywhere. At these markets, chickens and fish are butchered à la minute, noodles are made to order, and beautiful greens and exotic local produce are picked hours, not days, before they arrive at the market straight from the farm.

While China’s food scene has been in the news lately for food scandals like counterfeit baby formula and endangered animals consumed without a second thought, there is a solid method for scouting out the restaurants that serve the good stuff: the Chinese line quotient. In a city where queuing still seems a relatively foreign concept, finding a column of people patiently waiting outside a restaurant can only mean good things. So find a line at a bustling locale, jump on in and point at what everyone else seems to be ordering. Besides reading Culinary Backstreets Shanghai, there’s really no better way to try your hand at finding the city’s best dishes.

For travelers in China, the language often seems to be the most insurmountable culinary barrier, but relying on places with translated menus, however, results in missing out on too many of the most authentic Shanghai culinary gems. Therefore, we’ve included the Chinese characters for recommended dishes as they appear on the menus, as well as the Pinyin pronunciation guide. When all else fails, pointing is the sign language of restaurants. The service industry in Shanghai’s backstreets is not particularly English-savvy, but as every seasoned traveler knows, a smile and wild gesticulating usually gets the job done.

We hope you enjoy exploring and eating your way through Shanghai’s culinary backstreets as much as we have!

 Pronunciation guide for tones seen in Chinese dish names:

  • high level – first tone mā – said flatly, in an higher tone
  • rising – second tone má – spoken as if asking a question
  • falling rising – third tone mǎ – spoken starting from a high tone, then quickly falling and rising again
  • falling – fourth tone mà – spoken in a sharp, quick, dropping manner

 (photo by Kyle Patrick Long)

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