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Zhaojialou water town, photo by UnTour Shanghai

For visitors looking to get beyond Shanghai’s urban core, among the main attractions are the plentiful water towns that ring the outer suburbs in just about every direction. The name refers to the bygone reliance of these towns on water for irrigation and transport, especially in the form of canals. Billed as ancient villages, the popular destinations tend to be packed with visitors, with traditional foods as the main draw – perhaps due in part to the lack of other activities on offer.

The most popular of these, Qibao, now rests almost directly on a subway stop, which has brought even heavier crowds and increased commercialization. While it is known as a street snack destination, another location in Pudong is still flying a bit more under the radar. A half-day jaunt to Zhaojialou offers just as many opportunities for snacking (and full meals) in a slightly more relaxed atmosphere.

Located about 20 km away from Shanghai, the area is within biking distance or a RMB 60 taxi ride for most downtown or Pudong residents. The area was mostly redone in 2008, when the farmers’ houses were turned into snack stalls and shops. The shops feature almost entirely food products and mini restaurants, so we’ve deemed this culinary commercialization as acceptable “progress.”

Soup dumplings in Zhaojialou, photo by UnTour ShanghaiMost prevalent are the crispy fried pig skin (咸蹄髈, xián tí pang) and braised river snails (田螺, tiánluó), but plenty of familiar favorites, like fried pork dumplings (生煎包, shēngjiān bāo) and soup dumplings (小龙包, xiǎolóng bāo), can also be found in the main stretch just as you enter on the west gate. When we last visited, the vendors still seemed happy to see foreign visitors and were in a more jovial than pushy sales mood – always a welcome change of pace from other over-commercialized food streets.

Make a stop at Mrs. Chen’s Le Tian Xing for freshly made soup dumplings. You may wonder why you’d need to travel outside of the city for these, but the menu here offers mixed flavors in their steamer baskets, something you almost never find elsewhere. Our sampler included two each of pork with dried scallop, pork with shrimp and pork with crab roe.

A sign proclaims Mrs. Chen’s recipes are an improvement on the standard found around town, owing to her time spent honing her craft and winning awards in – inexplicably – Japan. Whatever the case, the juicy dumplings are some of the best we’ve ever sampled. Look for the western name, L’attenton, and match up the Chinese characters 乐添兴, as Mrs. Chen is in the process of reopening on the main street after she recently lost her lease and a copycat has cropped up in her old space at #29.

End your sampling at Laojie Tangyuan (#10) with a bowl of the eponymous black sesame-stuffed glutinous rice balls (芝麻汤团, zhīma tāngyuán). The oversized dumplings are just RMB 2.5 each and are the perfect sweet, gooey texture to end a gluttonous day out. Considered a tasty tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine, black sesame is eaten to prevent premature graying of the hair as well as to nourish the liver and kidneys and to lubricate the intestines. You’ll also find a popular pork and mustard greens (芥菜汤圆, jiècài tāngyuán) variety here.

Tangyuan in Zhaojialou, photo by UnTour ShanghaiLong-term residents of Shanghai may question the “authenticity” of these water towns, as most Chinese renovations tend to lend a Disneyfied feeling to crumbling historic sites and usually border on complete rebuilds (if not complete tear-downs). The consensus with Zhaojialou is that the area has been the site of an important trading village dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, making it around 800 years old. We’ll accept the loose definition of “ancient” if it means more traditional local foods have a permanent place to call home.

Address: Minhang District, Pujiang Town, Chen Du Gong Lu, Zhaojialou Village, Xingdong Jie
闵行区 浦江镇沈杜公路召稼楼古镇兴东街

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Published on April 08, 2014

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