The Best Bites of 2021 in Shanghai, China - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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For the first time in 14 years, I have not left China for an entire calendar year – actually 620 days, but who’s counting? It’s a weird feeling, and one that makes me more than a little sad, so I’ve been trying to make up for it by eating delicious food as often as possible.

Luckily, Shanghai was spared the brunt of the pandemic. The shutdown was never an official lockdown in China’s financial capital, although very few restaurants were given official permission to offer in-person dining in early 2020. Shanghai didn’t shut down in 2021 either, and while some restaurants went bankrupt, the pandemic pushed other great local spots into offering delivery services when they never had before. With so many friends and chosen family here with me too, we made the best of the situation with some epic dinner parties, domestic trips and the opportunity to dine on some of our favorite dishes in the comfort of our homes.

Ordering In From Unexpected Restaurants 

While Shanghai has never gone into a full lockdown, there were a few months back in 2020 where many restaurants’ opening hours were curtailed or even completely shut with delivery-only options available. The result of that has been that many restaurants that historically only offered in-house dining joined (and are still on) the major delivery platforms. Da Dong, the Michelin starred Peking duck restaurant, is one of my favorite splurge orders now. Sure, it’s not quite the same as smelling all the ducks roasting over fruit wood while you queue for ages, but when you have a baby at home and a hankering for a crispy duck skin dipped in sugar, it’s a compromise worth making.

And while I usually eschew the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung (there’s so many better – and cheaper – local options in the city that invented them!), I am a sucker for their chili oil shrimp wontons and Taiwanese-style dan dan noodles. And their braised wheat gluten is top notch.

Chinese Wine Pairing Dinner at Old Jesse

For a wine-loving friend’s birthday, we all decided to BYOB – but make it local. We headed to Old Jesse, one of Shanghai’s best benbang restaurants, where we paired sparkling Chardonnay from Grace Vineyards in Shandong with cold starters (like my favorite: tofu skin with button mushrooms), a dry Viognier from Chateau Mihope with steamed fish and hairy crab rice, and Grace Vineyards’ new line of natural wines Jiayuan (made with Marselan grapes) with red-braised pork and scallion noodles.

Seafood Feasting in Ningbo

Located just a couple hours south of Shanghai, Ningbo is a port city famous for its seafood that I somehow hadn’t made it to in all the years I’ve lived in China. And now that I’ve been once, I will be back. The best restaurants I went to didn’t have menus – just a wet market of produce and fish to choose from, with a waiter following behind recommending the best cooking method for the ingredient I was pointing at. I discovered dishes we had never heard about (like yellow croaker spring rolls that substitute deep-fried tofu skins for dumpling wrappers, and Ningbo-style braised greens). And I ate my weight in steamed rice cakes.

Jooyoung’s Korean Dinner Parties

When foreign tourism to China was stopped back in 2020 and travelling internationally was also not possible, I started exploring Shanghai’s Koreatown. One of my Koreatown guides was Jooyoung, a talented South Korean home cook who brought her kimchi fridge with her when she moved to Shanghai from Seoul. It’s one of three fridges in her house – and it’s the biggest. At a first visit to her home, Jooyoung served three homemade cabbage kimchis – all made with the same ingredients and method, but aged one week, one month and six months, so we could see how the flavor evolved over time.

Over several dinner parties, she and her daughter also gave us a gimbap rolling lesson, showed us how to stuff semi-dried persimmons with cream cheese and padron peppers for dessert (trust me, it’s amazing!), and introduced us to so many Korean dishes we had never tried before. After working in culinary tourism for over a decade, it is an absolute treat to be on the other side of the table, learning about a new culture through the lens of its food. And being transported to Seoul via a plate of delicious bulgogi is a much-needed “travel” experience for a wanderluster feeling glued in place.

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