Since being in China, I have found that the easiest way for someone to get on my bad side is to turn their nose up at street food.
For the wimps complaining it’s dodgy and will give you food poisoning, you’re just the type of people that natural selection is supposed to weed out via food poisoning anyway.
Street food is nearly always cooked directly in front of you, rendering food poisoning a trivial, unnecessary concern. Besides, I am a firm believer in dirt being good for the immune system. If you can’t YOLO it up in China, then when can you?
Not only is Shanghai’s street food so tasty that I’m sitting here salivating about it from freezing cold Beijing, it’s what the locals eat so passes the authenticity test, and its very rarely more than 10RMB (£1).
You cannot go wrong.
In case you worry you might, however, I have compiled a fun little guide to some of Shanghai’s most common street food. Notable exceptions come in the form of:
a) Dumplings (my extremely unpopular opinion being that they are overrated)
b) Meat (though the skewers do smell amazing, pork is so prevalent here that, as a good Jew, it’s easier just to steer clear)
Breakfast crepes gave me a reason to get out of bed when feeling exhausted and dreading the crowded commute to work (most days). I’ve always been a breakfast person but found, to my surprise, that I ended up not missing my trusty combination of Weetabix Minis and Special K at all during my two months in Shanghai. This is because the crepes (actually called jiang bings) are phenomenal. Though the most popular ones tend to be very thin and spread with a mixture of sauces and spices, I found them a little unpalatable in the early mornings. My crepe of choice I discovered by chance on the left side of Jiangsu Road, a few minutes walk before arriving at the metro station. The stall owner speaks absolutely no English but is smiley, remembers your order and is there every day till about midday.
After the usual pointing and gesturing, a small-ish, circular crepe is placed on the griddle. An egg is cracked and yolk split until it looks like a fried egg gone pretty wrong. The egg is placed on the crepe, flipped over, and lettuce and a square of very artificial cheese is added, along with mayo or a condiment of your choice. The crepe is rolled up, you pay 6.5RMB and every mouthful is a delight. The melted cheese, combined with mayo and eggy goodness is a gloriously winning combination.
Fried dabang (aka grease man)
Another thing I thought I would miss in Shanghai was my post night out hangover breakfast. For me, there was always something so therapeutic about beans, fried eggs, toast and hash browns to soak up the excess Sainsbury’s Basics vodka in my system. Fortunately, my friend introduced me to what we called ‘grease man’. Though our name for it was off-putting to say the least (not to mention nonsensical – it was always a woman who made and served them), they are the most delicious hangover cure I can think of.
I am not sure if they are officially ‘dabangs’ (they certainly look like the first dish here), but what I do know is that they are more than worth the 10 minute walk I made up Wuyi Road more times than I can count. They charge 5RMB for two and seem to be served pretty much all day. There is an undeniably extortionate amount of oil used in deep frying them, but they are filled with chives, not sure what else, and are so warm and perfectly crunchy that the calories are 100% worth it.
I had seen these attractive spirals of potato pretty often before I mustered up the courage to try one (the first photo was taken in Qibao, where there is bizarre street food in abundance). I paid 10RMB for one, but this was just outside bustling People’s Square, so I’m sure you can get them cheaper. They’re pretty much what they say on the tin: fried spirals of potato round a stick. And you can get different things sprinkled on them, in order to make them sweet or savoury. I had something that was pleasantly cinnamon flavoured. They’re perfect for if you’re wanting and not finding cheesy chips when in China: something that happened relatively frequently to me – too. much. free. alcohol. Overall, a really satisfying snack.
Every time it got to midday in my office, my colleagues would start to tease me, asking if it was ‘baozi time’ yet. They were right to tease – I had fallen unashamedly in love with the steamed bun chain ‘Babi Mantou’ and every weekday lunchtime I walked down Liyuan Road to order the steamed delicacies. (By order I mean point to the google images saved on my phone of my favourite bun flavours. Ridiculous, yes. But innovative, also, I like to think). I stuck steadfastly to the following: vegetable stuffing, sweetened bean paste (pictured above) and black sesame seed. Eating two nearly satisfied me, eating three made me feel full, and a little fat. But they cost just 1.5RMB each, so no one was complaining (well, just the buttons on my jeans).
Admittedly there’s not much to these, and they certainly aren’t particularly photogenic, but I feel they’re worth a mention. I always adore sweet potato, as I find it hard to believe that something that tastes so good can actually be healthy too. So, when starving after work one day I decided the time was ripe to try one. Though the vendors that sell them have genuinely black hands (hopefully from cooking the sweet potato and not sweeping chimneys), I went all out eating the skin and all. Since then, especially as the days got shorter and colder, I have been a convert. Always cooked to perfection, warm and nutritious, they’re great. Some of the vendors also use old fashioned scales to weigh them (to figure out their price) which is an added bonus, as they’re pretty retro looking.
The description of this is going to be pretty vague, since my friend and I only discovered this dish whilst wandering through some small, slightly more run-down streets near Zhongshan Park. Feeling spontaneous, we went up to a tiny stall, pointed at some filled pasta-type looking things, and were then ushered away by the motherly looking chef. We sat on rickety seats at a small table on the pavement, smugly patting ourselves on the back for being so authentic, and waited for our food.
It was one of the best meals I’ve had in China, partly for the atmosphere, but also because it was so satisfying.
Some googling afterwards informed me that what I’d eaten was vegetarian wonton soup; the wonton filled with what I assume was a mixture of mushroom, broccoli and diced carrots and the chive-y broth filled with warming deliciousness. I realised half way through slurping that it was Friday night, which was fitting as the soup seemed (very) loosely like my mother’s incredible chicken soup we relish on Shabbat dinners. The kindly woman charged us 6.5RMB, though the sign seemed to quote 10RMB, so all in all, a fabulous soup and experience.
Noodles are the king of street food. My intern friends and I grew to love ‘noodle man’, who based himself outside our hotel on West Yan’an Road every evening, serving up generous portions of noodles for 10RMB. I ended up eating this for dinner about three times a week, which is a testament to noodle man’s skill (and convenient location). Like with other noodle vendors, there’s a selection of different types of noodles, and also rice, and you can get away with pointing to what you want. My favourite by far was the wide, flat noodles (though the glass ones are tasty too). I had to tell noodle man not to put meat on mine every single time, a hassle his most loyal customer did not deserve. But his eyes are so focussed on the wok (which he moved at the speed of light), I should hardly complain. Copious amounts of oil and MSG are added to the noodles, along with a semi scrambled egg at the beginning, beansprouts, greenery, red onion and chilli.
Our particular noodle man wore a shirt that said ‘1221’ on it, the name of the restaurant down the road. Apparently he served noodles, not to supplement his chef’s income from working there, but because he likes cooking in the outdoors.
No idea if the rumour is true, but I certainly hope it is.