Shanghai's 'Hu' cuisine may be devoured by the country's largest city, but it's a lesser-known, often overlooked, cuisine. Indeed, historically it was thought of as 'peasant food', and summarily dismissed. If you look at the revered 'eight great' Chinese cuisines, Shanghai is surrounded by Nanjing, Zhejiang and Anhui cuisines, but most definitely not included. The thing is, over 24 million locals adore their Hu cuisine, with very good reason.
Off with a Benbang
There are two distinct styles of cooking in Shanghai - Benbang and Haipai styles. Bengang food began in the Ming and Qing dynasties as standard peasant food but became more complex as Shanghai prospered. This style of cooking is distinctly sweet, with a deep, caramelised flavour that is the stuff of major cravings. Generous splashes of Shaoxing rice wine and Zhejiang vinegar cut through the sweet and balance out the abundance of fresh vegetables beautifully.
This style of cooking is distinctly sweet, with a deep, caramelised flavour that is the stuff of major cravings.
Haipai cuisine is the newcomer, having only been around in the past 200 years or so. Haipai is where East meets West - 'modern Chinese' food that uses ingredients from all over the world, traded through Shanghai's international port. Haipai cuisine is bold and experimental - with Chinese takes on everything from potato salad to sauerkraut. Young chefs continue to experiment with new methods and ingredients, making Haipai cuisine ever-changing, but already there are many classics that endure.
Prepare to be converted
Let's face it, we had you at 'caramelised' and 'generous splashes of Shaoxing rice wine'. While 'peasant food' might be sniffed at by the critics, the rest of us cannot add the ingredients to our shopping lists fast enough. Here are the legendary dishes out of Shanghai you simply must try.
Haipai cuisine is bold and experimental - with Chinese takes on everything from potato salad to sauerkraut.
A unique style of wonton wrapping and a vegetable-packed filling make this Shanghai favourite different to other wontons you've tried. When Adam Liaw makes these on Destination Flavour China, his top tip for keeping the dumplings at a low simmer is to add a spoonful of cold water if the boil gets too brisk.
"Lion head meatballs" may sound intimidating, but they are one of Shanghai's most beloved home-style meal. The shape of the meatball is said to resemble the Chinese guardian lion, hence the name. The meatballs are tender and moist with a unique flavour that is both sweet and savoury.
Every family in Shanghai has their own way to cook this traditional side dish. This recipe bursts with garlic and chilli, which cuts through the saltiness of the dark soy and sugar sauce. It's the perfect balance of salt, sweet and savoury.
This is what they eat for breakfast in Shanghai. Vendors all over the city soak rice overnight, steam it, stir-fry it with shitake mushrooms and pork, then wrap tens of thousands of shao mai (siu mai) ready for the hungry punters. Did we mention this is a breakfast dish? Talk about an early start!
During Autumn in Shanghai, you'll find hairy crab sold on every street corner and on every restaurant menu. The city makes the most of this prized crustacean's short season. Locals will tell you that the only way to eat hairy crab is to simply steam it with fragrant ginger, then served with a dash of rice vinegar, sugar and ginger sauce for dipping. The laborious task of picking apart the whole crab is all part of this much-loved ritual.
These little seafood and bone marrow flavour explosions are usually made with a pork, prawns or vegetable filling. A delicious soup forms inside the dumpling while it cooks. The hot tip from Destination Flavour China is to pop the whole dumpling in your mouth at once, to get a true flavour hit. Or you can nibble off an edge and suck out the soup... either way, it's Shanghai-ven.
Literally meaning “pock-marked old lady tofu” this dish has to have one of the least complimentary names in all of the Chinese cuisine. Using Chengdu’s famous Pixian chilli bean paste, this has become a classic of Sichuan cookery. It’s very easy to make, too.
A Shanghai home-cooked meal that's been passed down through many generations. The rice cakes are chewy and sticky and generally served as a snack with a glass of beer or juice. You can by the rice cakes frozen or dried at most Asian food stores.
An example of the delectable creations that Haipai cuisine produces, these little pies are East-meets-West love babies. They are filled with red-cooked pork, or hong shao rou, which is just about the best thing to ever come out of Shanghai (along with the myriad of other best things to come out of Shanghai). A touch of Shaoxing rice wine makes the crust perfectly crisp and flaky.
A favourite Shanghai street food, these sweet, sticky "soup balls" are traditionally made for Chinese New Year, or during the winter solstice. The roundness of the dumplings represents family unity. A filling, in this case, black sesame seeds, is rolled in glutinous rice and served with a sweet syrup, often subtly flavoured with ginger.
These glutinous rice parcels are said to ward off dragons and are widely consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival in June. Zongzi are made across Southern China, but every region makes them slightly differently. The Shanghai version is shaped like a pyramid and filled with mushrooms, chicken, pork and shrimp.
Bask in a Chinese food bounty like no other with Adam Liaw's brand-new series Destination Flavour China. Wednesdays at 7.30pm on SBS, replay at 9.35pm Sundays on SBS Food (Ch 33), then later via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more!
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This Shanghainese recipe is indispensable in my kitchen. The combination of oil infused with the fragrance of spring onion and dried shrimps and the umami savouriness of soy sauce is irresistible, however simple it sounds. The recipe is said to have been invented by a street vendor near the City God Temple in Shanghai.