Every Saturday afternoon, as a special treat, my dad would take me to a tiny Austrian cafe on a street lined with tranquil French planes. There, we’d order matching slices of Sachertorte with whipped cream, and my dad would chase his with a cup of coffee. I grew up nowhere near Europe, and Vienna Cafe closed when the family who ran it repatriated to Austria. But Saturday afternoons there formed a core part of my childhood in Shanghai, China.
Living in this city, arguably one of the world’s most cosmopolitan metropolises, means always having an open mind. Even if a place looks sketchy, or dingy; even if you’re inclined to think “There’s no way there could be an authentic Moroccan restaurant in Shanghai!” – there’s no way to know until you sit down and try.
New restaurants close and old ones shutter every day – just when you’ve finished mourning your old favourite, a Singaporean restaurant with amazing bak kut teh, a new restaurant opens, run by a Chinese-Canadian, serving a fusion of Canadian favourites, such as poutine, and Southeast Asian comfort food, like laksa and steamed sole.
Especially if you live in the former French Concession, as I did, there is no end of options within a five-minute walk of your front door. The street where I grew up, Yongkang Road, was known as Route Remi during French occupation. It bustles with both local and foreign-owned restaurants. For breakfast, you could have a meal of soy milk, tea-stained eggs marinated in soy sauce and star-anise, and buns, straight out of the steamer, stuffed with mushrooms and pickled greens (This will cost you about a pound).
For lunch, you could take a short stroll down the street to Pain Chaud, and buy a crusty, newly-baked ciabatta, filled with Parma ham (Western food is usually more expensive than Chinese, so this will cost you six or seven pounds). Then, as a breather from all the eating, it’s a good idea to cross the road and take a short rest in the tiny Cafe del Volcan, which serves coffee made from single-origin beans, grown in Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Yunnan. (This will set you back maybe four pounds).
Finally, have a light dinner of Anhui yiduxian soup, made from simmering both salt and fresh pork with tender spring bamboo shoots. Follow that with a carton of Macau-style pastel de nata, and you’ll have spent around five pounds more. That means, for under twenty pounds a day, and never leaving Yongkang Road, you can eat out for three square meals, and sample excellent cuisine from the West as well as from several different regions of China.
Of course this is not to say that Shanghai itself doesn’t have traditional cuisine. Nearly any street-food stall will serve you a bowl of noodles in savoury spring onion-infused oil, or tiny pork-filled wonton, floating in a hot broth of seaweed and dried shrimp.
The famous Laodifang Noodles has a line out the door starting from 6 a.m., and spaces are so scarce that you’ll have to crowd into the tiny storefront with strangers. (I once had a bad experience there involving my bowl and a nearby man picking his nose, but I’d still hurry back any day.)
And the famous soup dumplings, xiaolongbao, are Shanghainese. In Linlongfang (麟笼坊), a street restaurant, they’ll cost you about two pounds for sixteen, and you can watch them being made as you eat. These are true Shanghainese xiaolongbao; the slightly thicker skins hold bigger portions of soup and tender meat than the tiny Taiwanese ones.
Manlongchun, a more mid-range location, serves crab-filled xiaolongbao in an artsy, Instagram-friendly cafe setting, for about four pounds a steamer. Finally, nearly every mall has a Din Tai Fung, the international restaurant chain, but for some reason Shanghainese Din Tai Fungs just have the best xiaolongbao, with their papery thin skins and scalding hot pork soup.
A description of Shanghainese food, no matter how short, would be incomplete without Old Jesse. It’s a running joke that Old Jesse’s signature dish is scrambled egg and tomato, the easiest of Chinese dishes even a ten-year-old can master. But my personal favourite is their Shanghainese smoked fish, which, despite its name, is not actually smoked, but fried and soaked in a rich, smoky sweet-and-savoury sauce. A good piece of Shanghainese smoked fish is both crispy and succulent, and should crunch and melt in your mouth.
Out of this wealth of food, perhaps my favourite memories involve an ice cream place on Fumin Road. Shanhe Bingfang (山合冰坊), now closed, served only gelato and sorbets, and offered an ever-changing array of flavour combinations. There were the traditionals: chocolate-orange, strawberry – but there was also mango, pomelo, and bird’s-nest, or raspberry and red wine, or sweet fermented rice and osmanthus, or honey and black sesame.
One flavour, Shanghai Nights, was a cocktail – a cosmopolitan, to be specific – made into sorbet form. What could be more fitting as an encapsulation of Shanghai’s daring? A gelato shop, owned and operated by a Chinese man, who infused traditional gelato with flavours redolent of a modern Shanghainese lifestyle.
Shanhe Bingfang closed last year, but I am sure the next time I go back to Shanghai, I will discover something new and equally adventurous in its place. In Shanghai, to use a Chinese phrase, new food-related enterprises sprout like bamboo shoots after spring rain.
And above all, Shanghai is a metropolis defined by contrasts. Here, it is the most ordinary thing in the world to step straight out of a Mediterranean restaurant in a glistening high-rise mall, and into a hole-in-the-wall wonton place. This is a city where finding the best food depends only on having an empty stomach and an open mind.
All photographs taken by Emma Lu Ferguson