Happy weekend dearest readers. Just arrived home from the airport moments ago with second-day hair, and I can’t wait to share my surprisingly pleasant weekend in Shanghai, only about a week before Chinese New Year.
1. Pre-flight Munchies
Prior to boarding my flight, I ate at the Hong Kong airport food court. I was quite pleased with my breakfast order at Duddell’s, and I feel that their modern take on traditional dim sum would also appeal to Western readers.
A lot of Asian cuisine nowadays are marketed towards English-speaking or expat diners. Even so, I found the dim sim here pretty authentic, just like those you would find at places frequented by local Chinese people.
First things first: the logistics of travel and money. The airfare from Hong Kong to Shanghai was about around £200, or USD $260. Friends, I find this price to be kind of extortionate, it’s not like in London, where you could travel to Stockholm or Frankfurt for less than £100. But to be fair, I had chosen a Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Dragon, which does tend to be more expensive than Mainland Chinese ones.
2. Classic Chinese Sweet
One of the most fascinating things about China today is the widespread use of mobile payment. When my family and I were in the queue at renowned Shanghainese food establishment Shen Da Cheng, we were one of the only people who paid with cash and everyone else had their phones out ready to be scanned with a QR code. If you don’t have a Chinese bank account that you could easily draw from on your phone, cash is the preferred payment for this city known for its casual food scene.
A lot of non-Asian friends know about mochi, the squidgy Japanese sweet made with glutinous rice flour, often filled with delectable adzuki bean paste. The glutinous rice sweets from Shen Da Cheng are the most delicious mochi-type snacks I have ever tasted.
Shen Da Cheng
Nanjing East Road 636
Not to toot our own horn or anything, but historically there had been a lot of cultural exchange between Japan and China, and it would not be wrong to suggest that many aspects of Japanese food and culture are a result of Chinese influences. Chinese characters (kanji) are even a part of the written Japanese language.
I dream about these giant Chinese sweets filled with both red bean paste and black sesame paste, and rolled in unsweetened desiccated coconut. They are the OG – a traditional Chinese sweet invented here. The glutinous rice is extremely fragrant, the filling nutty and perfectly sweetened.
I recommend eating these the day of purchase, as I find the dough becomes chewy and not super tender anymore if kept 2+ days. Kind of like how French baguettes become tough quickly. Probably a good sign that it does not contain many shelf-stabilising ingredients. For my Japanese sweets aficionados, you will be able to find a cheap, and great if not better substitute for mochi in Shanghai.
3. Crowd-pleasing Buns
The two types of buns you must have in Shanghai are of course: Xiao Long Bao and Sheng Jian Bao. Both are typically filled with minced meat and bursting with hot meaty broth. The former is a sort of steamed, delicate dumpling, whilst the latter is a bread-y type of bun that is fried on one side. Akin to the Chinese form of hamburgers, it is difficult not to love the taste and texture of these buns. They have a universal appeal and are especially suited to the Western palette. My picky eating friends, you have to give these a try!
Terminal One Arrivals
Hongqiao International Airport
If you are arriving Shanghai via Hongqiao International Airport, there’s nothing better than having your Sheng Jian Bao right after you exit immigration. I was extremely perplexed when these buns were served. They are… upside down? But it is the correct and practical way for the soft side to be facing up and crispy side facing down so you can take a small bite on the soft dough first, slurp all the meaty juices, then proceed to eat the minced meat and my personal preference: devouring the crispy bun last.
A lot of oriental food is pork-based. In Chinese, Korean and Japanese food culture, these are a number of dishes like pork broth, barbecued pork, or braised pork. However, there is a kind of crab-filled Xiao Long Bao. I want Halal foodie friends to try meat buns so bad! So it is worth asking the kitchen if these crab buns are strictly pork free. If not, then perhaps special orders can be arranged.
Having just said how unaccessible Chinese food is to Islamic friends, Muslims are actually not that rare in China. There are about 6 mosques in Shanghai and I accidentally saw a very beautiful one along a motorway. Among a sea of nondescript apartment buildings and unconventional looking avant-garde high rises, this historic mosque was like a feast for my eyes. Must be meant to be to pass by it.
China is considered a secular state. And religion is one of the things that are regulated in this socialist regime.
“The Chinese government recognises only five religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and Taoists.”
– Seattle Times
But no matter what the politics are like, the best way for different religions to get along is not to read fake news, but to travel, converse, and get to know other cultures in real life.
If you travel in Hong Kong and China around Chinese New Year time, you will find many beautiful floral arrangements like this peach blossom one.
Starting and ending my journey with buns – but of course. And the next bun establishment that I recommend is the equally well-known Jia Jia Tang Bao. Like the previous restaurant, they have become very popular and have opened multiple locations.
My very own four-step approach to eating Xiao Long Bao without piercing the dumpling skin and losing precious meaty broth:
- Dip chopsticks into your own little dish of vinegar
- Pick up dumpling with moistened tips of chopsticks
- Dip bottom of dumpling with vinegar
- Transport onto soup spoon: either nibble on dumpling in a ladylike manner, or pop entire dumpling into impatient mouth (take extra care not to spew out hot broth!)
Jia Jia Tang Bao
68 Yuyuan Rd
4. An Eastern Take On Yoghurt
I have to thank my generous parents for the following little food favourite. They had enough air miles to receive a lounge pass at the airport, and they had kindly given one to me. Whilst there, I discovered this delicious yoghurt flavoured with red dates. The funny thing was for the life of me, I could not find a teaspoon and had to eat the yoghurt with a Chinese soup spoon.
After finishing one, I returned to the little refrigerator to find only one left, which I had taken as a sign from the universe that it is destined to come home with me.
And that’s a wrap for my lovely weekend treat to Shanghai. With Chinese New Year just around the corner, I hope this will be helpful to friends who may be travelling soon to this old world city.
Thank you for following along with my journey readers!