Shanghai cuisine, also known as Hu cuisine, is a popular style of Chinese food. In a narrow sense, Shanghai cuisine refers only to what is traditionally called Benbang cuisine (Chinese: 本帮菜; pinyin: Běnbāng cài; literally: "local cuisine") which originated in Shanghai; in a broad sense, it refers to complex and developed styles of cooking under profound influence of those of the surrounding provinces, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. It takes "color, aroma and taste" as its elements like other Chinese regional cuisines, and emphasizes in particular the use of seasonings, the quality of raw materials and original flavors.
Shanghai dishes usually appear red and shiny because they are often pickled in wine. They are cooked using a variety of methods including baking, stewing, braising, steaming and deep-frying. Fish, crab and chicken are made "drunken" with spirits and briskly cooked, steamed, or served raw. Salted meats and preserved vegetables are also commonly used to enhance various dishes. Sugar is an important ingredient in Shanghai cuisine, especially when used in combination with soy sauce. Another characteristic is the use of a great variety of seafood. Rice is more commonly served than noodles or other wheat products.
Shanghai cuisine emphasizes the use of condiments and the importance of retaining the original flavors of the raw ingredients materials. It aims at lightness in flavor and is mellower and slightly sweet in taste compared to some other Chinese cuisines. Sweet and sour is a typical Shanghai taste. An attractive presentation is also important in Shanghai cooking with ingredients being carefully cut and presented with a view to harmonizing colours.
In recent times special attention has been paid to low-sugar and low-fat food, with a good quantity of vegetables and improved nutritional value.
Shanghai cuisine is the youngest among the ten major cuisines of China although it has a history of more than 400 years. Traditionally called Benbang cuisine, it originated in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1840). In the later part of the 19th century, after Shanghai became a major domestic and international trading port, Benbang dishes underwent some substantial changes, adopting influences from other cuisines which added to its complexity.
- Shanghai hairy crab: Shanghai maoxie
The Shanghai hairy crab, a variety of the Chinese Mitten Crab, is normally consumed in late autumn. The popular species of crab is a medium-sized burrowing crab that is named for its furry claws, which resemble mittens. Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs—rich in fat and ovaries and identifiable by their green shells and white bottoms—are reputed to be the best-quality hairy crabs, although the prime spawning ground for most hairy crabs around Shanghai is now the area around the Jiuduansha shoals off Pudong in the East China Sea. The crabs are tied with ropes or strings, placed in bamboo containers, steamed and served. When they are properly cooked, the fragrance appeals to diners' palate. Da Zha Xie focuses on bringing out the natural crab flavor. The meat is tender, juicy and delicious. It is usually consumed with vinegar. Locals are also quite fussy about when to consume male crabs and when to consume female crabs. Believed to have the cooling yin (of yin and yang) effect on the body, the female crab roe is regarded as a treasure among locals.
- Shrimp with colorful vegetables
This is a stir-fried shrimp dish. The shrimps are peeled and then stir-fried with Chinese bean sauce. There will be no grease remaining on the plate when finished.
- Squirrel-shaped mandarin fish
This dish uses very fresh mandarin fish. The fish is deep-fried and has a crispy exterior and soft interior. Yellow and red in color, it is displayed in the shape of a squirrel on the plate. Hot broth is poured over, which produces a high-pitched sound. Sour and sweet flavors are combined in this dish.
- Braised crucian carp with green onion
This is rather involved and complex preparation for the common crucian carp. The dish, congshao jiyu (蔥燒鯽魚; cōngshāo jìyú; "scallion stewed crucian carp"), requires long hours for preparation since the fish needs to be soaked in vinegar, and then deep-fried, stewed for a long prolonged period, and cooled to make the fish tender enough to consume together with all its bones. Due to the complexity of its preparation and the difficulty in perfecting it, the dish was sometimes used by families as a test when recruiting a cook.
Meat and poultry
- Braised pork in brown sauce
This dish is popular among all ranges of age. The pork slowly braised with skin on, or sometimes marinated and cooked as a whole slab. Pork belly is used to make Slow-Braised Pork Belly (红烧肉; hóngshāo ròu) or Dongpo pork (东坡肉; dōngpō ròu). The dish requires long hours for cooking to make the meat juicy and soft and to soak in the soy sauce and sugar. Braised Pork Belly is normally cook with dried bamboo shoots and Dongpo pork tie by a bamboo sting to make it keep complete during the cooking.
- Lion head meatballs
The name derives from the shape of the meatball which is supposed to resemble the head of the lion and the cabbage (or other vegetables), which is supposed to resemble the lion’s mane. Usually, there are two varieties served on the table: the white (or plain), and the red (cooked with soy sauce). The plain variety is usually stewed or steamed with napa cabbage. The red variety can be stewed with cabbage or cooked with bamboo shoots and tofu derivatives. Lion head meatballs might not be as big as a lion’s head, but they are delicious anyway, sort of like the foie gras of meatballs with indulgent crab meat and a creamy texture. The delicate, porky nuances of these meatballs are quite irresistible with lots of rice.
- Red Braised Pork
As the English name suggests, the melt in the mouth texture is formed as a result of a long braising process, using relatively little liquid. The pork belly, with a combination of ginger, garlic, aromatic spices, chili peppers, sugar, light and dark soy, and rice wine, is cooked until the fat and skin are gelatinous so that it can melt easily in the mouth, while the sauce is usually thick, sweet and fairly sticky.
- Sweet and sour spare ribs
Sweet and sour spare ribs are one of the best known rib dishes in China. In Chinese, it is literally called “sugar and vinegar spareribs” which indicates the main ingredients of this dish. This dish epitomizes the sweet and sour dishes of China. The fresh pork ribs, which appear shiny and red after being cooked, are traditionally deep fried then coated in a delicious sweet and sour sauce. It originated in Wuxi City of Jiangsu Province and has been popular nationwide.
- Drunken chicken
Typically in most traditional culinary methods for this dish, the whole chicken is firstly being steamed then chopped up into pieces. The steamed meat, along with its juice, is cooked with scallions, ginger and salt. After the chicken is cooked, it is marinated in Chinese liquor, sherry or distilled liquor, like whiskey, overnight in the refrigerator. Served chilled, the poultry is a heady, salty delight. Besides the liquor-flavored meat, another feature of the dish is the liquor-flavored gelatin that results from the chilled mixture of the alcohol and the cooking juices.
- Beggar's Chicken
Beggar's Chicken calls for a stuffed and marinated chicken, sealed tight with layers of lotus leaves, and then wrapped in parchment paper or wax paper along with mud. The actual process involves wrapping a whole spiced chicken in lotus leaves, then encasing it in mud and roasted in open fire. When fully cooked, the mud forms a hard shell around the chicken and cracked open before revealing the deliciously roasted chicken inside. This unique cooking technique produces tender, juicy, and aromatic chicken, with the original taste of the chicken perfectly retained and trapped. The bones just fall off the chicken after hours of baking, and the meat is bursting with intense fragrance.
As per the legend, Beggar's Chicken originated in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). A beggar in Zhejiang province stole a chicken from a village, and buried it in mud. He retrieved the mud covered chicken latter, and instead of cleaning the mud he just threw it in an open fire. This resulted in hardening the muddy shell around the chicken with a deliciously roasted bird inside. He then started selling chickens cooked this way and made a fortune for him, also creating a Chinese culinary tradition known as “Beggar’s Chicken”.
- Yangchun Noodles
The story of the name: The tenth Chinese lunar month is called little yangchun, and it is a local custom to call the number "ten" yangchun. When these noodles first appeared in Shanghai, their price was ten fen, so people called them yangchun noodles and that name is still used. Yangchun noodles are also called "clear soup noodles" (qingtangmian), as they are thin noodles in a clear soup. Scented scallion oil is added to the noodles to make them smooth and tasty. They are highly nutritious, containing protein and various vitamins.
A notable Shanghai delicacy is xiaolongbao, sometimes known as Shanghai dumplings in English-speaking countries. Xiaolongbao is a type of steamed bun made with a thin skin of dough and stuffed with pork (most commonly found) or minced crab, and soup. Note that these buns (or dumplings) are wrapped and sealed differently than other dumplings such as jiaozi. Although it appears delicate, a good xiaolongbao is able to hold in the soup until it is bitten. They are steamed in bamboo baskets and served with black vinegar and in some places, shredded ginger. A common way of eatingxiaolongbao is to bite off the top, suck out the soup, then dip it in the dark Chinese vinegar before eating. The most well-known type is Nanxiang xiaolongbao, which is a traditional snack of Nanxiang Township in Shanghai's suburbs and can be found all over Shanghai.
- Shengjianbao🙁Sangjibao in Shanghainese)
The shengjianbao could be called a greasier and heartier rival of the xiaolongbao. To make the filling, people often use a blend of minced pork and pork jelly, or gelatin, that melts when the shengjian are fried, creating a greasy and scalding hot broth.
- Mini Wontons in Soup
Piping hot bowls of tiny wontons suspended in broth, decorated with cilantro, dried shrimp and strips of egg regularly start off locals’ days. In the morning, skillful wonton sellers would make these little treats in rapid fire by clasping small dough wrappers and minced pork together in their hands.
- "Four Heavenly Kings"
The most well-known foods for breakfast are the "Four Heavenly Kings" (四大金刚; 四大金剛; sìdà jīngāng), which include dabing (大饼; 大餅; dàbǐng; "Chinese pancake"), youtiao, ci fan tuan (糍饭团; 糍飯團; cífàntuán; "steamed sticky rice ball") and soy milk.
Among the "Four Heavenly Kings", ci fan tuan belongs to typical Shanghai food. Ci fan tuan is made of warm steamed sticky rice. Shanghainese people like putting sugar and youtiao inside steamed sticky rice. People also put salty duck egg yolk, rousong (肉松; 肉鬆;
ròusōng; "crushed dried pork") or other stuffing in ci fan tuan.
The name pays homage to the Four Heavenly Kings in Chinese Buddhism.
- Chicken and Duck Blood Soup
This Shanghai favourite is soup (known as Ji Ya Xue Tang) that contains solidified blood as its main ingredient. In fact, the blood rather resembles dark red tofu and has very little taste. The broth used is a very light or slightly salty clear chicken broth with some spring onion added for a nice flavor. The soup is believed to be good for one’s health. The Chinese claim eating certain parts of animals strengthens the corresponding part on one's own body.
- Fried bean curd and vermicelli soup
This is a very popular dish in Shanghai, locals normally have it for breakfast. The dish contains fried bean curd and vermicelli and spring onion on the top. The soup is lightly salted and believed to be good for one's health.