Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Slightly Inadequate Guide to Shanghai Cuisine

Beijing is a great foodie city and like London or New York its excellence derives from its culinary diversity. In Beijing's case, this is reflected by the ability to eat across China without leaving the city limits. So it came as no surprise that my first meal in the capital was at Shanghai Spring, which also goes by the Chinese name of Xiao Nan Guo (小南国), to sample some upscale Shanghai cuisine.

I'm afraid this is a slightly inadequate guide to Shanghai cuisine, as I'm not sure of the exact names of many of the dishes ordered. I've pieced together as much as I can from my photos, brief glimpses of the menu, and the internet. Incidentally the bilingual Chinese-English menu is a great read with explanations of the dishes and stunning photos.

I was asked to suggest a dish or two but otherwise my host did the ordering. For our party of four, she ordered a varied selection of small plates and some bigger dishes. Whilst the small plates might be viewed as starters, the dishes were brought out in no particular order.

Small Plates
The photo at the top of this post shows off that most famous of Shanghai dishes, xiao long bao (小笼包). These soup-filled dumplings need little introduction and whilst the XLB here weren't quite as good as those I had in Shanghai last year, they remain streets ahead of the stuff served in London.

I also enjoyed the pan-fried wonton (jian yuntun 煎云吞?) as did the rest of the table. Shanghai-style wonton pastry is quite different from the more familiar Cantonese-style and its more robust nature allows it to be pan-fried like a potsticker dumpling (guo tie 锅贴). The juicy pork and pak choi filling was different class and I'd love to see these on a dim sum menu back home.

Less successful was the sweet & sour spare ribs (tangcu paigu 糖醋排骨), which were served cold as is apparently customary. I would've preferred them warm. The fish & tofu soup was a bit bland and needed some pepper to lend it some flavour.

Big Dishes
I'm proud to say that my one contribution to the order was the sautéed fresh river shrimp (清炒野生河虾仁). Some might say that having a whole page dedicated to this signature dish in the menu swayed me. And they'd be right. I loved the simplicity of this delicately cooked dish. Seasoned with a light hand, the sweetness of the shrimp shone through. Incidentally, other freshwater produce like river fish and hairy crab also feature prominently in Shanghai cuisine.

My other favourite was the braised bamboo shoots on a bed of watercress. I've seldom eaten fresh bamboo shoots and they were full of flavour. The just cooked watercress was also the perfect complement. I was less enamoured by the fried fish with pomelo, which was served with what can be best described as a kind of mayo. This dish committed the sin of looking better than it tasted and I suspect that it is a creation of one of the chefs rather than being traditional Shanghainese fare.

The last big dish was the crab & tofu potage, which I can tell you little about, as I'm not a big fan of bean curd. I nearly forgot to take a photo but it must have been good as the others devoured it.

What is Shanghai Cuisine?
The term Shanghai cuisine is a bit of a misnomer as it actually draws upon the culinary traditions of neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. No matter what you call it, I haven't always been a fan of this kind of food, as I thought it was too sweet and oily. However, I was converted on a visit to a branch of Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong, where I was impressed with its elegant and refined take on this cuisine. I've been a fan ever since.

Other famous dishes that you might find in restaurants serving Shanghai food include red-cooked dishes like Dongpo pork (东坡肉), beggar's chicken (jiao hua ji 叫化鸡), drunken chicken (zuiji 醉鸡), squirrel fish (songshu gui yu 松鼠鳜鱼), Shanghai hairy crab (da zha xie 大闸蟹) and lion's head meatballs (shizi tou 狮子头), which I sampled on a previous visit to Xiao Nan Guo. If you like xiao long bao then I think you'll also like the lesser-known sheng jian bao (生煎包).

The Verdict
The smart and elegant Xiao Nan Guo isn't just my favourite Shanghainese restaurant; it remains one of my favourite restaurants in Beijing.

I dined at the Financial St branch but there are other branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong amongst other major cities.

Xiao Nan Guo, 3/F China Life Center, 17 Financial Street, Xicheng District, Beijing
小南国 北京市西城区金融大街17号人寿中心大厦3楼 (Tel: +86-400-820-9777)

Shanghai Cuisine in the UK
Sadly Shanghai cuisine isn't that common in the UK. Granted there are loads of restaurants across the land with 'Shanghai' in their names but that's usually a marketing ploy to lure white people the gullible. And whilst xiao long bao appears on the menu of most dim sum eateries, it isn't the same as having a proper Shanghainese restaurant.

I remember there used to be an authentic Shanghai joint in London's Chinatown on the site of what is now Haozhan but I struggle to think of a restaurant that currently majors in this cuisine. If anyone does know of anywhere in London or elsewhere in the UK then let me know. By the way, I don't consider either Shanghai Blues in Holborn or Dalston's Shanghai as being authentic Shanghainese.


  1. Guess where I am for 9 days in October. Can't wait to use these suggestions!

  2. Great review, and awesome fotos. It's a shame that other cuisines of China are not known as well or if at all here in London.
    Yes, we white folk do not know the difference between the cuisines, and we get the rubbish menus in China Town. Why do they do that ? Any way of getting the good stuff here ? I've asked ofr the other menus but been rebuffed.
    Trying to tempt the wife to goto China next year. She's breaking.

  3. I can't think of any Shanghai-specific restos in London, so am looking forward to someone taking up that challenge. I've been to Shanghai in Dalston and it's definitely anything *but* Shanghai-ese. Their xiao long bao were awful.

    I will say that I don't really agree with your line about Beijing offering as much diversity in cuisines as are available in London or New York. It's like when Parisians rave about how diverse their dining scene is (bc all French regional cuisines are represented in Paris). In the end, after a week in Paris, you're dying for something "not French," if you see what I mean. Paris is a great dining city, no doubt. But not because the scene is (what I consider) diverse.

  4. I would say that this post is a highly adequat VISUAL guide to Shanghai cuisine. It all looks delicious!! I havent been there.. but yes, it's on my list of places to visit. Now if only I had money.

  5. You've inspired me to try to find that elusive London Shanghai dream joint...

  6. Tom - I'm sure you'll have a great time. I'll be interested in your opinion on how Beijing compares to Hong Kong. BTW, there's a Xiao Nan Guo on Des Voeux Rd amongst other locations in HK.

    Dave - thanks! London's getting better in terms of regional Chinese cuisines but there are obvious gaps, most notably Shanghai cuisine. I've blogged before about menus and the long answer on how to score the stuff hidden away on the Chinese language menus can be found here.

    The short answer is to go to Pearl Liang or Phoenix Palace for Dim Sum/Cantonese and Empress of Sichuan or Chilli Cool for Sichuan food - all these places work off a single bilingual Chinese-English menu. Go to my A-Z London Restaurant Reviews page for links.

    A-in-L - To clarify, the point I was trying to get across was that Beijing's strength as a foodie destination was at the same time, similar but different to London or NY. Similar in that all are (imho) diverse food cities, different as Beijing's diversity is in Chinese food (a point I make in the second sentence of my post) rather than the global diversity of London or NY.

    On comparisons with French cuisine, it's one I disagree with! I understand your POV but Chinese cuisine is far more diverse than French. To put things into perspective, based on area and population, France would be a mid-sized province in China.

    But it isn't just about numbers, consider how different the following are: kebabs from Xinjiang, a Peking duck banquet, Cantonese dim sum, the SE Asian leanings of Yunnan cuisine; not to mention the myriad of cuisines from the spice-belt such as Sichuan and Hunan. You can get all of these in Beijing and more.

    To put it another way, after a week in Beijing I rue what regional cuisines I've missed rather than yearn for something not Chinese. Mind you, it's all about opinions, which is why I love debates like these!

    Catty - thanks! My photos can be a bit ropey but these turned out well. Although, it helps that the food was so pretty.

    GDiva - good luck! They'd have to serve those pan-fried wontons though!

  7. Have you seen this post about *exciting* XLBs?
    I would so happily eat all of these things.

    I don't think Dalston's Shanghai is that bad and I've had good xlbs there in the past (not been for q. a while tho so fair enough!) - my favourite thing there was the lotus root sandwich. So delicious! So fried! So bad for you!

  8. Anon - those XLB's look good although being a bit of a traditionalist, I'm not sure black truffle works for me! RE: Shanghai in Dalston, I've not been and can't comment on the quality but from a look at their menu, it doesn't major in Shanghai cuisine. Mind you that lotus root sandwich looks good in a bad way!

    Dave - my pleasure.

  9. Great post Mr Noodles - you have really made me want to visit Shanghai - particularly for the XLB!

  10. GChick - thanks! The XLB are different class in Shanghai.

  11. There's a Shanghainese restaurant near Marble Arch called the "Red Sun" or something like that. It specialises in homestyle Shanghainese cooking and apparantly all the waiting staff and owners are Shanghainese. I haven't been yet but it's on my list.

  12. Anon - good spot! I'll add it to my never ending list. I've checked the address and Red Sun is on New Quebec St. Thanks again!