It’s a rare city that straddles the Old and New Worlds, developing and developed, but Shanghai is one of them. It’s a city desperate to grow up, so skyscrapers spring up even as traditional life thrives in the alleys between them.
This duality trickles down rather deliciously to the food. Those skyscrapers attract restaurants boasting top chefs with ambition to match the city’s, and the lanes are a blur with steam from a thousand mom-and-pop kitchens. So you can eat for $5 a day or $50.
The dishes here are slightly sweeter than most Chinese cuisine. A key ingredient is sugar, nothing more complicated than that. Shanghaining are obsessed with freshness — even the supermarkets carry live fish, turtles, snakes — so local delicacies vary by the season. In winter migrant workers push coal stoves roasting corn and sweet potatoes, and windows fog up from hotpots of boiling broth for dipping meat and veg in. On summer nights, sweaty clubbers squat on pavement stools chewing on skewers of squid and pork. And in September hairy crabs appear, scaling their aquariums with fuzzy claws.
And that’s just the cheap eats. In high-rise hotels including the Grand Hyatt star chefs serve platters of crispy Mandarin fish doused in sweet, sticky sauce, drunken chicken and shrimp, (named for the spirits they’re simmered in), and sweet and sour pork ribs.
Flash restaurants get a spot on the river Bund, the old British enclave of Art Deco riverfront manors: the Whampoa Club is notable for its modern take on local specialities and sumptuous gilded décor. In the leafy French Concession area you’ll find a range of atmospheric dining rooms in grand walled mansions. The cuisine here is so popular that even the foreigners cook it. Take a number at Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung and you’ll be rewarded with xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) widely considered to do the finest anywhere.
Ditto at Singapore restaurant chain, Crystal Jade. The menu here is overwhelmingly Shanghainese and it’s got the busiest reservation log in town. That’s flattery in its sincerest form.