In the largest, richest, and most populous city in China, there has never been a better time to eat.
“Shanghai is having a renaissance of late, especially in the culinary field,” says Jamie Barys, the CEO of Shanghai’s popular food tour company UnTour Shanghai. “With the pollution and the food scandals getting harder to ignore, people are a lot more concerned about their health these days, and the food standard is increasingly higher.”
The exploding population of wealthy expatriates, labeled by sociologists as “privileged migrants” (i.e. migrants with more spending power than the locals) is a driving factor here. There are around two hundred and ten thousand of them, including more than 23,000 Americans like Barys that live in the city officially. Countless more spend months or even years ensconced here on tourist visas, so the real number is likely far higher. A population that size, combined with a cultural disconnect from the Shanghainese, means expats wield their own small, opulent economy in which targeted magazines, art galleries, bars, and nightclubs all vie for a foothold.
Meanwhile, after years of increasingly bizarre reports of man made eggs, cooking oil salvaged from dumpsters, and rat meat masquerading as lamb, the Chinese have reached a breaking point. Across the country, people are simply losing confidence in their food, and while much of the nation is too poor or powerless to spur real change, the country’s elite, couched in megacities like Shanghai, have decided they want better — and they’re willing to pay for it. After all, China is now the world’s number one economy. Its people expect better.
“You have all these international chefs coming to Shanghai to do great Western food for the homesick expats,” says Barys. “But you also have locals opening amazing Chinese restaurants that are redefining what people expect from local food. It’s never been a more interesting food scene.”
It was here that the Michelin-starred British chef Jason Atherton opened his first independent restaurant, Table No. 1 on the South Bund, and his second venture (Social Commune) was recently named the city’s best new restaurant by Time Out Shanghai. And if Atherton’s single Michelin star isn’t quite enough, there’s Joël Robuchon, a chef who manages more Michelin starred joints than anyone in the world, who is opening a restaurant on Bund 18 this summer.
Even the wave of environmentally responsible “fast casual” restaurants annihilating McDonald’s market share (think Chipotle) have followed the expats to the Orient. Take Hunter Gatherer, the farm-to-table place on Anfu Lu by Wukang Lu, that sources nearly all of their food from farms in nearby Shandong or Chongming Island. (In fact, there’s a chalkboard outside their kitchen that displays how much of the day’s Western-inspired menu was grown at their farms.) Although the label “organic” is fraught with expense and red tape in China, this place is as organic as you could ask for: pesticide-free, chemical-free, local, unprocessed, and seasonal.
In fact, there’s so much variety and quality in the Western food scene that so inclined foodie foreigners could probably avoid local fare altogether — which means more for the rest of us. The food revolution has spread to the local scene as well, and the getting is good.
Take the hottest spot for hot pot, Holy Cow on Xiaomuqiao Lu, near Zhongshan Nan Er Lu. For the uninitiated, hot pot is a collective affair that puts food prep into the hands of the customers, sitting them around a fiery cauldron of stock and spices in which one submerges meat, vegetables, tofu, and anything else that’s not nailed down. Newbies and expats are often wary — the latter because of the cuisine’s digestive pyrotechnics — but Holy Cow brings hot pot to 21st century tastes (and stomachs) with an unusually strong focus on quality. Helmed by one of the city’s favorite restaurateurs, Anthony Zhao, it offers 18 different cuts of hand-cut, never frozen Wagyu beef and vegetables from Zhao’s own family farm. The stock is real, slow simmered bone broth — which Barys slurps by the bowlful.
“’Made in China’ is a label people are actually seeking out now,” she says. “There’s this incredible Wagyu beef from Dalian, seafood from Qingdao, and even Chinese-made cheese now. Ten years ago, no one would have thought Chinese cheese would be a thing.”
Yes, the city is changing incredibly quickly — the population has increased by over 50 percent since 2000, and with taxes and cost of living lower than London, Paris, and New York, international business is booming. The future is rushing up to meet Shanghai, but if you want to taste the China of yesterday and find some traditional, no-frills cuisine (genre-bending innovations be damned), Shanghai still has “old school” down pat.
First, take to the streets. While every Shanghai resident will have their own favorite street food (and defend it stridently), there’s little that’s better for breakfast or after drinking (two occasions that frequently coincide among the perma-soused expats) than the humble jian bing: a crunchy pancake made of mung bean and millet that’s spread with eggs, scallions, and cilantro, smeared with chili and soy paste, and wrapped up like a ready-to-go crepe. The lady on the corner of Wulumuqi Lu and Fuxing Lu runs one of the few joints open past 10am, and she’s saved many a hangover in her day. Despite all of Shanghai’s new food developments, its old standbys are as delicious and widely available as they’ve ever been — for now, at least.
But Shanghai’s most beloved local food is still their xiǎolóngbāo: doughy, soup-filled buns which you will not wait to cool, and which will burn your mouth. Some of the best venues have neither names nor websites, but for Barys’ money, head to the small shop at 641 Jian Guo Xi Lu near Gao An Lu. They serve Nanjing style buns called tāngbāo (“soup bun”) that wrap their sublimely fatty pork meatball in a thinner, almost translucent dumpling filled with a savory broth. A ginger-vinegar dipping sauce completes the package: a tangy, umami-rich comfort food that is nothing short of divine.
Shanghai has never been more fun, more crowded, more developed, or more expensive. The city sheds its skin so often that it can quickly become unrecognizable, and with the gamut of local and foreign food at its zenith, the time to pounce is right now. Shanghai waits for no one.