Shanghai is the largest city by population in China. Hu Cai, or Shanghai Cuisine is made up of two different styles ofcooking, Benbang Cuisine and Haipai Cuisine.
Benbang and Haipai Cuisine have much in common. Both use techniques such as steaming, braising, stir-frying, marinating and roasting. They also have signature dishes that are made from seasonal ingredients. Both styles make use of fresh meat, fish, shrimps and crabs. Neither one of them produces dishes that are hot in flavour. Shanghai food instead tends to be sweet or subtly spiced.
Benbang Cuisine means local cuisine and is a traditional family style of cooking. It incorporates cooking methods used in the provinces that surround Shanghai, such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Fujian. Fresh fish, chicken, pork, and vegetables are the main ingredients of its dishes. The colour and mellow-sweet flavour of the food comes from the use of oil and soybean sauce.
Lion’s Head Meat Balls is a dish that originated in the Jiangsu province and became popular in Shanghai in the 19th and early 20th century. So called because the oversized pork balls are said to resemble a lion’s head and the accompany greens its mane. Ground pork is combined with ginger and soy sauce, and then fried before being simmered in stock. It’s traditionally served with a fringe of greens, such as bok choy.
By contrast, Haipai Cuisine means ‘all embracing cuisine’ because it derives from diverse cultural influences. It developed in the cosmopolitan environment of Shanghai during the last part of the Qing Dynasty, between the mid-seventeenth century and early twentieth century. Influences on Haipai Cuisine come not only from other regions of China, but also from western cooking. The style is then modified to suit native tastes.
Flavours and cooking techniques in Haipai Cuisine vary greatly. However, there’s a predominance of fish, shrimps and crabs used in Haipai dishes. Lovers of seafood should visit one of the many restaurants that serve a crab banquet. Diners feast on extravagant concoctions such as whole steamed crab, sautéed crab roe, crab claw meat and asparagus, crab meat and roe jellied in aspic broth, and yin yang fried pastries, which are made with half lotus, half curried crab filling.
Shanghai is seafood heaven
Shanghai sits on the Yangtze River Delta facing the East China Sea. This location means the area abounds in both freshwater and saltwater fish. Seafood is well-liked in the city and locals enjoy dining on crab, oyster and seaweed. The main food materials include yellow fish, shrimps, crabs, and abalones.
A famous local delicacy is Chinese mitten crab, commonly called Shanghai hairy crab. It’s found in the Yangcheng Lake and consumed in season, during the months of September to November. It’s a popular species, and there are many fake versions, so be suspicious if you’re offered this delicacy out of season. Shanghai hairy crabs are at their freshest and tastiest in October and November. To appreciate the crab’s meaty flavour it should be steamed and eaten on its own. The roe of the crab is also a delicacy and has a sweet flavour.
To eat really fresh seafood, take a trip to the Putuo District in northwest Shanghai, home to Tongchuan Lu Seafood Market. This famous wholesale fish market not only supplies fresh produce to the region’s restaurants and hotels, it also caters for personal shoppers. Visitors can walk around the stalls and pick their own seafood. They can then take their purchase to one of the market restaurants and have it cooked to order.
Shanghai’s sweet tooth
Desserts are not as fashionable in Shanghai as they are in the west, yet more sugar is used in the city that in any other part of China. This is because sugar is a familiar ingredient in local cooking, especially when combined with soy sauce to create a sweet and sour taste.
Visitors to Shanghai do sometimes complain that some of the food is a little too sweet for their taste. Other common ingredients in the city’s culinary store cupboard include the aforementioned soy sauce, plus rice wine and rice vinegar.
Shanghai’s repertoire includes a number of ‘drunken dishes’ where food is marinated in Shaoxing wine. The most famous of these is drunken chicken. As the name suggest, whole or pieces of chicken are steeped in wine until the meat is tender, and it’s then served in the broth.
Shanghai is a city of choice, from roadside stalls, fresh food markets up to Michelin-starred restaurants. Visitors can enjoy its cuisine from the comfort of elegant restaurants, or from the colourful cafes and stands that line the bustling streets. Each dish offers a taste and character that is distinctly Shanghai
Savour the flavours of Shanghai!
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