Located just south of the massive Yangtze River, Shanghai has one of the most diverse and unique cuisines in the region.
As you’d expect from its reputation as a financial powerhouse, Shanghai is a city filled with excess and glamour, showcasing a dining scene that’s both exciting and modern. Food is a large part of Chinese social life. There’s little doubt that some of your finest memories, whether you have just 24 hours in Shanghai or a week, may well happen in a restaurant.
Deciding what to eat in Shanghai is never easy thanks to the endless options from street vendors, cafes, and restaurants. The variety of choices also make it a top travel destination in China for foodies. It fact eating is one of the main reasons to visit Shanghai!
The local flavour includes influences from neighbouring areas, while also possessing its own distinct flair. Steamed crab, dumplings, and braised pork are just a few of the highlights.
Feel your tastebuds getting excited? Get ready to salivate over the top culinary delights in this Shanghai food guide…
Shanghai food guide: 8 must-eat dishes
Braised pork is a traditional Shanghai dish, one of the staples of the region. Vendors or restaurants cook and serve the pork belly in a special brown sauce made from a combination of other popular sauces.
The mixture features light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing sauce, and sugar. The sugar makes the sauce a little sweeter and helps add a caramelised texture to the pork.
Many Shanghai restaurants serve braised pork with one or two hard-boiled eggs. If you happen to find an English menu, you may find it listed as red-cooked meat or Hong Shao Rou.
If you want the most authentic example of this dish, visit Old Jesse Restaurant on Tainping Road.
Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings)
Almost every major Chinese city tries to put its own twist on dumplings. In Shanghai, you’ll find Xiao Long Bao. These soup dumplings have an extra-thin dough filled with ground pork and seasoning. You can also find crab, shrimp, and veggie fillings.
Besides meat or veggies, the dumplings include pork stock. When cooked, the stock melts into a thick, savoury soup.
Instead of serving the dumplings with soup, the soup is inside the dumplings. It’s served incredibly hot, so eat with caution.
Without a doubt, the best place to find soup dumplings is Nanxiang Bun Shop. The traditional Shanghai eatery is based on the store that first started serving xiaolongbao.
Cold Eel Noodles
Eel is a common ingredient in Shanghai cuisine, and it is served in a wide variety of dishes, including Shansi Leng Mian. It’s originally a restaurant dish that eventually found its way to the food stalls of downtown Shanghai.
When you order the meal, you get a box with the eel and noodles served in different compartments. The eel is hot, with a sweet, salty soy sauce. The noodles are cold, allowing you to combine the two ingredients to create your own balance of flavours.
To find cold eel noodles, head to Huanghe Road Food Street (one of our favourite places to visit in Shanghai) or Wujiang Road Food Street. Both locations tend to have a few vendors serving this salty meal.
Steamed crab is just one of many seafood dishes enjoyed by locals. Built near the Yangtze River and the East China Sea, seafood is an important part of Shanghai cuisine, especially when it features locally sourced marine life.
In Shanghai, you’ll often find the dish made with Shanghai hairy crab. Thin strings tie the legs and claws against the body. The crab goes into a bamboo container with a few extra ingredients, such as scallions, before getting steamed.
The most recommended spot for steamed crab is Jia Tang Bao. It’s a popular restaurant on Huanghe Road, so come early to beat the crowd.
Sheng Jian Bao (Pan-Fried Dumplings)
These pan-fried dumplings top the list of Shanghai street food. You’ll rarely find it served at the top restaurants, but it’s one of the most popular items from street-side food vendors.
This Shanghai specialty comes with pork and gelatin that forms a soup, as with the soup dumplings. The main difference is the dough.
Soup dumplings have thin layers of dough while Sheng Jian Bao is thick and crunchy. Cooks use dough with less yeast, resulting in a softer dumpling.
After filling the dough, the cook packs the dumplings into a griddle and drizzles them with oil. The cook then pours a bowl of water over the dumplings and covers the griddle, steaming the delicious treats until crispy.
Ci Fan Tuan
Ci Fan Tuan is a type of sticky rice roll that originates from Shanghai and comes in two varieties – sweet or savoury.
The Shanghai breakfast rice rolls include glutinous rice, duck egg, and youtiao. Youtiao is a type of deep-fried breadstick, resembling a churro.
With the traditional savoury version, the cook wraps the ingredients into a ball, along with a few extra items, such as chopped pickles. The sweet version adds white sugar and sesame.
The popularity of the dish has spread to other regions, including Taipei and Brooklyn, where it’s often made in an oblong shape instead of rolled into a ball.
While Jianbing did not originate in Shanghai, the city has embraced this egg-based meal. It originally comes from Nanjing, but Shanghai residents love their breakfast foods.
With jianbing, you get egg “Jian” served on top of round, fried dough “Bing.” First, the cook throws several peices of dough on the fryer.
As the dough starts crackling and bubbling up, the cook cracks an egg over each piece of dough before flipping the pastry over. The crispy side then gets a coating of bean paste, green onions, and radish.
While Shanghai is cracking down on street vendors, you can still find a few vendors that serve piping hot jianbing in the morning, such as Hele Refreshment Stand in Xiangyang Road.
Zongzi is a traditional rice dish consisting of glutinous rice and filled with different stuffing. It’s then wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed.
The Shanghai-style zongzi comes with pork filling and a combination of light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. As with the braised pork dish, the combination of sauces gives the dish its distinct Shanghai twist.
For the best zongzi in the city, travel to the Guangyuan Lu wet market near the Xujiahui shopping district. The large, clean market tends to have several vendors selling zongzi near the main entrance. During the Dragon Boat Festival, it’s found just about everywhere.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Shanghai for foodies
As China’s most populated city, figuring out where to stay in Shanghai can be challenging at times. If eating is high on your agenda, you’d do well to stay in somewhere in Huangpu District in the city centre west of the Huangpu River (although in this food-obsessed city, you’re never far away from a great meal!). Both the areas around The Bund and the leafy Old French Concession are great places to stay for travelling foodies.
- Campanile Shanghai Bund Hotel: A budget-friendly choice close to the beautiful Bund area. There’s a ton of great food options in & around the nearby Old City and Nanjing Road.
- Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Centre: A sleek modern hotel that’s located close to the main drag of Nanjing East Road and Huanghe Road Food Street, one of the best places to eat in Shanghai. Rooms offer superb skyline views. Get the best price and collect Marriott Bonvoy points on your stay by booking directly at Marriott.com.
- The Peninsula Shanghai: Quite possibly the best luxury hotel in Shanghai, this 5-star gem, located on the western bank of the Huangpu River, features incredible amenities including a luxurious indoor pool, spa, and a rooftop bar with swoon-worthy views over the river to Pudong’s futuristic skyline.