Sure, there are fine-dining options and flash restaurants galore in Shanghai but sometimes the street lures, with it’s cheap, tasty bites. The range of Shanghai street foods is staggering - from the crack of dawn to well into the night, you’ll find carts and canteens turning out dumplings, noodles, buns, pies, soups, porridges and breads, either fried, steamed, boiled or oven-baked. Incredibly good value and amazingly delicious, all you require to tap into this street-feasting culture is a sense of adventure and a handful of coins. Environs can be gritty and service can be gruff but don’t be put off. Here’s a sampler of what to expect from Shanghai's snack vendors and budget eateries- and ideas on where to find the best. Most of these options are central (around Nanjing Dong Lu) but truthfully, you’ll find snack-worthy street food almost everywhere.
Xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings)
The steamed dumplings that define the city, these aren't hard to find. They’re even served in fine restaurants. Elegant, thin skinned and filled with pork and a rich aspic that melts into a spurt of soup when cooked, 14 deft folds are required to craft their neat shape. Served in bamboo steam baskets, they’re eaten with black vinegar, shards of young ginger and, often, a simple, clear soup.
Cult-followed Jia Jia Tang Bao (90 Huanghe Lu, Huangpu District) is arguably the ultimate destination for these. But if the queues put you off, try De Xin Gaun (471 Guangdong Lu, Huangpu District), in operation since the Qing Dynasty. Their pork trotter noodles are also legendary.
Sheng jian bao (steamed-fried pork buns)
Addictive! Like xiao long bao, these delectable bites feature a porky-soupy filling. But that’s where all similarities end - their exterior is robust and bread-like and they’re shallow-fried in a huge pan until their bottoms turn golden and crunchy. The addition of water and a heavy wooden lid means the tops, scattered with sesame seeds, steam to soft, pillowy perfection. These end up becoming nearly everyone’s favourite Shanghai snack.
Walk up Sichuan Zhong Lu and you’ll find these without really having to look. Highly recommended is Feiling Shengjian (1/F, 2002 Sichuan Bei Lu) as is Da Hu Chun (11 Sichuan Nan Lu). Also try Shanghai Snacks, on the corner of Shanxi Bei Lu and Nanjing Dong Lu. These are all in Huangpu District.
Cong you bing (Green onion pancake)
Bing is an all-encompassing term for a range of flatbreads and pancakes, some sweet, most savoury. This type is fashioned from dough that’s rolled thinly then worked into a flattened, multi-layered spiral, with bits of onion and plenty of lard incorporated along the way. The resulting fried pastries - crisp on the outside and chewy/toothsome within - are heaven.
Aficionados flock to an unassuming place in Lane 159, behind 2 Maoming Lu (near the corner with Nanchang Lu, Jing’an District). The revered cook, My Wu, makes just 300 bing per day; they go fast.
Ci fan tuan (sticky rice ball)
An imposing ball of steamed glutinous rice that's wrapped around mooshed-up dough stick, pork floss, pickled vegetables and optional sugar. They’re made to order - vendors excavate the cooked rice from a huge wooden pail and coax it around the filling while you wait. Delicious and oh so hefty, it’s a mission to finish one unassisted.
Arguably the best are found, from early in the morning, at a stand behind Plaza 66 on Fengyang Lu and Xikang Lu, Jing’an District. Just look for the locals flocking around.
Baozi (steamed buns)
Bouncy steamed buns, their billowy, white, doughy exteriors encasing flavorsome fillings; baozi are a favourite Chinese snack. Innards range from tofu with green vegetable, plain pork, pork and preserved mustard greens, sweet red bean paste, black sesame paste and even custard.
Babi Mantou is a reputable franchise with branches all over town, including the centrally located one on the corner of Henan Zhong Lu and Ningbo Lu (Huangpu District). They’re takeaway only and offer a variety of fillings.
Zhongzi (pork and sticky-rice in bamboo leaves)
Triangles of sticky rice and soy-seasoned pork steamed in fragrant bamboo leaves, zhongzi tend to be an early summer thing as they're associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. They’re also made in a sweet red bean and rice version.
Wu Fang Zhaii, (28 Yunnan Nan Lu, Huangpu District) is a newish branch of a snack restaurant dating from 1858. They’re famous for zhongzi plus other seasonal treats. Such as quingtuan, a distinctive rice-flour dumpling tinted green with wormwood and filled with red bean paste; it appears in spring.
Dou hua (tofu flower soup)
Quivering, freshly-made, hot tofu scooped into a bowl then dressed with vinegar, green onion, dried shrimps, pickled vegetables and dried seaweed. Nutritious and delicious.
Find vendors selling this, jian bing and hong dou tang (see below), plus a few dumpling purveyors, at the corner of Ningbo Lu and Sichuan Zhong Lu (Huangpu District), from early in the morning.
Jian bing (breakfast pancake)
An ultra thin, griddle-fried, mung bean flour pancake with an egg cooked on top. A sauce or two (chill and hoisin, for example) are slathered over and you choose toppings - fried dough stick, meats, pickled vegetables - before the whole thing is folded in quarters and crammed into a plastic bag to take away.
Hong dou tang (red bean soup)
Served hot in winter and cold in summer, this congee-like soup is a mixture of red beans, glutinous rice, red dates and peanuts. Locals heave in loads of sugar then eat it with freshly steamed buns (mantou), either plain, or flecked with green onion. Follow suit!
The street-shy can try breakfasting on this, and a huge array of other morning foods, at Xin Ke Lai (428 Guangdong Lu). Their help-yourself buffet renders the need to order obsolete.
Shi yue bing (Suzhou-style moon cake)
A type of moon cake that, unlike its better-known Cantonese counterpart, is consumed year round. These are baked and their flaky pastry exterior, made using lard, is particularly delicious. Fillings are either sweet (red bean paste or lotus paste for example), savoury (pork) or sweet and savoury (seaweed with sugar, nuts and sesame seeds).
Lao Da Fang, established in 1851 (536 Nanjing Dong Lu, Huangpu District), is firmly on the list of venerable Shanghai stores. They sell an entire range of snacks and treats but their freshly baked pork moon cakes are a particular favourite.
Yang rou chuan’r (grilled lamb skewers)
Chunks of tasty lamb, slathered in chilli, salt, sichuan pepper and cumin then grilled to juicy perfection over smoky coals, this Xinjiang mainstay is adored all over the country. Cheap, filling and not hard to find (just look for street-side clouds of grill smoke), opt to either eat lamb skewers out of hand, or find a casual place where you can dine in. The latter scenario allows for ordering regional flat breads, salads and plenty of beer as accompaniments.
At the corner of Yunnan Nan Lu and Ninghai Lu (Huangpu District) is a great grill joint churning out chuan’r. In fact the entire strip, from here to the corner with Renmin Lu, has a great concentration of street eats.
Rou jia mou
Otherwise called the ‘Xi’an hamburger’, this plump disc of fragrant, pan-baked bread features a soft interior and chewy, golden crust. It’s split and stuffed, to order, with generous piles of shredded juicy meat (usually beef or pork) and an optional slathering of chilli sauce. Ridiculously cheap and sensationally tasty.
Walk up Sichuan Zhong Lu (Huangpu District) in the early evening and sooner or later you’ll stumble upon someone selling this delectable snack.
Shanghai-style wontons are most often filled with pork, prawn and chopped bok choy then served in clear chicken soup. Small wontons look like bits of crumpled paper while larger ones are more artfully folded like tortellini- a bowl of these is a very filling proposition.
Spick-and-span Meixin Snacks (105 Shaanxi Bei Lu, Jing’an District) has been churning out hand-made spring rolls, cold pork noodles, sweet rice flour dumplings and other snacks for yonks. But they’re most famous for their wontons, claimed by some to be the best in the city.
Cong You Ban Mian (green onion noodles)
Thin wheat noodles blanched, cooled then mixed with onion oil, soy, fried green onions, vinegar and dried shrimp - this dish is drop-dead yum-in-a-bowl. There are also hot versions involving eel, pork and pickled veg, or a combo of pork and green onion.
Lao Difeng (233 Xiangyang Lu, Former French Concession) is tiny (only three tables) but legendary (queues form throughout lunch time). You’ll pay less than 15RMB for a bowl of noodles with pork and pickled vegetables.