Shanghai Cuisine

Updated: November 14 2008(GMT+08:00)

Shanghai, with so many business people rushing in, is not only China's economic and cultural center, but also a "Grand View Garden" for dinners of all tastes. In fact, Shanghai does not have a definitive cuisine of its own, but refines those of the surrounding provinces. Different styles of cuisine meet and merge in Shanghai only to create the so-called Shanghai style cuisine, influenced by Beijing cuisine, Yangzhou cuisine, Guangdong cuisine and Sichuan cuisine, together with the foods of Suzhou, Wuxi, Ningbo and Hangzhou flavors, making Shanghai an ideal "gourmet kingdom".

Shanghai cuisine, known as Hu Cai among the Chinese, is the youngest of the ten major cuisine in China, with a history of more than 400 years. Traditionally it was called Benbang cuisine, originated in Ming and Qing years. Good at pickling in wine and cooking methods like baking, stewing, teaming, deep-frying, they usually look red and shiny. In the later part of 19th century after Shanghai became a major domestic and international trading port, Benbang dishes underwent some substantial changes by adopting certain merits of other cuisine. It formed a complex flavor structure, cooking style and technique norms. It stresses using condiments and keeping the original flavors of the materials and has features of being fresh, smooth and crispy. "Shanghai cuisine" today defines an area much greater than the city and immediate environs of Shanghai.

Shanghai chef focus on maintaining the original flavour and pay close attention to cooking duration. The dishes are bright red, juicy and thick with tender meat and are very popular with the local people. The cooking techniques commonly used are sautéing, quick-frying, stewing and steaming and a large amount of soy sauce and fermented rice wine are always used as flavouring. Fermented rice wine contains water, yellow wine and some seasoning. The raw materials used are normally fresh and the flavouring is salty, sweet, sour, or acidic. One feature of Shanghai cuisine is that the cooks use salt to enhance the sweetness of flavour.
The use of sugar is common in Shanghainese cuisine and, especially when used in combination with soy sauce, effuses foods and sauces with a taste that is not so much sweet but rather savory. Non-natives tend to have difficulty identifying this usage of sugar and are often surprised when told of the "secret ingredient." The most notable dish of this type of cooking is "sweet and sour spare ribs" ("tangcu xiaopai" in Shanghainese).
Red cooking" is a popular style of stewing meats and vegetables associated with Shanghai.
"Beggar's chicken" is a legendary dish of Beijing origin, called "jiaohua ji" in the Shanghainese dialect, wrapped in lotus leaves and covered in clay. Though usually prepared in ovens, the original and historic preparation involved cooking in the ground. The lion's head meatball and Shanghai-style nian gao are also uniquely Shanghainese, as are Shanghai fried noodles, a regional variant of chow mein that is made with Shanghai-style thick noodle. Lime-and-ginger-flavored thousand-year eggs and stinky tofu are other popular Shanghainese delicacies. Lei Sha Yuan and crab shell cake are good for breakfast or light refreshment after dinner. A shanghai favor snack which will make foreigners crazy called Chicken and Duck Blood Soup, In fact, the blood rather resembles dark red tofu and has very little taste. The broth used is a very light or slightly salty clear chicken broth with some spring onion added for a nice flavor. All in all, this traditional Shanghai snack is quite tasty. 
Facing the East China Sea, seafood in Shanghai is very popular. However, due to its location among the rivers, lakes, and canals of the Yangtze Delta, locals favor freshwater produce just as much as saltwater products like crabs, oysters, and seaweed. The most famous local delicacy is Shanghai hairy crab.

Shanghainese people are known to eat in delicate portions (which makes them a target of mockery from other Chinese), and hence the servings are usually quite small. For example, famous buns from Shanghai such as the xiaolong mantou (known as xiaolongbao in Mandarin) and the shengjian mantou are usually about four centimeters in diameter, much small than the typical baozi or mantou elsewhere. And the vegetarian stuffed bun is stuffed with finely chopped green vegetables, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and marinated bean curd with sesame oil and sugar as the condiments.
Due to the rapid growth of Shanghai and its development into one of the foremost East Asian cities as a center of both finance and contemporary culture, the future of Shanghai cuisine looks very promising.
Shanghai restaurants have been quite popular in other Chinese cities, like Beijing, for some years now. However, modernity is rapidly taking over traditions. Many Shanghai restaurants now introduce more modern and healthy elements to the traditional Shanghai cuisine, and even offer diversified delicacies from other cuisine.   
Shanghai cuisine was brought to Hong Kong when many wealthy Shanghai families fled there in the wake of war and revolution on the mainland. The cuisine built a respected niche for itself in Hong Kong because it offered local Cantonese an interesting alternative to rice: Noodles and bread are main staples and sauces are combinations of ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine and soy sauce, not to mention the irresistible variety of pastries. 

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