One question I get all the time when I tell people I live in China is “What do you eat?” Of course I am always tempted to quip back something about black tar and shoe leather soup, which could be true at some of the more questionable food stalls I’ve been too. But for the most part, Chinese food is exceptionally delicious. A lot of people aren’t aware of the vast number of different types of Chinese cuisine. I certainly wasn’t, and I still feel like I learn about a few new regional specialties each week. It would require a lot of eating out to become an expert on all of the regional differences, so talk to me when I am a millionaire with unlimited funds to spend eating out.
What I can tell you is as far a Chinese food goes, for me the spicier the better. I love Sichuan, Hunan & Yunan food that is stuffed with hot peppers and chili oil. But I also love the salty food from the Nanjing/Shanghai area. Luckily for me, there are a lot of little restaurants around my place. So let me give you a little looksy at some of the food I eat on the regular.
This is probably my go to dish when I am out and about and starving. Daoxiao Mian (刀削面) is a specialty from the western parts of China and can be found in most of the Halal noodle shops all over the country. The way they make it is actually fun to watch. The “chef” (most likey a 14 year old smoking a cigarette while simultaneously frying 8 woks full of noodles) takes a big round bread loaf sized chunk of dough, holds it over a pot of boiling water, and cuts thin, wide slices of dough right into the water. Delish.
Xiaolong Bao (小龙包) are a Chinese food slice of heaven. They are dumplings filled with pork, other unidentifiable happy things, and hot lava-esque soup. The skin is paper thin, and they are steamed in a bamboo steamer. The only way to eat these things is to attempt to bite a little hole in the skin, suck out the soup, wait as long as you possibly can for it to cool off, dunk in vinegar and devour the rest. But what will most likely happen is you will burn your mouth so badly you won’t be able to taste for 3 days. Worth it, so worth it.
During the summer, Liang Pi (凉皮) is a way of life. I wander aimlessly from cart to cart, trying to find the prefect combination of cilantro, vinegar, and chili oil to top these cold rice noodles. A Xi’an specialty, you can find this all over the place when it’s hot. Full of bean sprouts, cucumber, and scallions, I can’t get enough. As in, I actually get made fun of for how much I suggest eating Liang Pi.
Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍) is a shaved meat sandwich inside a bun, but this isn’t your average hamburger. They can be found in little street carts all over the place for $1, but if you splurge a little bit and shell out a whopping $1.50, you might be in the for the best sandwich of your life. The meat, usually pork, is stewed for hours, heavily spiced, and stuffed inside a bun made in a clay oven. Some vendors add crunchy veggies, some don’t, but when you find a good Rou Jia Mo, it makes up for the few days taken off your life by the pollution.
Last but not least, Hundun (混沌) and Baozi (包子). Hundun aka Wonton in the English speaking world, are basically tiny dumplings floating in a delicious broth. I can get a bowl from a place right by my house for about $.50, and it is delicious. Baozi are steamed buns with a filling. They are usually pork, but I have seen curry potato, egg custard, and even noodles stuffed inside these buns. When it is cold outside, this is the best meal there is.
All of these are mainly “street-foods” that you can get from food carts and small hole-in-wall type places all over the country. When you go to a nicer restaurant that’s when all the regional cuisines and their different flavors become more obvious, but these goodies are easy to find over the place in Shanghai. So if you were ever wondering “but what do you eat?” this is a pretty solid beginner’s course on the average Shanghai street food diet, although I wouldn’t recommend it as a weight loss regimen, that’s what crushed rhino horn powder is for.