Soup Dumplings - Xiao Long Bao in Bamboo Steamer
Soup Dumplings – Xiao Long Bao in Bamboo Steamer

For most Americans, Chinese food is about Fried Rice, Chow Mein and the occasional Kung Pao Chicken. But China’s a big country, and just like in the States, each region has its own specialties.

For example, the food in Northern China is very different from Southern China. You’ll find a lot of stir-fries and rice dishes in the South, which is much more common in American Chinese restaurants.

Up North, though, the winters are longer and colder, hence their food is richer and tends to be a little heavier (braised meats and doughy noodles and dumplings). It’s good comfort food.

The food from Shanghai is no exception. Here are some tried and true favorites you’ll find at a typical Shanghainese restaurant. If they do these dishes well, you’ll be golden.

Braised Lions Meatballs
Braised Lions Meatballs

Lion’s Head Meatballs are named aptly for the way this dish was supposed to look. The dish usually has three ginormous pork meatballs, and is served on a bed of greens, which resembles the lion’s mane.

You can usually find this dish as a soup or braised. I prefer it braised, personally. The sauce is much richer and deeper in flavor. They start with ground pork and add in some finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and sometimes water chestnuts for texture. But a truly good version of this dish will also have the addition of anise, cinnamon and cloves, usually from a five-spice powder blend. The meatballs are then fried and braised. The flavors are very different, yet the ingredients are totally familiar. It’s such a fabulous dish that has a lot of warmth from the spices and goes great with some steamed white rice.

Pork Chop Rice with Greens
Pork Chop Rice with Greens

Pork Chop Rice With Greens is a very traditional homestyle meal. What makes this dish different is that chopped bits of baby bok choy and smoky ham are all cooked together with white rice to get a wonderful melding of all three flavors and a stickier rice. Add to that some golden fried pieces of pork chop and you’ve got a one-pot meal, Chinese style.

Soybean and Tofu Skin with Preserved Veggies
Soybean and Tofu Skin with Preserved Veggies

This is a wonderfully unusual take on veggies. Here, soybeans (edamame) are stir-fried with preserved mustard greens that add a nice tang and crunch. For protein and even more texture, tofu skin strips are thrown into the mix. It’s a dish that’s both mild and flavorful at the same time. It’s great mixed into a bowl of soup noodles, too.

Soup Dumpling - Xio Long Bao
Soup Dumpling – Xio Long Bao

Soup Dumplings (or Xiao Long Bao) are probably the most recognizable Shanghainese food item to those even remotely familiar with the cuisine. They’re called soup dumplings for the pocket of meat juices that end up on the inside of that delicately thin dough. If the doughy exterior is too thick, that’s a restaurant you don’t want to go back to. Getting the perfect mix of thin dough and flavorful meaty interior is an extremely difficult task. And you want to eat these babies when they’re fresh out of the steamer, otherwise they get gummy.

For novices, just place one dumpling very carefully (so you don’t rip the dough) onto your Chinese spoon. Take a small bite out of the skin and let the soup spill into your spoon. Yummy soup is another good sign of a great dumpling. After you slurp that up, dip the dumpling into the accompanying black vinegar and ginger sauce.

Enjoy…and if it’s good, you definitely will.

So if you love Chinese food, you might want to think outside the takeout box and look for more regionalized Chinese fare. You’ll never look at Kung Pao Chicken the same way again.

Shanghainese Restaurants I’d Recommend:

Shanghai Dumpling Shop (Michelin recommended in 2010)
455 Broadway, Millbrae
(650) 697-0682
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am – 3pm, Mon-Fri 5pm – 9pm, Sat-Sun 10am – 3pm, Sat-Sun 4:30pm – 9pm
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Stir Fried Rice Cake

Happy Cafe
250 South B St., San Mateo
(650) 340-7138
Hours: Mon, Wed-Fri 11am – 2:30pm, Wed-Fri 5:30pm – 9:30pm, Sat-Sun 10am – 3pm
Must try: Pork Chop Rice, Spicy Dry Cold Noodles w/Cucumbers & Pork, Boiled Chicken w/House Dressing

Shanghai Dumpling King
3319 Balboa St., San Francisco
(415) 387-2088
Hours: Mon, Wed-Fri 11am – 9pm, Sat-Sun 10am – 9pm
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Lion’s Head Meatballs Soup, Soup Noodles w/Pork and Preserved Vegetables

Shanghainese Food: What to Get and Where to Eat 18 March,2011Elaine Wu

  • Just a clarification. Your Blog article seems to indicate that Shanghai is in Northern China, a perspective held mostly by many of us in the US, which have absorbed the Cantonese/Hong Kong perspective (from initial immigrant groups from Guangdong and Fujian areas of South China) that anything north of GuangDong (Canton), and perhaps Fujian, is “Northern Chinese”. In fact, Shanghai is still considered part of Southern China as it sits South of the Yangtze River, the dividing line that Chinese themselves use as a demarcation.

    Furthermore, Shanghai is an immigrant city and much like Hong Kong, though in a different manner, Shanghainese food really is a collection of some of the better regional foods suited to the local Jiangsu/Zhejiang regional tastes.

  • Another great restaurant to include in the list: Shanghai Dumpling Restaurant, 12172 Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road, Saratoga, 408-253-2322.

  • I can totally understand your perspective. However, my parents are both from Shanghai and of an older generation, one where the modernization of Shanghai didn’t exist. The Shanghai of today, which I visit frequently, is totally different from the one before the Cultural Revolution. It has taken over Hong Kong, where I spent 5 years living in, as the metropolitan and cultural capital of Asia, a far cry from what it was even 20 years ago.

    I can only write from the perspective in which my parents have conveyed to me in all my years enjoying and growing up with their food and culture. Thanks for your modern perspective.

  • Perhaps living in Shanghai for six years gave me a different perspective than someone living from an HK perspective? And perhaps there are some Shanghainese that do consider Shanghai “northern”, but I have yet to meet any, my parents and grand parents included. Nonetheless, it is probably just a difference of perspective and that certainly does not change the fact that Shanghai cuisine can be amazing. I have found two other small Shanghai places with some dishes that are much like Shanghai today, one in Oakland Chinatown caled Shanghai Restaurant, and another one in Milpitas at the 99 Ranch center, whose name escapes me right now. Both have certain dishes that are reminiscent of Shanghai. But neither are nicer places, just run-of-the-mill. Cheers!


Elaine Wu

Elaine spent over 11 years working in television and radio as a producer, writer and correspondent for MTV Asia, KPIX/CBS 5, and radio stations like KSAN and KTCT in San Francisco. After leaving broadcasting, she began working for financial software giant, Intuit, where she managed their customer word-of-mouth programs and then spearheaded their internal social media communication strategies. She’s also managed external communications for BlogHer, the largest community of women bloggers online, and is currently the director of corporate communications at Rocket Fuel, a digital advertising technology startup in Silicon Valley. Her personal blog, VirgoBlue , was started in 2007 as a way to express her love of food as she explores the culinary delights of the Bay Area and beyond.

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