Shanghai Cuisine Explained

Slow cooking and soy sauce characterize this eastern China cuisine

Woman Cooking Street Food
Chris Li / EyeEm / Getty Images

Chinese cuisine is made up of 10 regional styles of cooking, such as Cantonese and Szechuan; Shanghai cuisine is the youngest on this list, but it is distinctive and favored by many. Shanghai, the largest city in the People's Republic of China, incorporates the cooking styles of the surrounding provinces, including Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui, and Jiangxi; Jiangsu and Zhejiang have the most influence.

Shanghai cuisine, also known as Hu cuisine, is characterized by a greater use of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, and rice vinegar (compared to other regional cuisines). This is not surprising since China’s finest rice wine is produced in the city of Shaoxing in eastern Zhejiang province, while famous Chinkiang black rice vinegar originated in Jiangsu province. The cuisine is also known for the 1 to 1 ratio of soy sauce to sugar. The presentation is also a big part of Shanghai cooking, as cooks take great care when cutting and arranging the food on the plate.

It's All About the Sauce

Eastern China is home to “red-cooking,” in which food is gently braised in a flavorful soy sauce-based liquid with sugar and spices such as five-spice powder. This slow-cooking technique imparts a reddish-brown color to the dish, hence the name. Many families develop their own “master sauce” for red-cooking that is passed down through the generations.

This deep-colored sauce, however, is not meant to overwhelm or mask the flavors of the ingredients, but instead, emphasize the freshness of the meats and vegetables incorporated into the recipe.

Geographical Influences

The dominant geographical feature in the Shanghai region is the mighty Yangtze river, which flows from Qinghai province in the west out into the East China Sea. The longest river in Asia, the Yangtze River is a major transportation source. Hundreds of freshwater lakes flow into the river and the fertile floodplain wetlands are perfect for rice cultivation, earning this region the name “the land of fish and rice.” Thus, you will find plenty of rice and seafood in Shanghai dishes.

Signature Dishes

There are several quintessential Shanghai recipes, some that focus on the ingredient itself versus the style of preparation. For example, the hairy crab, which is in season during the ninth and tenth months of the lunar calendar (autumn), is a Shanghai delicacy. These pricy crustaceans are best eaten simply steamed and can be found at restaurants around the city. Be prepared to pay a pretty penny, however, since an order of hairy crab can cost more than a prime cut of meat. Slices of smoked fish, called Shanghai Shun Yu, is also a favored dish. The pieces of carp are tender on the inside with a light, crispy exterior.

Xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings) may be one of the first dishes you eat if visiting Shanghai. The dumplings are presented in a hot broth and can be filled with pork, shrimp, crab, or vegetables. Beggar's chicken is a good example of the slow cooking of Shanghai cuisine as it can take up to 6 hours. The origin of this dish, as legend has it, is that a beggar stole a chicken from a farm and hid it in the mud until the farmer went to sleep; then he cooked it—mud and all—over a fire. Today's recipes don't use mud, of course, but an important step is to wrap the chicken in lotus leaves, parchment paper, or aluminum foil before baking.

Another signature Shanghai dish is lion's head meatballs, pork meatballs simmered in soy sauce and sugar and braised with bok choy. The name of the dish was born out of a banquet for the governor of the state of Xun where the officials called him a fierce lion and praised him for his achievements.

Shangai Recipes

Whether or not these dishes have legends behind them or a long history, they are popular and well-loved recipes in the region's cuisine. Cockle meatballs, for example, are a mixture of cockle meat and ground pork made into seasoned meatballs and then cooked in a soy sauce-sugar mixture. A similar recipe using glutenous rice instead of cockle is the Shanghai pearl ball. An example of red cooking is red cooked soy sauce chicken, where the chicken is simmered in a soy sauce and sugar mixture.

Shanghai vegetable rice and Yangchow fried rice are two very different dishes; the Shanghai vegetable rice includes the signature soy sauce and sugar while the Yanchow fried rice (from the Jiangsu region) doesn't contain either ingredient and is more about the egg.

West Lake is a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, the capital city of the Zhejiang region. West Lake beef soup may not include any ingredients that can be found in the body of water, but it is a common recipe due to its humble ingredients.