In such a vibrant, modern city like Shanghai, the F&B industry is in an exciting phase of growth and maturity. Whether it be big chains from the US entering Shanghai (I’m eagerly waiting for Shake Shack in 2019), or the rise of local and foreign culinary talent opening up restaurants with creative and sophisticated concepts, there is no shortage of amazing eats for those of us living in this city. We can barely keep up with all the new spots opening up that sometimes we look past the local, original Shanghainese eateries that have existed for years.
What makes up classic Shanghainese food? Generally, the flavors are known for being sweet, oily and vinegary. For the most part, the local palette doesn’t have as high of a tolerance for spice since those flavors aren’t part of the cuisine. Luckily for those of us who have become addicted to a dollop of la jiang (辣酱) spicy sauce, it’s almost always on every table next to soy sauce and black vinegar. Spice aside, whether it’s the variety of classic dumplings like xiao long bao (小笼包) and sheng jian bao (生煎包) or the classic breakfast item, jian bing (煎饼), or the seasonal hairy crab (大闸蟹) or hong shao rou (红烧肉), you’re bound to fall in love with one or many of the local dishes. As far as starches go, rice still rules, but noodles are a strong second. So, let’s take a minute and talk about what Shanghai strands are all about.
The Noodles Itself
Noodles or ‘mian’ (面) in China refers specifically to wheat based noodles. In English we would generally use the word ‘noodle’ to encompass any kind of strand including rice noodles, vermicelli, egg noodles, and although it’s a stretch, zoodles (the currently trending healthy alternative of zucchini noodles). In Chinese there are other words which specifically refer to noodles made from other ingredients, but we’ll get into that another day. Shanghainese noodles are wheat based noodles, therefore qualifying as ‘mian’, and unlike the Lanzhou or Shaanxi regions which are known for their hand pulled noodles, in Shanghai, noodles are usually machine cut into uniform long, thin, round strands. The noodles have a simple wheat taste, and I find the texture tends to be a bit firmer than any hand pulled noodles.
There are a handful of deliciously simple Shanghainese noodle dishes which are easily found throughout the city. While on a Google search of ‘Shanghainese noodles’ strangely enough, many of these notable dishes do not appear. Seems they haven’t made it over to the West as main stream, but after living or visiting the city, you’ll find these dishes are staple items. Typically, Shanghainese noodles are simpler with mild flavors but I still find them crave worthy. Time to introduce the line up…
Cong You Ban Mian (葱油拌面) – Scallion Oil Noodles
Cong You Ban Mian is probably the most classic Shanghainese noodle dish. It’s the base for many variations of dry noodles and consists primarily of: wheat noodles, scallions (a lot of it), oil, soy sauce (usually a combination of regular and dark), sugar and sometimes ginger or dried shrimp. The flavor of scallions come not only from the fried pieces, but also from the oil. Many restaurants will have options with various toppings including suan cai (酸菜) pickled vegetables, yu xiang rou si (鱼香肉丝) shredded meat, or la jiang jiao tou (辣酱浇头) spicy veggie or meat toppings. It’s a quick dish to whip up yourself or scarf down in the restaurant.
Yang Chun Mian (阳春面) – Plain Soup Noodles
“Yang Chun” refers to the 10th month in the Chinese calendar and was once only sold for 10 cents. Don’t be fooled by the English name of this dish. While it also goes by Soy Sauce Noodles, the dish is seemingly simple but to achieve the perfect simple taste, it takes the right balance of ingredients. Often eaten for breakfast or as a snack, this minimalist dish uses wheat noodles, a broth is boiled for a long time and is made up of soy sauce, oil or preferably lard and sometimes chicken stock which gives it a more superior taste. Lastly, it’s topped only with scallions.
Where to have it:
Shanghai | Yi Gui He Yang Chun Mian Guan | 逸桂禾阳春面馆
290 Ji’an Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu
Huang Yu Mian (黄鱼面) – Yellow Croaker Noodle Soup
Yellow croaker fish in Shanghai is found in all kinds of dishes. But probably the most notable one being huang yu mian – a deliciously creamy soup with a rich fish flavor made from the fish bones that have been simmering for hours (at least the good ones are). The thick, savory soup coats each strand for a satisfying slurp. The pieces of fish are tender and light, but with small bones, so be cautious when taking big bites. In addition to the star ingredient, yellow croaker, each bowl is usually topped a variety of veggies including: mustard greens, bamboo shoots and pickled vegetables.
Where to have it:
Shanghai | A Niang Mian | 阿娘面
36 Sinan Lu, near Nanchang Lu
Ma Jiang Mian (麻将面) – Sesame Paste Noodles
If you haven’t had ma jiang mian, you need to. It’s a crave-worthy dish that combines sweetness from the creamy sesame paste and peanut butter with savory from soy sauce and lard or rendered meat fat, all tossed with a healthy serving of chili sauce and scallions. Who doesn’t love a creamy noodle or pasta dish? Ma jiang mian goes best with a side of crispy zhu pai (猪排) fried pork culet, which reminds me that this isn’t exactly a diet friendly meal.
Where to have it:
Shanghai | Wei Xiang Zhai | 味香斋
14 Yandang Lu, near Huaihai Zhong Lu
Cu Chao Mian (粗炒面) – Fried Noodles
To be honest, this isn’t the most commonly eaten noodle dish in Shanghai, but it seems to be the one that made it’s way over to the West where it’s known as Shanghai style fried noodles. Unlike the other mentioned dishes which use the standard thin cut noodles, this dish uses a thicker chewier noodle, hence the name cu mian which translates to thick noodle. These noodles are fried with soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sugar, ginger, veggies of your choice (often with bean sprouts, cabbage or something leafy and mushrooms) and sliced pork or chicken. Sometimes oyster sauce or cornstarch is added to give it a thicker sauce consistency.
Where to have it:
Shanghai | Nai Nai De Wei Dao | 奶奶的味道
26 Jiaozhou Lu, near Yuyuan Lu
There you have it, a brief intro to Shanghai strands. Whether in the star city itself, or somewhere else, or even in your own kitchen, I urge you to try them see where they stack up on your noodle list.
Think there’s another must-try for Shanghainese noodles? Leave a comment below and let me know!