In the words of fellow food writer Justin Fischer, “when it comes to street food, Shanghai has a serious pride deficit.” Other cities treat their food streets as institutions to be preserved; Shanghai views them as blemishes to be removed before they can metasticize — the most recent casualty being Sipailou Road. Even gentrified New York is catching up. In Shanghai, children of street food hawkers aspire to land white collar gigs, in NY, uppercrust kids attend Harvard so they can open a microaggression-free marzipan truck in Brooklyn. You get the idea. Fortunately, there are still some street foods that haven’t been purged in the name of urban renewal. Here are our ten favorite.
P.S. We’re defining street food as cuisine eaten via stick, hand or other utensil while standing or sitting at an outdoor table. Venues with indoor seating do not count.
You’ve passed by these without even realizing it. You find them at cruller stalls in cloth-lined barrels that resemble used towel buckets. Filled with various sweet and savory fillings, the sticky rice ball is essentially all your favorite breakfast foods rolled into a portable parcel. Our favorite is Zifantuan, the “riceroy” of these rotund treats. The Ayi, who’s been rolling these for 20 years, scoops a ration from a dune of “blood rice” — a naturally purple variety — and molds it into a softball-sized orb. It’s the glue that binds the ingredients together.
From here, treat it like a glutinous breakfast Sundae, adding everything from crumpled crullers to soy-glazed pork floss to pickled veg (RMB6-10 depending on fillings). We like tossing a soy-braised egg in the center and dusting the rice with sugar granules. The sticky squish against your teeth coupled with the sweet-savory interplay of the pork filaments and egg will make you want to motor through 10 of them. Don’t. One is a snack; two is Carbageddon.
Find it: 100 Nanyang Lu (near Xikang Lu) 南阳路 100 号 (近西康路)
This Taiwanese transplant is like a breakfast crepe that hit rock bottom. Ingredients entail maroon mystery meat, a cheese single that was frozen in ice longer than Captain America, a flubbery egg, and a pancake so greasy they could solve the global fuel crisis by wringing it out. When paired together, this rag-tag troupe of characters is not only delicious, but offers the perfect line of defense against a raging hangover — think the Suicide Squad of the Shanghai food scene. No need to hit up a particular stand; you’ll find one of these on just about every food street. They’re often sold alongside rou jia mo and those chicken burgers of equally dubious origin. We like ours doused in ketchup and copious spice.
Sticky Rice In Bamboo Tubes
Shanghai’s take on Thai Khao Lam with glutinous banana-flavored rice and red beans inside a bamboo tube. To serve, the vendor will chop the stalk lengthwise, and peel back the husk like a banana, unveiling a vellum of plant skin. This dissipates in your mouth like rice paper. Nine times out of ten “a bright yellow hue” denotes cloying sweetness and additives galore, but here the rice is only mildly sweet and it does taste like real banana.
Find it: 3 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie (七宝老街南大街3号)
It’s not worth making a pilgrimage all the way out to Qibao just for a few grams of sticky rice. Supplement it with some golden tiles of fried stinky tofu — bean curd that’s been inoculated with fungus spores and preserved in brine — which you’ll smell well before you see. Newbies often find the stench so unbearable they want to wear coroner strips under their nose, but veterans are used to it — heck, we appreciate it. Everybody has their own hyberbolic analogies for how this stuff smells — roadkill skunk, a jockstrap after the Tour De France etc — but we’d say the closet things is if you poured garbage juice into a brownie mold and then fried it. But the flavor evokes milder, fluffier gorgonzola. We surmise it’s how lactose-intolerant Chinese to get their umami on sans cheese. Qibao offers both the white and black Hunan variety. Dunk them in chili sauce and enjoy.
In about a week, Biblical numbers of these crimson crustaceans will be flooding the city. We’re cheating here since most xiaolongxia joints do feature indoor seating, but sitting in a plastic chair outdoors on a muggy night with a mass-grave of crayfish shells on your table and a belly full of Tsing Tao is one of the quintessential Shanghai dining adventures — the Eastern version of the Louisiana crawfish boil. Except here they swap out the corn and newspapers with chilies and metal tubs. Our preferred purveyor is the xiangbadao (香吧岛) outlet on 20 Shouning Lu, identifiable by the logo of a smirking crayfish, and constant crowds. Simply pick out your crawdads (40RMB per jin), choose a preparation (medium-spiced xiaolongxia, 中辣小龙虾, is preferable for noobs), bring your gang and indulge yourself. And forgo those cartoonish plastic gloves; you’re eating crayfish, not giving a colonoscopy. It should be a tactile, primal experience.
20 Shouning Lu, Xizang Nan Lu (寿宁路20号, 西藏南路). Tel: (0)21-6326-4431.
Read More: The Five Tastiest Sandwiches In Shanghai
‘Chicken of the street’
Everybody refers to Sichuan la zi ji as Chinese KFC. If so, this is Chinese Popeye’s. A pile of nebulous chicken fingers cocooned in batter, crisped in street diesel, and jostled about with dried chilies, scallions, ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, and five-spice powder. But it massages the spot, like Cantonese salt and pepper squid with chicken instead of calamari. And is it really all that more nefarious than KFC, where the chicken packs more hormones than a high school prom?
Find it: 328 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu (乌鲁木齐中路328号, 近复兴中路). Hours: 5-8pm.
This robust fried dough shell filled with spicy meat, it’s a lot like a regular baozi, minus a couple years off your life. But unlike most meat-dough marriages, the carapace manages to be deliciously crackly and oily without overwhelming the fragrant halal beef within. We recommend arriving at the bazaar by late morning, these guys sell out before the one o-clock prayer.
Find it: Aomen Lu (near Changde Lu) 澳门路 (常德路）
You see these carts congregating outside clubs at 3am, waiting for hordes of intoxicated expats to stagger out like crocodiles ambushing fish at a river mouth. Skip these. If anyone’s hawking swill oil and cat meat, it’s these guys. You’ll want to head up the Xinjiang carts, denoted by a Turkish-looking gentleman, and a mile-long line. These folks are excruciatingly picky about their lamb; they’re not going to try and sell you a rat in sheep’s clothing. It’s not halal. You can find great versions at the aforementioned Muslim market or at the intersection of the Yunnan snack street and Ninghai road.
Yunnan Nan Lu, Ninghai Dong Lu (云南南路 近宁海东路).
As good as it is, Shanghai street food can get a bit monotonous. Switch things up with rou jia mo, the cream of Shaanxi’s hand-held cuisine scene. It’s called the Xi’an burger, but the flavor profile is closer to a pulled pork sandwich. It’s light years better. Preparing pulled pork boils down to culinary liposuction; with the Xi’an Burger, the fat is the main attraction. Our two favorite purveyors — on Dagu Lu and outside Fudan Uni — have migrated to green pastures, but for whatever reason, Caoxi Bei Lu is “rou jia mo” row. The street is bookended by identical stalls identifiable by the large shawarma pillars that spin like whirling dervishes of meat and juice. The hawkers browns the mo — basically baby naan — in the cooker, crams it with pork and lettuce, and dusts it with spice — if you want it (8RMB).
Find it: 718 Caoxi Bei Lu, near Yude Lu (漕溪北路749号, 近裕德路)
Strange putting an imperial court dish on a list of street eats, right? Here’s the poor man’s version. Our favorite spot is the duck lady on the corner of Ningbo Road and Shandong road. Every street has one of those, right? This one sustains a thriving business despite only being open from 3-6pm, and it has a mile-long line of octogenarians — old-timers won’t suffer a stale bird. After you order, they bronze your duck in a medieval-looking steel drum until the skin hermetically-seals in the juices. One bird runs you around 40RMB.