"You have to make xiaolongbao until the thought of xiaolongbao makes you puke," says Mike Huang, a local Shanghainese cooking teacher. The touristy go-to place is Nanxiang in Yuyuan Garden. With over a century's worth of history, Nanxiang's crab and pork xiaolong is legendary. The shop is a descendant of the original store in the Nanxiang District of Shanghai, which claimed to have invented the xiaolongbao.
In Shanghai, shaomai isn't stuffed with pork and crab. The filling is a bit more simplistic, but by no means less complex: It's sticky rice flavored with pork and pieces of shiitake mushrooms. Vendors pop them in a plastic bag for you to enjoy on the go. You can find these on the streets, but consider Xiasha, where they specialize in shaomai.
Pork chop with rice cake 排骨年糕
A deep-fried pork chop is smothered in a sweet-sticky soy-based sauce and layered on slippery rice cakes. The specialty has reportedly been around for at least half a century. It's a common plate that appears around lunch, but I say it's most appropriate in the late evening with a cold bottle of Tsingtao. Xian De Lai is where to go if you want a quality rendition.
Red-braised pork 红烧肉
Red-cooking—known as hongshao in Chinese—is a style prevalent throughout all of China. The color and taste are achieved by slow-cooking proteins in soy sauce with sugar and fermented bean paste. In Shanghai, hongshao pork is a marvelous dish that can be found at every level of dining from street food to fine dining. Shanghai Laolao does my favorite rendition of hongshao pork belly, served with traditional pieces of tea-cooked eggs on the side. And at Zhujiajiao, an ancient water town just on the outskirts of the city, red-braising is done on the streets in huge vats of sauce.
shengjianbao is the other famous dumpling of Shanghai. These little gems first appeared in local teahouses in the 1930s. They are round buns (a little bit thicker than the xiaolong because yeast is added) stuffed with pork, pan-fried, and decorated with sesame seeds and a bit of chopped scallions. They're common for breakfast but really can be eaten all day long. Yang's Fried Dumplings is a reliable fast-food chain that both locals and tourists frequent for their fix.
Shepherd's Purse 荠菜
Chinese vegetables are often excluded from food lists, and that's a shame because Chinese chefs are great at cooking leafy greens and highlighting their natural flavors. Shepherd's purse, a leafy green in the mustard family, is used frequently in Shanghai. I've seen them stuffed in dumplings, stir-fried with bamboo, and—my favorite—blanched and then cooled, shaped into a heart, and topped with sesame seeds.
Slippery Shrimp 水晶虾
This dish is mostly obtainable at the higher-end restaurants like the reputable chain Xiao Nan Guo. It's a small river shrimp, gently cooked with cornstarch and a bit of vinegar. It's a delicate and simple plate, and the natural sweetness of the shrimp really shines through.
Deep-fried anchovies 油煎凤尾鱼
Quite a bit of anchovies can be found off the streets at Zhujiajiao, where they are deep-fried in a vat of oil and eaten on the go. Note that these are not miniature pieces of fish; the anchovies in Shanghai are quite sizeable. I like to think of them as fishy French fries. Same concept, right?
Baked quail eggs 烤鹌鹑蛋
These can be found on any old food street in Shanghai. I spotted quite a few at Qibao Food Street and Zhujiajiao. The former is also a water town and one of the more famous food streets in Shanghai. Quail eggs are baked in a salt mound for two hours and then dug out. They're served in a plastic container, and you peel and pop them into your mouth as you go.
Tangyuan is a sweet dumpling, made with glutinous rice powder and stuffed with sweet sesame or crushed peanut powder. It's an auspicious dessert, mostly eaten during the winter solstice or Chinese New Year. The roundness of the dumpling symbolizes unity within the family. Qibao Old Food Street has a handful of tangyuan vendors, all with more or less the same layout. The cook is perched at the front of the restaurant while a cluster of ladies work in the back, rolling and stuffing with amazing speed.
Crayfish is so beloved among locals that there's an entire street—Shouning Road —dedicated to them. It's a summer seafood that takes quite a bit of work to eat: you have to twist the head off, peel off the shell, and get rid of the intestines before you can even get to the meat. If you get a bit of roe with your crayfish, consider yourself lucky.
Hairy crab 大闸蟹
I'd like to think that you haven't truly eaten in Shanghai unless you've tried hairy crab. Fun fact: It's considered an invasive species in the States. It's an autumn to early-winter dish beloved among people in the region, simply steamed and served with a minimal sauce of rice vinegar, ginger, and scallions. A female crab carries her roe—considered a fine delicacy—under the shell from autumn to winter, which is why fishermen prefer catching crabs at this time. Once the season hits, you can find these at any Shanghainese restaurant in town, at the grocery store, or even inside vending machines at the subway station. I recommend Ling Long Ge, where you can hand-select your crustacean and even get it in a sandwich. Crabs are usually obtained from Yangcheng Lake, about 43 miles away from Shanghai.
Red-braised eel 红烧鳗鱼
Freshwater eel can be found stir-fried or deep-fried, but it's also lovely when it's red-braised and soft. At Sunji Restaurant in Zhujiajiao, the slithery creature is served with cooked pieces of garlic and a bit of scallions. Warm and sweet, it settles perfectly over a hot bowl of rice.
Zongzi is a rice dumpling wrapped in reed leaves—a specialty of Southern China. Every region does it differently, and in Shanghai the zongzi is wrapped in a pyramid-like shape. Zhujiajiao has dozens of zongzi vendors; mostly old ladies who do everything by hand. They pull rice kernels off the stems, stuff the leaves with fatty pork, a duck egg, and glutinous rice, wrap it all together, and then steam it to be enjoyed. Zongzi was reportedly invented during the Eastern Han Dynasty to ward off dragons. They are consumed widely during the Dragon Boat Festival.