In 24 Hours

Taste it while you can: Shanghai's vanishing street food

Tracy You, for CNNUpdated 11th March 2017
(CNN) — To visitors, the draw of Shanghai might be the gleaming skyline, but to born-and-bred locals the charm of the city is street food.
The egg pancake rolling fresh off the pan at wet markets, the steaming baskets of soup dumplings served at local canteens or the pungent stinky tofu in the Old Town alluring every passerby.
While skyscrapers are shooting up in Shanghai, the heartwarming scene of buying and eating from the streets is slowly disappearing.
But you can still taste these classic foods.
Each is deeply loved by proud Shanghai residents.

Absolute classics

Steamed buns
Quick, yummy and easy to carry, steamed buns are the bagel of the East, only heartier.
Under a layer of soft and puffy dough, there are various fillings -- minced pork, chopped vegetables and red bean paste are traditional.
There are a number of street-corner chains in Shanghai (with confusing names such as Babi, Biba, Bibiba). A stop at any of them gets you a fresh bun to brighten up your morning.
Fried pancakes with spring onions
Until about 20 years ago, most traditional alleyways in Shanghai had a fried pancake, or cong you bing stall, at the entrance.
These little round wonders are generously greased and exquisitely layered.
Between the layers lie aromatic spring onions.
One of the most popular stalls is on Xiangyang Nan Lu by lane 578. A local grandmother starts frying every afternoon around 4 p.m.
Egg pancakes
Northerners call them "fried pancakes," but Shanghainese know them as "egg pancakes."
It's like a breakfast burrito.
Jolly street chefs ladle flour mix on a hot pan, swirl it into a perfect circle, break an egg on top, then fill the center with what seems to be a full Chinese breakfast: a Shanghai-style deep-fried dough or a sheet of crispy dough, ham sausages, sweet paste, chili sauce as well as sprinkles of coriander.
Deep-fried stinky tofu
Stinky tofu is like cheese.
You usually have to grow up with it to enjoy it.
It's best paired with chili paste, sweet bean curd paste or better yet a mixture of the two.
The tofu comes in small cubes and is usually sold in fours.
In a perfect batch, the honey golden tofu pieces are slightly puffed and are still sizzling deliciously.
You can hunt for them in Qibao, a quaint water town on the outskirts of Shanghai that has a buzzing food street selling traditional eats.
Tea eggs
Tea eggs. Made with tea and eggs.
Tea eggs. Made with tea and eggs.
To make these popular afternoon snacks, eggs are first boiled in water then put to simmer for hours in a broth made with soy sauce, tea bags, cinnamon, aniseed and rock sugar.
Traditionally, chatty grannies are the oligarchs of tea egg selling.
They sell eggs from large pots transported in metal push chairs.
Nowadays, the most popular vendor is Alldays, a chain of ubiquitous convenience stores (1114 Beijing Xi Lu, near Shaanxi Bei Lu; +86 21 6253 9839; 24 hours).
The eggs with cracks on the shell are the most flavorful.
Glutinous rice cakes
Shanghainese favor sweet tastes.
In the world of street food, this translates into glutinous rice cakes.
Lots of them.
Wangjiasha on Nanjing Xi Lu (805 Nanjing Xi Lu, Jing'an, Shanghai; +86 21 6253 0404), a time-honored Shanghai-style deli, has an impressive selection.
Classics include tiao you gao, a tube-shaped cake filled with red bean paste; shuang niang tuan, a little glutinous rice ball filled with red bean paste as well as black sesame and coated with shredded coconut meat; and qing tuan, a bright green dessert sold around the tomb-sweeping festival in April.

Modern favorites

Pearl milk tea
A classic cup of pearl milk tea is made up with tapioca balls, black tea and condensed milk.
Deluxe cups can include -- on top of the classic recipe -- egg puddings, nata de coco, sago, red beans, crushed ice, herb jelly, you name it.
It's impossible to escape the reaches of milk tea chains in Shanghai.
Jackhut is one of the earliest brands (By the entrance of Xiangdai Plaza, 417 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Chongqing Nan Lu, Shanghai; +86 21 6385 7708; Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m.)
Coco has a drink menu long enough to rival a Belgian beer pub (679 Fuzhou Lu, near Zhejiang Zhong Lu, Shanghai; No telephone; Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m.)
Happy Lemon (Wu Jiang Lu 150-1; Shanghai) does excellent lemon-based milk tea.
Octopus balls
It's easy to get your tentacles on some octopus balls.
It's easy to get your tentacles on some octopus balls.
These cute little balls are a successful Japanese import.
One of the most popular stalls is in the nightly Changli Lu Night Market, which attracts endless queues every evening.
Made in a baking tray, octopus balls contain ground shrimp, octopus cubes and octopus paste, while the floury coat is usually topped with a special teriyaki-style sauce as well as wafer-thin flakes of smoked skipjack tuna.
Deep-fried chicken steaks
Originating from Taiwan's street food markets, these generously battered, heavily tenderized chicken steaks have become incredibly popular in Shanghai.
Known as jipai in Chinese, they're normally sold at take-away-only stalls, the most popular of which is Hao Da Da (120 Xiangyang Nan Lu, near Nanchang Lu, Shanghai; No telephone; 10am-10pm).
Chefs usually cut these gargantuan steaks, which can be as large as two palms, into manageable strips then coat them with various powders, such as plum, chilli and seaweed.
A must-try at Hao Da Da is the chicken steak with melted cheese in the middle.
Meat balls on sticks
Called guan dong zhu, these are another Japanese import.
Meatballs and vegetables, such as beef balls, crab meat balls, curry fish balls and vermicelli knots, are cooked in an umami broth, sold on sticks and usually eaten from a paper cup.
It's almost like having a mini hot pot on the go.
Beauty-conscious ladies eat them as light lunches and busy office workers resort to them while working overtime.
Get them from most branches of Lawson, a popular convenience store chain originally from Japan (38 Ruijin Er Lu, near Nanchang Lu, Shanghai; No telephone; 24 hours).

Sit-down street food

Xiao long bao
An authentic xiao long bao has pork skin jelly in the meaty filling and at least 14 pleats on the skin.
Melted after being steamed, the jelly forms a delicious and precious broth inside the dumpling.
Nanxiang Man Tou Dian in Yu Garden is the most famous xiao long bao restaurant in Shanghai -- attracting long lines round the clock. (85 Yuyuan Lu, near Ninghui Lu, Shanghai; +86 21 6355 4206; Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m.);
Neighborhood canteens, such as Fu Chun, Xiao Long on Yuyuan Lu and De Xing Guan on Guangdong Lu, serve excellent baskets too.
Fried mini pork buns/dumplings
Sheng jian and guo tie are two types of fried dumplings.
Sheng jian looks like a mini version of steamed buns.
It has a crispy and slightly burnt bottom, thickish flour dough and black sesame as well as spring onions as garnish.
Chain canteen Xiaoyang Sheng Jian is a hugely popular destination for the dish.
Guo tie, on the other hand, is fried pork jiao zi without any garnish.
Sometimes it comes in a yellow curry flavor, stuffed with minced beef.
Soup with firm bean curd and vermicelli
The best partner for sheng jian is a bowl of hearty vermicelli soup.
It was originally sold from makeshift night stalls with tiny coal-powered stoves.
Now the best ones come from Fengyu Sheng Jian (Ruijin Er Lu, Shanghai) a chain restaurant that also makes excellent sheng jian.
The texture of the silky jelly noodles is contrasted by cubes of fried firm bean curd and pillow-shaped pork dumplings wrapped with bean curd sheets.
Most-wanted wontons.
Most-wanted wontons.
Tsim Chai Kee
Wonton is the Shanghainese rival to jiao zi dumplings, which are more popular in northern China.
Usually considered a meal rather than a snack, the dainty "little wonton" is a legendary Shanghai street food.
They usually come in batches of eight or 10, filled with half a teaspoonful of minced pork and wrapped with a thinner and smaller pastry than normal wontons
Jixiang Hun Tun (26 Fuxing Xi Lu, near Wulumuqi Nan Lu, Shanghai; +86 21 6437 5947; 24 hours), the emperor of wonton selling, delivers a bowl guaranteed to satisfy.
The brand has a limitless menu that appears to cover every wonton you could possibly imagine.
Ma la tang
It's hard to find a dish with a more straightforward name: it translates to "numb, spicy and boiling hot."
From what's usually a hole in the wall, diners get to choose their own ingredients from a large fridge -- meatballs, different meat fillets, leafy green, bean curd products, all sorts of noodles.
Customers hand ingredients to the chef to boil in a large communal pot filled with spices and bone stock.
The cooked meats and vegetables are served in a tongue-numbing broth for eating in or takeaway.
Served in bucket and paired with cold beer, these bright red crustaceans play a leading role in Shanghai's buzzing street life from spring to early fall.
Purposely bred crayfish are simmered in a broth with chili and abundant spices, then served dry.
Shouning Lu, a small street near People's Square, has become famous for its crayfish spectacle.
Diners spill out from jam-packed restaurants, sit on tiny plastic stools indoors or outdoors, and order bucket after bucket of the delicacy.