Did you know that chicken feet are rich in collagen?’ asked our guide. Ah, is that why so many Chinese look so youthful, I wondered. We’re in the Fuxing Lu Wet Market, where Shanghai shoppers know the meaning of fresh. Beside the exotic offerings are arrays of more recognisable fruit and vegetables in a display that puts my own local farmer’s market in Marylebone to shame.
I’m taking part in the Oodles of Noodles itinerary, organised by UnTour, the brainchild of two young American college graduates, both passionate foodies who had visited China during their gap year, fallen in love with the country, learnt the language and set up their own enterprise. Their food-inspired tours are limited to six people, so they can focus on out-of-the-way places that most visitors would never otherwise discover.
These included Wei Xiang Zhai, a shabby little shop serving the most delicious peanut sesame noodles, and Ding Te Le, where the speciality is chewy noodles with pork and cara-melised onion served 24 hours a day, presumably to fuel the night-owls. New York is always referred to as the city that never sleeps, but the shiny, vibrant city that is today’s Shanghai goes one mouthful further-it doesn’t sleep because it eats.
As dusk approaches, we journey to the famous Bund district, mainland China’s most iconic concession-era backdrop, to watch the futuristic neon and glittering architecture of Pudong gradually come alight on the opposite banks of the Huangpu River. Just steps from the Bund, we have dinner at Lost Heaven, a four-storey lounge, restaurant and bar with seating for more than 300 people.
The vast dining room, all red and black lacquer, is clearly a place of celebration, with large tables of families and friends, both Chinese and Western, enjoying a Saturday night on the town. The cuisine here is described as Yunnan Folk, its influences from Thailand, Tibet and Burma, and a departure from the more typical sweet-and-sour flavours used in dishes from Shanghai.
The feast begins with wild vegetable cake, Jicong mushrooms with salads and crab cakes with chilli. Next is stir-fry spicy beef, cod steamed in banana leaves and chicken with chilli and green onions-I must be feeling masochistic, as I can’t get enough of this last dish. The night is rounded off on the rooftop terrace with plates of cooling sliced fruit.
I’d been told that the Chinese middle classes had recently adopted the Western habit of brunch on Sundays. This is one of our most popular and successful meals at Le Caprice, so I was eager to try the one at the Jing An restaurant at the Pu Li Hotel, my home in the city.
Two enormous food stations, one Chinese and one Western, dominate the room, laden with breads, pancakes, seafood and cheeses on one side and a selection of dim sum on the other. I choose Eggs Benedict as we always pride ourselves on mastering this brunch special; I wasn’t disappointed.
My next glimpse of some of the city’s history is at XinTianDi, an area composed of reconstituted traditional shikumen (stone gate-houses), one of which is a museum and a testament to the lives of the upper-classes of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Much of its adjoining narrow alleyways now house bookshops, galleries, cafes and restaurants.
My hotel concierge suggests I try Ye Shanghai, one of the area’s most fashionable venues, for a tasting menu. Appetisers include huadiao-wine-marinated ‘drunken’ chicken, a potpourri of 18 vegetables and crispy bean-curd vegetable rolls. I’m pleasantly surprised that non-meat eaters are so well catered for. Mains are a selection of small bowls of braised prawn and sweet chilli sauce, baked freshwater crab in its shell and richly fragrant, steamed pork belly. Our menus at Le Caprice occasionally give a nod to Asia, and the shell-baked crab is one I would love to see our chefs re-create.
Of course, no visit to China would be complete without sampling xialolongbao, and Shanghai’s most famous dumpling restaurant, Ding Tai Feng, has a number of outlets in the city. The one we choose is a short stroll from Yu Garden, a restored version of a Ming garden design that comprises an ingenious arrangement of rocks and alcoves with carp-filled pools. Bamboo baskets soon appear full of fragrant steamed dumplings with fillings of pork, spicy beef, fish, prawns or vege-tables, bathed in a light miso broth.
I liked that we could see the chefs at work in a glassed-in kitchen, confirming the freshness of the food. We ate copious amounts and drank litres of jasmine tea, for a little over £10 each.
Whether you’re in top restaurants or local cafes, Shanghai is the kind of place where you should just get out your chopsticks and dig in.
Jesus Adorno travelled with UnTour (00 86 1861 650 4269; http://untourshanghai.com)
NEED TO KNOW
Read before you go
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography by J. G. Ballard
Read when you’re there
Fried Eggs with Chopsticks
by Polly Evans
Did you know?
Shanghai stands on the banks
of the Huangpu River, whose waters are so wide and deep
that they never freeze