By Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor
Twenty years ago Shanghai had 700,000 inhabitants. Today it has 22 million.
In the U.S., we hear about urbanization in China, a great rural-to-urban migration. We envision an exodus of peasants and an influx of factory workers. We might think of this version of “reality” as we clutch our smartphones and wrap ourselves with the clothing we accept is unlikely to have been stitched anywhere else. We might walk through our own cities’ Chinatowns and marvel at how China has come to the world — how cosmopolitan we are.
If we’re ecologically or politically minded, we might think of carbon emissions and international commitments. Our history buffs might know something about colonialism in China after the Opium Wars and its occupation during World War II (which the Chinese called the Anti-Japanese War). We’re unsurprised by an eager Chinese adoption of Western luxury brands and their knock-offs. We might think of how the world has come to China — how cosmopolitan we are.
But most of us don’t consider how China’s internal migration and assimilation of Western goods could give rise not just to wealth and skyscrapers and copycat purses, but also to modern cities and dining experiences even more cosmopolitan and creative than in America.
Shanghainese food tends to be sweet and gelatinous (think orange chicken) and as such, it is surprisingly recognizable. You may not find a Panda Express in Shanghai, but if you like the Chinese cuisine popular in American suburbs, your tastebuds may very much enjoy graduating to authentic Shanghainese cuisine. You can stop here if you’d like.
But for all the rest of us, China is a big country with a wide range of approaches to flavor and texture. In the U.S., we sort of see it in the dim sum shops and regional restaurants of our larger Chinatowns — that is, if we manage to find them, unmarked and three flights up a dark staircase, guided by that one friend who reads Mandarin. In Shanghai, the diversity of Chinese flavors is much more accessible.
Look to the West (of China)
The Uighur people of the Xinjiang province in China’s far northwest sell nuts and fruit out of wheelbarrows on the streets in nicer neighborhoods of Shanghai. Like the Chinese cuisine we know, they have dumplings. That’s about the only parallel. Slice into one of these dumplings, and the similarity ends. These people of western China are Muslims whose cuisine includes a generous emphasis on lamb and cumin.
Spice Bazaar in the former French Concession serves Uighur cuisine from Xinjiang. This may be Chinese cuisine like none you have tasted. These tastes and textures are comforting yet intriguing to a Western palate, rather like Middle Eastern cuisine.
Xinjiang is 2,400 miles from Shanghai, about the distance between Los Angeles and Charlotte. Uighur cuisine makes Shanghai’s food scene cosmopolitan in a way that a fish taco in North Carolina, or a Philly cheesesteak in Las Vegas, simply does not. It is truly distinct, sourced from a different history, a different people, and trade routes both older and newer than ours in the U.S.
Dining on The Bund, Shanghai’s swank and historic restaurant row, is neither to be missed nor likely to change your life. That’s simply because service is so deft, quality standards so high, and creativity of flavor fusion so gently successful that a restaurant here on this perch overlooking the Huangpu River could be in any major metropolis. These restaurants are able to attract great chefs and sophisticated diners with the same simplicity and whimsy popular in New York and London. Shook! is such a restaurant. Spaghetti Bolognese looks and tastes like itself, but with a gentle flavor and flair of the East from peppers and pickles. This is very fine fusion indeed.
Fusion-Free, or Made in Italy
Next door to Spice Bazaar is D.O.C Gastronomia Italiana, which bears no signs of Asian influence either in décor or in flavor. It’s hard to say how many actual Italians pass through here, but proximity to the main branch of the U.S. consulate likely keeps up a steady pace of Italian food enthusiasts.
Step inside and you could be in Verona. Gaze out the back window and you could be in the Italian countryside. Look up and you’ll see frescoes and hanging bulbs. This could be Italy, this could be Brooklyn, but this does not feel like China.
Taste of Home
American tourists in European cities flock to McDonald’s in their darkest hours of homesickness or lack of imagination. In Shanghai they have the 1984 Bookstore, an all-in-one coffee shop, garden café and bookstore (clearly with a sense of humor) that gives Greenwich Village and Portland a run for their money. An alternative and more executive option is the Baker & Spice chain, which is rather like a Chinese Dean & DeLuca.
From surprising Chinese to convincing global fusion, dining in Shanghai is a lesson in what it means to be a melting pot.