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Xiaolongbao and selfie coffee

Shanghai street food

The residents of Shanghai love to eat. Tucked away behind the glistening façades of the majestic skyline await elegant streets with traditional shikumen full of xiaolongbao, outdoor markets and illustrious hidden cafés. iFly-reporter Iris set out to investigate.

Let’s eat!
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Text and photography
Iris van den Broek

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“I hope you came hungry,” says Li greeting me. Li is a guide with UnTour Shanghai, which organizes culinary tours of the city. I join him for a breakfast tour through the Former French Concession (FFC), which is Shanghai's prettiest neighbourhood. Lush trees, classic street lights and European architecture: the streets of the FFC are very picturesque.

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Former French Concession

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Shang Strtfood 04 Intro Bg Half

Li takes me through Xiangyang park where people are dancing and water calligraphers are showing off their skills. It's the weekend, and locals flock en masse to the park.

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Our first stop is to sample a traditional Shanghai breakfast dish: youtiao, a Chinese churro dipped in sweetened soy milk. This is delicious comfort food sold on every corner. To balance so much sweetness, I also get cifantuan; balls of sticky rice stuffed with pork and pickled vegetables. “It's all about the equilibrium between sweet and savoury,” explains Li.

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Brilliant bings

Americans eat pancakes for breakfast, the Chinese have their bing. “There are many varieties of the Chinese version of the pancake,” Li explains. From a takeaway window, we pick up an order of qiancengbing also known as Thousand Layer Pancake. It's a very simple snack but requires precision assembly to create the multi-layered dough.

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Then we are off to the next pancake: the jianbing. Inspired by the French crêpe, this is China's most popular street breakfast. Before my eyes, a woman prepares a pancake at lighting speed. She spreads the batter, covers it with egg and tops it with some chopped coriander. Our next stop is a small shop that makes handmade noodles (yummy!), followed by a visit to a bustling ‘wet market’ filled with fresh products. I happily sample my way through the tour, but I am getting pretty stuffed. “No worries, we are almost done,” Li reassures.

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Shang Strtfood 07 Dumplings Bg Half

Piping hot soup dumplings

But wait! I haven't tried the Xialongbao yet. Xiaolongbao is almost a religious institution in Shanghai. The ultimate street snack, this dish is sold everywhere and leaving Shanghai without trying at least one is unimaginable. These popular dumplings are stuffed with soup and meat. You don't want to bite into these. “That’s a common mistake made by beginners,” warns Li. “The soup is piping hot. It is better to bite into the tip of the dumpling so that the soup can cool off. Then you slurp out the filling.”

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Shang Strtfood 08 Hddn Coffee Large Bg

“In the Former French Concession’s narrow side streets hidden behind anonymous doors, you will find a host of bars and cafés, which are unknown to most people.”

Makoo Cafe

Coffee behind hidden doors

I thank Li for the tour and continue on my own. Time for a coffee! At first glance it seems that Shanghai has only recently woken up to the coffee culture, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the Former French Concession’s narrow side streets hidden behind anonymous doors, you will find a host of bars and cafés, which are unknown to most people. For insiders only because this is one of Shanghai’s best-kept secrets.

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Someone had tipped me off about Makoo Café tucked away somewhere in a side street of the busy Changle Lu. In Shanghai, streets are called lanes and I am in search of 339. This is quite a challenge as not all lanes are numbered. After some back and forth, I think I have found the right place and head inside. But except for residential houses there is nothing that looks like a café. I almost turn around to leave but decide to continue all the way to the back. Lucky me because I finally stumble onto a heavy wooden door with a sign that reads Makoo Café. I found it!

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Shang Strtfood 10 Makoo Bg Half

Pink Sakura soda and grapefruit cheesecake

When I walk through the door, I step into an oasis of green, a very lovely mini city garden. The owner tells me that his wife is an avid gardener. The walls are covered with drawings of plants, and even the menu features many natural elements. I’m immediately drawn to the Pink Sakura Soda and order it along with a slice of grapefruit cheesecake. Cherry blossoms line the glass making this the most photogenic drink ever. Maybe it’s my imagination, but this exclusive location makes everything taste even better.

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Selfie coffee

Not hidden, but certainly fun: in Café Fay on the Changle Lu you can drink yourself. Upload a picture to the café's WeChat account and the staff will print your selfie in the layer of foam in your coffee (or chocolate milk).

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Traditional shikumen

Tianzifang, also known as Lane 210, is a unique spot in the FFC. Tianzifang is a cluster of typical shikumen, narrow lanes with buildings built in a Chinese-Western architecture that are very characteristic of Shanghai. Thanks to the labyrinth-like construction, the Tianzifang hides many surprises like a trendy tea shops and lovely art galleries. There are around two hundred different shops and cafés tucked away in the traditional alleys. Those looking for food will have plenty of options. I pick up an afternoon snack at a stand loaded with brightly coloured dumplings with the most surprising fillings. It's like a box of chocolates: you never know which one you will get.

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Shouning Road

A street with crayfish

When night falls, I head down to Shouning Road. When I get there, I find myself peering down a very dark street. All the shutters are closed and this scene doesn't even remotely resemble the lively bustling street I had read about. Shouning Road, also known as Crayfish Street, was a Shanghai institution for years. This was the place to eat every type of crayfish imaginable. Unfortunately the government has been cracking down on street markets. And the once popular Crayfish Street has been all but shut down. Luckily, at the end of the street, I come across a handful of restaurants that are packed. I may have missed out on the quantity, but the quality is undiminished.

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These delicious crayfish are the perfect dish to finish a day of fabulous eating. Actually, the best way to end the day is with a view of the impressive skyline of this sparkling metropolis.

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