We visited Shanghai, China recently. Kids’ school was off, and we went there for about 10 days. Before leaving, we were warned by our friends and family that we will have a tough time finding good food in China, due to language barriers and difficulty finding restaurants that cater to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Surprisingly, not only did we find great food, we indulged in some fantastic, ethnic food (not the glossy, westernized version, but the authentic, hearty version) that blew us away. We ate tasty food, very reasonably priced and quite healthy too. There were 3 things that helped us out:
- My husband had already been traveling back and forth for about a year to China for his work and had been to some local restaurants with his colleagues in China. This gave us an extra boost of insider knowledge going into the vacation. (OK, this was an unfair advantage, I admit, but it was really, really useful to have that info).
Because of this, we entered restaurants that featured all kinds of fish, crab, meat pictures etc on the outside. Normally, we would avoid these places thinking they may not have a vegetarian option, or even if they did they would add some beef broth or something… But these restaurants gave us clean, vegan food that tasted so authentic and so delicious.
- The language translator app on smartphones – Nowadays, it is so easy to communicate with folks whose language you don’t speak, due to the existence of these apps. There are several apps available through – Microsoft, Google, etc. We used the Microsoft language app the most. They even had an offline version, so that we didn’t have to be connected to the internet to use it.
With these apps, we would speak on one side of the phone and it would translate our words to Mandarin. Our waiter would then speak on the other side and it would translate their voice back to us in English. The app also allowed us to take pictures of the menu in Chinese (Mandarin) and it would “read” the menu and translate into English for us. So, easy and so incredibly useful!!
- We were not hesitant to go into the local stores. A busy street will typically have a McDonalds, Peets or Starbucks near the smaller, local store. While the easier, comfortable choice would be to go into the multi-national corporate chain, you would be missing out on some incredible range of tastes.
Between fumbling with the app, and pointing to different items and counting our cash; yes – we took longer at the local stores; but we also got to taste some incredible local delights (roasted sweet potato, warm pear drink, purple rice cake, warm, delicious mochi, etc). Now, not all the choices we made were sure hits, but some of the best, memorable bites – we found were off the beaten path.
So, below is a list of things we ate and pictures…
A Chinese Breakfast
The hotel provided a large buffet style breakfast. They had the typical continental style (bread, cereal, etc..) combined with the traditional Chinese style (porridge, noodles, steamed buns, tea cakes, etc – so delish!!).
Everyday, they offered an assortment of vegetables, steamed bun, freshly made noodles soups and conjee for breakfast. The first few days, I went crazy over noodle soups. But, you will see soon, why I stopped after a while.
The rest of the trip, my breakfast was always conjee. So, warm, nourishing, and piled with fresh toppings. I loved it!!
There were different kinds of conjee available – plain rice conjee, purple rice conjee, pumpkin conjee, etc.
They also always had vegetable options for breakfast – simple steamed and salted veggies. So healthy!! We could learn a lot from that.
Noodle Soups Galore
The first few days, I went crazy eating bowls of noodle soup everywhere. Noodle soup for breakfast, noodle soup for lunch and then again for dinner.
Well, after a while (6-7 bowls :)), my kids couldn’t believe it – but I was officially done with noodle soup!!
The noodle soups were simple veggie broth, sometimes just hot water with boiled veggies that was flavored with chili-garlic oil, soy sauce, tahini etc. Really simple, but filled with loads of green, crunchy veggies, mushroom, tofu and noodles.
Authentic Chinese Dinner
This is where having insider knowledge helped a lot. We went to this very Chinese-looking restaurant filled with pictures of meat and fish outside. However, my husband came to know that they place the vegetables (that are in season) on display at the entrance of the restaurant (E.g cauliflower, lotus root, yam, eggplant, etc). You can then order these vegetables freshly prepared by the chef in an authentic Chinese-stir fry way.
The cauliflower was so fresh, tender and delicious. It was a family favorite. The kids also loved the spicy potato stir fry a lot. My younger daughter felt it was spicy, yet insisted on drinking water along with the dish and continue eating it :). The tofu stir-fry was good but compared to the vegetables not as much. The eggplant stir fry was fantastic. I was eagerly waiting to eat the eggplant having eaten it on our first dinner, but the next day they did not have eggplant out front and so we switched to another vegetable.
They gave hot rice in a large, tight container. You can serve yourself as much as you want. The hot steaming rice with the spicy, tasty vegetable stir fry was unlike anything I have eaten in Chinese restaurants here in the US and so authentic and so amazing!!
Some days, we were on the go. So, we just had a hearty breakfast, buy some snacks for the road and then ate an early dinner. These snacks included red bean snacks, warm sweet potato (quite delicious, and I am not even a sweet potato fan), purple rice cakes, roasted chestnuts, canned red bean porridge, sesame mochi, etc.
We had this delicious fruit on a stick coated with sugar syrup and wrapped with edible rice paper. It was super delish!!
The bean porridge in a can is a very convenient healthy snack on the go…
Sushi was cheap
Food, in general, was cheap in China. We found delicious Sushi platters for the equivalent of US$4 in the mall near our hotel. I was like Santa Claus – “Eat, my children. Eat as much sushi as you like :)!!”
Yes, I realize sushi is Japanese, not Chinese food. But, hey it was delicious and worth a mention!!
Yes, we tried Durian
In one of the malls, there was a food stall where the vendor was selling a fried bread (like paratha) stuffed with durian. We had to try it!! It kind of tasted like jackfruit.
We also tried durian candy and durian cookies. I loved the durian candy, it was chewy and delicious. My family members and the folks within a few inches radius of me – not so much!! The durian cookie was meh, but that could have been a reflection of that product and not durian cookies, in general.
Warm Drinks everywhere
The Indian in me always loves warm drinks. The Chinese love their drinks hot/warm just like Indians. We had a lovely, traditional warm pear drink subtly sweetened by red dates. That was delicious!!
We also had hot barley tea served with all the meals. I loved that!! The barley water was tasty and perfect accompaniment to the rice-based meal.
One thing that was not as fun – bubble tea. It is everywhere in China. And the bubble tea makers advertise with glossy pictures and fancy names and we fell like good-ol’ suckers for the trick every time. And every time, the bubble tea (which they also serve hot!!) was quite awful. We should have stayed with the traditional drinks.
We had a great time. Shanghai is a great city. There were lovely Buddhist temples. We visited a cute, water town that was like a lovely time machine to the past. The rest of Shanghai, though, is like a step into the future…
Their Metro service is unbelievable, trains every minute and a half. We visited museums, parks and the city center. Their Science and Tech museum is so impressive. Being a mom of young kids, I have been to my fair share of museums around the world and boy-o-boy, does the Shanghai museum give others a run for its money. AI, robots, science learning – all top-notch!!
Even their Natural History Museum was fantastic. My animal/habitat/species obsessed daughter was reluctant to leave. They literally had to close the museum before she agreed to leave and there were still a couple of sections that we missed out.
Me: I enjoyed their cuisine, caught up on reading, ate well and learned a total of 4 Mandarin words 🙂
Ni Hao – Hi!!
Mayo Ro – No Meat
Mayo HaiShin – No Seafood
Shishiye – Thank you!!
Well, that’s the end of our Shanghai journey. Shishiye for reading!! Have you visited Shanghai/China? What has been your experience? Be sure to post your comments below.