City focus: Shanghai

Shanghai’s rich history has made it a melting pot of culinary traditions. Cat Nelson explores the heritage behind this thriving, modern-day gastronomic center

Teeming with close to 25 million residents, Shanghai does nearly everything in hyperbole and at hyper-speed – from its futuristic skyline of towering skyscrapers along the Huangpu River to the fast-paced dynamism epitomized in its dining scene.

In the first half of 2021 alone, China’s most populous and cosmopolitan metropolis saw 325 new restaurants open, according to recent data from the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Commerce. Yet, this is just a drop in the ocean. Last year, the Shanghai Restaurants Cuisine Association reported there were more than 100,000 restaurants in Shanghai, more than in any other city in China.

The sheer volume and scale of the dining scene is paired with a pioneering spirit. “Shanghai is a leading crucible of experimentation for the rest of China,” says Joanna Waley-Cohen, professor of history and provost of NYU Shanghai. It’s the country’s most international city, setting it distinctly apart from other locales – China, but not China.

While popular accounts romanticize Shanghai as a sleepy little fishing town not even two centuries ago, that’s not entirely the case, in fact. “I don’t think that the ‘backwater fishing town’ story, though I know it is widespread, is very true,” says Waley-Cohen. Europeans say everything started with us when we got to China, but actually even the connection to the rest of the world was going on way before.”

International port

Situated where the Yangtze River meets the sea in China’s eastern Jiangnan region, Shanghai (literally meaning “city on the sea”) was already a major metropolitan area with a significant cotton industry by the time Europeans arrived. Foodstuffs, both staple and luxury, from regions such as Southeast Asia and the New World had found their way to China by the 16th century and imported goods began gaining a significant foothold by the 18th century, Waley-Cohen writes in her chapter in Living the Good Life, a book exploring how goods furthered the expansion of social networks, alliance-building between rulers and regional elites, featuring contributions from a number of scholars of Chinese history.

Still, there’s no denying that 1843 had a major and almost instantaneous impact. This was the year when Shanghai was declared an international treaty port after the end of the First Opium War and divided into independently administered concessions by the British, French and Americans, each who brought their own food traditions to the city. During this colonial period, the influx of foreigners combined with domestic migration from elsewhere in the country made Shanghai China’s most demographically diverse city.

New residents set up small restaurants offering food from their hometowns, and by the 1930s local guidebooks described the wealth of regional Chinese cuisines ranging from Cantonese to Sichuanese to Yunnanese and everything in between, writes Mark Swislocki in his book on Shanghai’s food history, Culinary Nostalgia. “The city’s regionally and nationally diversified restaurant industry defined the city’s culinary landscape and became part of the very idea of Shanghai,” he continues. It’s an idea that remains at the essence of the city today – a melting pot of cultures and a microcosm
of the country.

In addition to the vast compendium of regional Chinese cuisines, this period also saw the introduction of and growing fascination with Western food unlike anywhere else in China. Europeans and Americans taught their local household help approximations of their native dishes and established restaurants serving Western fare, which over time began to attract Chinese clientele as well. In turn, Chinese restaurateurs opened their own Western-style eateries called fancaiguan. A whole trend of Chinese adaptations of European dishes called dacai (“big plate”) began, originating in the late 19th century and peaking in the 1920s and 30s. Borscht with tomatoes and cabbage instead of beets, baked noodles and cheese with Chinese noodles instead of pasta were a few of the popular dacai dishes.

Fusion from turbulence

After a turbulent few decades of Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai’s restaurant industry re-emerged in the opening and reform period of the 1980s. A style of cooking called haipai (Shanghai style) arose during these years. Previously used at the start of the 20th century to describe the city’s east-meets-west culture and foreign-influenced theater, art and literature, the term haipai refers to the unique mix of Shanghai’s benbangcai (literally ‘local cuisine’) cooking with other traditions, whether from other far-flung regions in China or abroad.

This fusion approach was fueled by semi-communal living arrangements with multi-family homes. “Your neighbors were part of your life,” Shanghai-born chef Jacqueline Qiu reminiscences about growing up in a traditional lane house forty years ago. On birthdays, the whole house would get the Shanghainese style noodles her parents cooked alongside Ningbo-style pickles from her neighbors’ hometown. “This is haipai,” she says. “Everything together on the menu.”

All of this lay the groundwork for Shanghai’s contemporary dining scene – one where diners are
eager both for the comfort tastes of home and intrigued by challenging new flavors
and concepts.

Opening up

The 1990s were a time of explosive growth for the city’s restaurant industry. “From 1990 to 2000, everything was developing,” recalls Qiu who was then at the start of her career. “Every month, I got a salary increase. In one year, my salary was what my parents made in 10 years.”

Ingredients such as Parmesan cheese, anchovies, artichokes and herbs like thyme, basil and sage, which had been hard to come by only a few years previously, became more easily accessible as demand from the market increased. International hotels were being built rapidly across the city as the country opened up.

It was the restaurants in these hotels that helped pave the way for the vibrant scene of independent Western restaurants to come, professor of sociology at Tokyo’s Sophia University James Farrer writes in Destination China. Hotels were the entry point to Shanghai for chefs like French native Paul Pairet, who first arrived in 1992 to work at Jade on 36 at the Shangri-La Pudong before going on to open three-Michelin star and Asia’s 50 Best-recognized, multisensory concept Ultraviolet in 2012 and other fixtures in the city’s Western dining landscape such as Mr & Mrs Bund and Polux.

In 1999, Australian native Michelle Garnaut opened M on the Bund, the city’s first upscale restaurant on the historic waterfront strip. Three on the Bund quickly followed in 2004. “Three on the Bund was one whole building dedicated to high-end Western and Chinese cuisine – high-level, freestanding restaurants,” says Qiu who worked on its fourth floor at Jean-Georges for six years. These openings heralded the start of the Bund’s modern-day fine dining scene.

“In the past 10 years, Shanghai’s dining has changed significantly,” says Rianna Ying, marketing director at Fu Group, a collection of high-end Shanghainese restaurants. Diners are increasingly interested in healthy eating, which you can see reflected in on-the-go salad chains to the group’s Michelin-starred vegetarian fine-dining restaurant Fu He Hui, one of Shanghai’s few restaurants recognized on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list (number 22 in 2021).

The dining experience

The entire dining experience has also risen in importance. “Dining in Shanghai is no longer just about eating,” says Ying. Restaurant interior design takes cues from global trends and social media (for better or worse) plays an outsized role in the scene.

“Competition in Shanghai’s restaurant industry is fierce,” says Acker So FCSI, general manager of Angles and Curves design studio. “Whether it’s in casual or high-end restaurants, diners are demanding more – fast ordering, quick delivery, excellent ingredients, high-level service.”

“What brand is your hand sanitizer and what brand is your bathroom fragrance? Is the restaurant beautiful? Are the photos they took during the meal also beautiful?” These are the questions guests will ask, says Li Ze, who’s behind a wave of the city’s new generation of wine bars and restaurants including SOiF and Vinism. It’s as much about the “wine lifestyle” as the taste of the food for many diners.

While Western concepts continue to trend, one could argue that the evolution of Chinese food is what’s most exciting in Shanghai right now. “Xin Rong Ji is expanding very quickly in Shanghai and throughout China,” says Li, naming the Taizhou cuisine fine-dining restaurant chain with locations across the country that have garnered Michelin recognition as an example of the mid- and high-end Chinese restaurants taking off.

It’s a part of the nascent revolution of modern Chinese cuisine, which is seeing chefs experiment and innovate. Along with his fiancée, chef DeAille Tam, Hong Kong-Canadian chef Simon Wong opened Obscura last year, an intimate fine-dining restaurant blending Chinese flavors with a Western perspective that’s leading Shanghai’s modern Chinese cuisine.

“There has been a recent introspective attitude towards local ingredients and their return to glory,” says Wong. “Many nationals are rekindling their memories from their childhood by becoming more attuned to their hometown and the bounties that originate from that source.”

Challenges ahead

The only constant is change is a phrase nowhere more apt than in Shanghai. “In some ways, it’s like a chameleon,” historian Joanna Waley-Cohen says of the city. This has been true throughout its history, but for the restaurant industry, never has it been truer than now.

A destination for both chefs and diners, Shanghai is not without its challenges. More than 100,000 restaurants means competition is at an all-time high. The city’s restaurateurs speak to the difficulties in staffing and rent has skyrocketed, making it survival of the fittest – or in some cases, luckiest.

“There is only a limited supply of talent and the labor market has become spread thin,” says Simon Wong. “With so much competition, there has been no holding back from landlords to constantly jack up rent, which adds to the pressure of operating costs. We have never witnessed as much turnover in any other city we have ever visited on this planet.”

Cat Nelson

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