I’m a food lover. I define my travels by the food I eat and definitely remember places by tastes as much as experiences.
When I first arrived in Shanghai, I was completely spoilt when it came to food as choice is abundant and the pallet is continuously stimulated. I must state now that there are few things I wouldn’t eat. Perhaps insects and monkey brain would be on my no-go list! But in Shanghai everywhere you walk, whiffs of braised, smoked, fried or barbecued food swirl up your flared nostrils and trigger your brain into envisioning what delicacies and scrumptious dishes might ignite your senses. And here is how cheaply it can be done!
The power of 10 RMB
10 RMB can go a long way. You can shop for your own food and buy a slab of meat for 6 kuai and a 3-kuai basket full of fresh veg’ from the local market to cook at home, but for this amount, you can also be lazy and get an excellent bowl of freshly made 拉面 Lamian – Muslim “pulled” noodles – with your choice of either beef, veg’, pork etc. Simple, delicious, healthy and cheap! Doesn’t this make your mouth water? It certainly does for me!
The unhealthy (but oh’ so tasty!) fried version of this is also available for as low as 5 and up to 10 kuai in different parts of Shanghai.
Another option if you like spicy food is the Sichuan 麻辣汤（Malatang） where you can literally pick whichever ingredients you want from the shelf and hand your basket to the chef who boils them in a spicy soup for you to eat in or take away.
You can add plain noodles, glass noodles, meat balls, squid balls, different types of mushroom, variations of tofu, slices of lotus root, quail eggs, seaweed and much much more. Each ingredient you add is an extra kuai, but for 10-15 kuai you’ve already got more than you can eat!
Similar ingredients are to be found along the streets to be barbecued instead of boiled. Again, you will be expected to pick your skewers and put them in a basket for someone to BBQ for you. The magic ingredients are different spices they sprinkle over the cooked skewers that to this day I still haven’t figured out… Even my Shanghainese friend has no clue what these spices are; it’s the mysterious mouth-watering extra that makes the street food here so tasty and amazing!
The list of cheap foods is endless… Most of us expat food-lovers will agree this is one of the pleasures of living in this country of flavours and food masters.
But… Is Chinese food good enough to replace home food?
There was a time though when I came to grow tired of Chinese food and miss the cheese, cheap wine, dry sausage, sauced meats etc that France is famous for. I had been living in Shanghai for almost a year and a half without going home. When I finally did, I binged on all the above, gained 5 kilos and after a two month span back in Europe, I suddenly realised how much I missed Chinese food.
It is common knowledge that we always crave what we do not have. Yet coming back to Shanghai, I posed myself a question. Would I rather live in France, eat French and occasionally eat out at a Chinese restaurant (keep in mind that there are some very decent ones in Paris) or would I rather be in Shanghai and go out to eat in expat restaurants? Which food would I rather be surrounded by?
The answer came to me very simply. There is no greater pleasure – in my opinion – then being able to eat out at leisure at a more than affordable price and never go for the same dish twice. I relish in the fact that every meal out is an opportunity to try out new foods and discover new tastes or indulge in the favourites we already know. China has so many different cuisines, from Yunnan to Sichuan, Dongbei to Guangdong, there is more than enough to choose from.
Although even when surrounded by such succulent dishes one ultimately begins longing home foods, at the end of the day Shanghai now has some pretty awesome restaurants for eating foreign foods. Whether you fancy Spanish tapas, French tartare or Italian pizza, it’s all here. Chefs from every other country have made Shanghai their home and brought with them the culinary art of their home countries. The prices are often reasonable by expat standards and the food is generally of high quality. These little food hubs are made to be homes far from home.
Supermarkets now offer most foreign ingredients – at a higher price of course – so in times of cravings you may still indulge in a hearty Cityshop binge. But the great pleasure of being able to regularly shop cheap at neighbouring markets, eat quick 10 kuai fixes, delicious snacks or go out for a grand meal in a Chinese restaurant for a mere 50-100rmb/person and most of all be able to chose from a variety of foods and cuisines allowing you new pleasures every day: that is what I have realised is a luxury I would reluctantly give up, even to go back to a food haven like Paris!