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January 21, 2022

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Culinary cojones: Regional recommendations for wayfaring palates

Years ago, back when I was but a neophyte in China, one of my favorite activities was to walk around town and go into restaurants where I didn’t understand what the Chinese characters on the storefront meant. In order to get more acquainted with my new surroundings, I wanted to see what some of the spots in my neighborhood were all about and perhaps learn a few things about what to eat in my new area.

With no food delivery apps available at the time, I had no choice but to venture out and see what sort of grub I could find. I don’t quite have that same bravado anymore, but those adventures introduced me to quite a few interesting spots.

I was developing my Chinese skills then; I’d studied the language in the US in college, but hadn’t really had the chance to use it in practice very often until my move to the Middle Kingdom. So I’d only choose the kind of place that had no English on its sign and nothing in particular to beckon me inside other than perhaps a welcoming aroma or a bit of commotion and chatter at the door.

I’d walk in and pore through the menu, at first looking for things with which I wasn’t familiar. At one point, I had a folly with something called xuecai, which literally translates to “snow vegetable,” served with bits of pork over rice. I had never heard of such a plant, so I gave it a shot. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but what came to the table looked — and smelled — in my opinion like something roughly akin to pond scum. Sorry to offend any xuecai lovers, but... let’s just say it’s not for me.

So I grew a bit more tepid with my bravery after that experience and tried to stick to things where I had at least some idea of what would be presented to me.

I know it seems like a big gamble for many to walk into a place without really knowing what you’ll be served. But fear not! Over the past several years, I’ve done some extensive field research, digging into different archetypes of delicacies in different categories from different regions of the country.

Here’s a list of a few of my favorite spots. To qualify for the list, the food had to meet three criteria. First, it must be a type of food that has many restaurants widespread specifically dedicated to this type of food. It can’t just be an item on a menu that some places have. Second, it needs to be something that isn’t overly expensive. And finally, it needs to be something that, although ubiquitous, isn’t necessarily common knowledge amongst Shanghai’s expat community. I won’t, for example, include dumplings or fried rice on this list. My personal top six types of “under-the-radar” cuisines; cue the drum roll...


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