Austin, a super-fast talker with two degrees to his name, explains the essence of Shanghai cuisine as we tuck into a crunchy jellyfish salad (the crunchiness of jellyfish always takes me by surprise): 'Shanghai cooking is basically home-style cooking, it's quicker, with lots of wok work,' he says. 'It doesn't have the chilli spice of Hunanese or the pepper spice of Szechuan. Its main flavours tend to be strong, based on soy and sugar, vinegar, garlic and ginger.'
The next night Austin and I hook up again, this time with an assortment of chef friends — Chinese and expat — to explore the seedier side of Shanghai's street food. We make an auspicious start with the single most delicious dish — and at 60p the cheapest — of my stay, eaten at possibly its least auspicious dining spot. I hesitate to call where we eat a restaurant: close to the junction of Zhao Zhou and Hefei roads, it is more a side room to an overspill from a hole in the wall. Drums of water boil by the road, and oil-filled woks fizz and sputter beneath sodium light. Men sit hunched on low, three-legged stools, slurping from plastic bowls as if their lives depend on it; as I do too, once I have my first taste of the incredible wontons (essentially, large tortellini) filled with a peanut paste and served in a deeply savoury pork soup whose surface glistened with globules of sesame oil.
In quick succession thereafter come various bowls of steaming or fried deliciousness at equally insalubrious street joints possessed of equally masterful kitchens, before we end the night at the charcoal-fuelled carnival that is the Shouning Road night food market for an orgy of garlicky, grilled seafood costing just a couple of pounds a head. This is perfect late-night food.
At 3am on a Monday morning, the place is still busy. It seems as if people are managing to squeeze in a fourth main meal of the day. 'Yes, it's true,' confirms Austin. 'We even have a name for the meal after midnight: ye xiao.' I think it is at this moment that I truly fall in love with Shanghai.
Among our party is Shirley Huang, one of Shanghai's leading food bloggers: more than a million locals read her Chinese-language posts, she tells me. Deftly sidestepping the issue of how many my own blog attracts (comfortably 'under a million'), I persuade her to show me a couple of her favourite street-food vendors the next day. Overhearing this, Austin and another Shanghai-based chef, Marc Johnson, formerly of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, add themselves to our group.
Way to go
British Airways (ba.com) flies to Shanghai from London Heathrow. Flight time: about 11 hours.
Join the Executive Club and earn up to 34,314 Avios points when you fly First to Shanghai (return). Or redeem your points: 60,000 gets you to Shanghai*.
*World Traveller return, excluding taxes, fees and surcharges.
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