Last year, I had the opportunity to explore Shanghai by night, with food tour company, UnTour.
We spent more than three hours gorging ourselves with noodles, soups, a variety of meats, root vegetables, crayfish, scallops, fruit puddings, and anything we could find, served on a stick. The guides took us through the history of Chinese street food, and led us through a labyrinth of vendors.
The night concluded at a restaurant overlooking the closely-packed stalls on Sipailou Lu, which at the time, was the city’s best-known food street. It had been raining that night, but even so, the lane was abuzz with people. Smoke and sweetly scented steam billowed from the movable kiosks, as patrons eyed the skillful swirling of woks. Vendors smiled, despite moving at a frenetic pace. They seemed happy that we wanted to taste what they were cooking.
Unfortunately, just a few months later, the market was gone. Over the summer, the local police had removed all of the stalls, and closed most of the restaurants. UnTour’s founder, Jamie Barys, explains that this is a result of the “better city and better life” campaign, a remnant of the 2010 Expo.
“We can’t be sure of why Sipailou Lu got the axe when it did,” says Barys. “Our vendors were just as surprised as we were when it happened.” She speculates that it might have something to do with the street’s proximity to Yu Gardens, and the need for a sanitation overhaul to impress tourists.
In addition to the familiar Shouning Lu (shown above), UnTour has included a Xinjiang restaurant, serving what Barys calls “the best lamb kebabs this side of Kashgar.” They’ve also added an introduction to “the yin and yang of Chinese booze,” which is white liquor (aka baijiu, or Chinese rice wine) and a nut-scented black beer.
For me, the best part of the new tour was discovering a thriving nighttime food street, a short walk from my apartment. Hidden behind the opulence of Xintiandi (literally translating to “new heaven and earth”) lies something really special. From 8pm on, locals stand in long lines for bowls of hot, freshly made soy milk. The sound of slurping resonates within hole in the walls–the effect of really, really good noodles. And the smell of rich peanut sauce begs passersby to indulge in Er Guang’s famous pork and mustard greens-stuffed wontons.
This is the Shanghai I’ve fallen in love with, and the one I hope will remain, despite the government’s desire to “better” the city. Because, in my opinion, there’s nothing better than this.