Whenever I travel to a non-English-speaking country, I learn several words before arriving: hello, goodbye, thank you and delicious. To me, the last is the most important.
Food tells us a story—from the way it tastes to the people who prepare it. It’s a gateway to understanding a culture and its people. And when you tell someone you enjoy their cooking? Well, you’re not only making their day, but opening a window to a whole new world.
This is something I’ve struggled with since moving to Shanghai ten months ago. It’s not that I haven’t eaten enough Chinese food, because my increasing pant size will tell you otherwise. It’s the language barrier, and the struggle to get past formalities and into meaningful discussions with local people. And even though I’ve made some attempts to learn the language, I realize that becoming fluent enough to open this window is somewhat of a lofty idea.
Luckily, I recently discovered a food tour group that has made this desire a bit more feasible. UnTour was founded in 2010 by a woman named Jamie Barys, a food writer and longtime Shanghai expat. She says, “More and more people rank eating local foods in authentic settings as their number one priority when traveling, but discovering where the locals eat can be difficult in an unfamiliar location.” She states that Shanghai especially can be overwhelming with the language barrier and street food options.
I personally hadn’t eaten much street food before joining Barys’ night tour last month. Stories of recycled oil and ingredient sourcing had scared me away. Plus, I wasn’t sure what to order and where to order from. But in just one night, I made up for it.
Along with about ten others, I met the Untour team on Shouning Lu to experience our first night market of the evening. It began with an explanation of the market, along with identifying all of the items being grilled and barbecued. Then it was off to a local restaurant to eat all the street food after it was prepared. Crawfish, lamb kebabs, garlic scallops, lotus root skewers, green bean skewers, snake, and roasted garlic eggplant filled the table. “Make sure not to fill up, guys!” our tour guide warned. But it was hard to show restraint, and the food kept coming.
After sampling a variety of fruit puddings and custards, we waddled over to a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop on Fangbang Lu for beef noodle soup, hand-sliced noodles with lamb and peppers, and noodles with egg and tomato. The chefs welcomed us into the kitchen and dazzled us with their flour pulling and knife skills. We finished with pepper cookies and beer.
The history of noodles and noodle making in Shanghai was fascinating, and our new “No Carb Left Behind” diet was going along famously, but people were beginning to fill up. So we took a walk through the old town. It was raining, but the lit-up temples and hanging lanterns provided a beautiful backdrop to our much-needed stroll.
After about 15 minutes, we reached our final destination at the hawker stalls on Sipailou Lu, near Fanbgang Lu. The vendors showed us how to make their dishes, then we sat down at another local restaurant to enjoy more noodles, pan-fried rice cakes, flat bread, garlic broccoli, and peanut sesame brittle. By the end, members of the group were unbuttoning their pants. Most had a glazed-over look to their eyes. Everyone was smiling.
In one night, I learned more about Shanghai’s food culture than I had in ten months on my own. Sure, along with knowledge, I gained a couple of pounds, but it was nothing a week of dieting couldn’t cure. I’ll be back for more. And this time, I’ll come even hungrier than before.
Along with the night market tour, UnTour Shanghai also offers a breakfast tour and a hands-on dumpling tour. For more information, visit www.untourfoodtours.com.
*Please note that Shanghai’s street food scene is constantly changing. Since this article was published, Untour has had to alter the route several times. To learn more, read my follow-up article “Disappearing Shanghai: Untour’s New Night Market Route.”