I live in China, I have a Chinese mother, and I love Chinese food. Then why, given the choice, do I generally head out for yakiniku or palak paneer over Chinese food when I live at the source?
The answer is simple: Chinese food in Shanghai isn't all that good.
To be clear, I'm talking about Chinese food from regions outside of Shanghai. If you have had the opportunity to gorge on it within the confines of this moderately polluted city of 24 million, Shanghainese food is a gluttonous experience, and not unpleasantly so. It's heavy on fatty pork and sweet, thick sauces. There are fatty soup-filled meat dumplings wrapped in thin dough skins that are steamed. There are fatty soup-filled meat dumplings wrapped in thick dough skins that are fried. There are long dough fritters for breakfast, eaten along with soy milk or silky-soft warm tofu, served either salty or sweet. There are meatballs, the best of which are made from hand-chopped pork and pork fat, combined with lake crab meat, then rolled in a final layer of chopped fat before being braised in broth with napa cabbage. There is the sticky-sweet soy braised pork belly or shoulder, skin on and glistening in a deep layer of rendered fat, surrounded by hard boiled eggs flavored from the same braise. It is the kind of food that you dive into with much anticipation and need a week or three to recover from.
But Shanghai has no lack of authentically Shanghainese offerings. What it does lack is real-deal cuisine from any other Chinese region. Sichuan is famous not only for the searing heat of its chilies and infamous numbing peppercorn, but also for mild temperatures which give rise to a wide range of produce, making for varied and delicious eating. Guangdong and Hong Kong, where my mother's family is from, are known for dim sum and restorative double-boil soups. The Northeast has its requisite Beijing duck, but also simple, enjoyably carb-heavy dishes that help make brutal winters more bearable.
There's Hunan, Yunnan. There's Guizhou fish hotpot with heavy notes of lemongrass, which will remind you that food traditions pre-date the border dividing China from Thailand.
With such a veritable smorgasbord to choose from, why would you eat anything else? The problem is that, in Shanghai, these dishes are often adapted for local palates, which veer toward the sweet and the greasy. They're likely to have been prepared by a guy who is actually from two provinces away and knows nothing about the food. And to maintain price competitiveness and consistency, they're probably made from ingredients that are widely available in Shanghai and therefore aren't from the region where the dish draws from.
There are at least two factors at work here—the 9.9 million migrants that live and work in Shanghai, and the extreme regionalism that divides China into several different markets.
"You may actually be worse off eating Sichuan food in Shanghai [than in other countries], potentially," says Andrew Kuiler of the Silk Initiative, a Shanghai-based food and beverage consultancy. "Because you've got migrants coming from all over the country, whereas in other places they may actually be from Sichuan."
Distribution is a distinct challenge in the food industry, affecting everyone from major e-commerce platforms—many of whom have chosen to build out their own logistics infrastructure—to brands looking for nationwide distribution for their products.
"If you're a chocolate entrant, you might have to pay four or five different distributors to get nationwide distribution," Kuiler says, though he notes that the industry is improving. "There's a lot of consolidation going on, different facets of food and beverage holders. Distribution is getting bigger and bigger and more powerful, more consistent in places."
Regardless, Shanghai residents who look for ingredients popular in Hong Kong and Guangzhou are often surprised at the lack of choice here. Both thelarge expat population and regionalized domestic distribution channels—along with the belief that imported foods are safer and better quality—often create a disconnect: It's sometimes easier to find obscure imported goods when popular brands within China are limited to certain regions.
"How do you not have Amoy soy sauce? Everyone uses Amoy soy sauce!" asks Jonathan, a 29-year old Shenzhen native who lives in Shanghai, referring to a popular condiments brand in southern China. "But you know what I found here? Sriracha! And this brand of jam that I liked when I was in London!"
The virally popular Huy Fong sriracha sauce—which enjoys ubiquity in Vietnamese restaurants across the US—is an American product, made in Irwindale, California. It's virtually unknown in China among locals, yet it's available in Shanghai when truly Chinese ingredients are not.
Trinity, a 25-year old Chongqing native who lives in Shanghai, seeks out spicy hotpot in the style of her hometown cuisine once a week. "I can't live without spicy food," she says. "Hotpot is what we love the most. It is famous for the seasonings that's inside. [People would originally] re-use the oil and seasoning for years, they keep boiling and using the same one. People think it tastes the best." She notes, however, that modern views on hygiene have essentially eliminated the practice.
When preparing hotpot at home, Trinity uses spices that she brings from Chongqing or buys online, because she can't find the right spices in Shanghai. Dining out, she says, just isn't the same as in her hometown.
"It's just not authentic enough, I guess. There are a lot of Chongqing restaurants here now; some of them are good. But what we like are the local ones, the local style where you just eat on the street."
Authenticity tends to come at a price in Shanghai—but casual restaurants serving up authentic food are hard to find. Many tend to serve highly bastardized versions of the cuisine, or will include dishes from a variety of other regions that are popular with locals. Eating at the few consistently good Cantonese restaurants in Shanghai usually means a booking a table weeks in advance and preparing to drop at least $45 a head, or being willing to wait an hour or two. Ordering a humble steamed fish—the mainstay of Hong Kong dinner tables—requires the foresight to order days in advance and at least $50 to blow.
"I've pretty much given up on eating Cantonese food here," says Jonathan. "Western food in Shanghai is better than the Cantonese food."