An integral part of a visit to any Chinese city is getting a feel for street life and street food. As more and more high rises go up and shopping malls nudge their way in, however, such street life and food are increasingly difficult to find. In Shanghai, Shouning Street just off of Renmin Street offers a perfect taste of the town: both street food and the thriving atmosphere that accompanies it.
This compact area radiates with street life energy and you’ll find fantastic food, entertainment and people watching all rolled into one. Very little goes on behind the scenes here with food stalls spilling out onto the pavement. There is a constant flurry of activity as noodle craftsmen hand-pull the noodles that will go into your soup and jiaozi (dumpling) makers fill dumplings faster than you can order them. People kneading dough, chopping vegetables … it all happens right before your eyes. The first time I visited this street a man was pounding peanuts together with honey and sugar, pounding and pounding until the mixture became pliable and then pulling and stretching it into long slab. By the time the final product was ready, there was a crowd of about 30 people waiting to buy the confection that tasted like an old-fashioned peanut bar. In addition to the numerous small restaurant stalls selling noodles and dumplings, there is plenty to snack on as you walk along such as a big slice of the succulent chive-filled flatbread at #31 Shouning Street. Fruit peddlers carried their loads of bayberries from one side of the street to the other, hoping to catch the interest of a passer-by.
Despite the cars, bicycles, mopeds, taxis and rickshaws whizzing by, a man selling new season tea sat calmly in the street with a sign advertising his leaves. The street may only be one block long but the intensity of activity and range of goodies to eat can keep you busy for a good long while.
Going South on Renmin Street between Kuaji Street and Fang Bang Xi Street is a popular local market. All kinds of fish, meat and dried goods are sold on the ground floor of the market, while upstairs is a burst of colour with the freshest of seasonal vegetables arranged beautifully in bamboo baskets. No doubt you will see produce you’ve never seen before, so be sure to ask the vendors what it is. If you time your visit to, say, 1pm, then chances are you’ll also catch a few vendors stretched out during their afternoon naps. At the entrance to the market a woman sells light and delicious flower-shaped mantou (a plain steamed bread) and baozi (filled steamed bread) from large stacked bamboo steamers. Another irresistible snack she sells is a long, flat and slightly sweet glutinous rice roll filled with red rice. A starch within a starch couldn’t be more delicious.
The southern edge of this street food frenzy is Fang Bang Xi Street where, on its southwest corner with Renmin Street, a large shop front sells a huge range of pan-fried dumplings, baozi, small flatbreads and noodles. Even if you’ve eaten your fill on Shouning Street, it’s still fun to see what’s on offer. Just next door on Fang Bang Xi Street is yet another great place to stop for a bowl of noodles and take in all the sights, sounds and smells. Across the street is a cookware shop just in case you see that perfect pot or wok to take home.
This area is located very near Yu Yuan and not far from the Shanghai Museum. If going by taxi, ask to be taken to the corner of Renmin Lu and Yunnan Lu. Lu is the Chinese word for Street. Look for the cooked ducks hanging outside a shop and that is the start of Shouning Street. The best time to go is in the morning and around lunchtime when the food stalls are at their busiest. For me a perfect outing is a morning at the Shanghai Museum admiring the ancient sculptures and then a visit to Shouning Street for lunch. The vibrant street life and delicious food quickly plunge me back into the Shanghai of today.
Pamela Shookman is a qualified and experienced cook who lives in Beijing