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13/05/2013

Best Shanghai food walk: Qibao Old Street

Qibao is the closest water town to Shanghai and it is home to one of the most popular food streets for Shanghainese. So you can consider it for your China tour deals.

Our family has been visiting Qibao for almost two decades and we don’t brave the massive crowds for a view of the canals or to snap that atmospheric photo of morning haze dancing around the bridge. No, our day trips to Qibao are about one thing only: food.

The name "Qibao" is a direct translation of “seven treasures” in Chinese. Although none of the ancient town’s eponymous treasures are food items, the narrow Qibao Old Street (七宝老街) presents an extensive assortment of snacks that we consider the contemporary treasures of the town.

1. Tuan Zi / Tang Tuan

This shop is so popular for tang tuan that there are two locations on Qibao Old Street barely 30 meters apart.

When one shop runs out, you’ll see a harried fuwuyuan, or waiter, dash over to the other shop, cut to the front of the queue and scoop out half of the tang yuan from the bubbling water faster than you can say “zu sa?” (What are you doing?!).

Try the pork tang tuan (RMB 2 each), a soft glutinous pocket filled with porky juice, or the sesame tang tuan (RMB 2 each) if you’re in a sweet mood.

Locals call the tang tuans without soup “tuan zi.” Our top recommendation here is the tuan zi (RMB 2 each), a steamed dumpling of hand-mashed glutinous rice stuffed with minced pork -- the filling is a classic Shanghainese combination.]

2. Hai Tang Gao

These baked rice cakes (RMB 2) have a generous red bean filling, a slight crackle from molten caramel on the crust and a soft, pancake-like texture.

The humble hai tang gao is plain looking, resembling a rustic pot pie, but it is the most iconic and the most delicious of all the qi bao rice cakes. If you are interested in desserts, you should tast it for your popular China travel package.

My favorite comes from the stall closest to the Qibao bridge, on the south side.

3. Lamb and Rice Wine

It’s an old farmer’s tradition in Qibao to start off a day in the fields with a hearty breakfast of chilled lamb and rice wine.

Head to Qibao at sunrise (around 6 a.m.) and see for yourself -- the tradition is still going strong, and in the mornings, scores of older gentlemen cram into this lamb restaurant before they head off to start the day's work of opening shops, policing the streets and taking their grandchildren to school.

Cooled chunks of boiled lamb are served with a cilantro-topped soy sauce for dipping and as many bowls of rice wine as you need to get through the grueling day ahead.

If lamb and wine are not enough, get a bowl of scallion noodles to fill up. The price for lamb is RMB 60 per jin (500 grams) to eat there and RMB 58 per jin for takeout.

4. Banana Rice in Bamboo Tubes

In Qibao, you’ll find everything from jackfruit vendors to ICEE ice cream machines and takoyaki makers. And now it appears that the centuries-old water town is making its own version of Burmese paung din as well.

The guy who sells the rice in bamboo tubes (RMB 5 per tube) will list off its virtues like he is selling you a tube of BB cream -- this rice will make you look younger, it will make you healthier, and so on.

We’re skeptical about all that, but we do think the banana rice in bamboo tubes is pretty tasty stuff. Despite its candy yellow color, the glutinous rice is only faintly sweet and it does taste like banana.

Buy a tube and the counter guy will carefully peel it open using his butcher's knife. A thin vellum of bamboo remains on rice and is meant to be eaten with it for an “extra dose of health.” We like it because it’s fun.

5. Xiaolongbao

The stall at No. 15 sells worthy xiaolongbao and it’s all the reason you need to head to the north side of Qibao Old Street over the bridge. Xiaolongbao is a must-try for your China best toursin Shanghai.

Its fare ranges from RMB 10 for eight pork xiaolongbao to RMB300, or even more, for a basket of fancy shark's fin xiaolongbao.

The cantankerous head chef is the Marco Pierre White of the Qibao strip. He incessantly barks commands to the half dozen underlings huddled in the standing-room-only holding pen/back kitchen.

But bring your best Shanghainese and a smile and he will soften up and even make sure you are properly taken care of with swift service and zero attitude.

Make sure you try the classic crab roe xiaolongbao (RMB 18 for one basket). If you go in the mornings, have these with an invigorating bowl of chicken and mushroom soup (RMB 8) and you’ll be ready for taichi on the bridge in no time.

6. Stinky Tofu

To find the best stinky tofu in Qibao old town, we asked Yu, a man who has patrolled the street for a decade.

“There’s a place I’ve been going to for nine years. I’ll take you there,” says Yu.

Once we reach our stinky destination, Yu tells us this is the only shop on the old street whose owner actually owned a tofu factory and the only shop to get fresh, daily shipments of stinky tofu “at 1 a.m."

We slather the blocks with chili and fermented tofu sauce and bite in. The tofu is so fresh its bouncy on the teeth and has a tangy flavor like sourdough. It is not nearly as stinky as Fangbang Lu tofu, so even first-timers will like it.

For fans who prefer their tofu stinkier, try the vendor in front of 42 Qibao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie, who fries up two types of tofu, including a mild stinky tofu and a gray variety which is called “black bottoms”. Stinky Tofu can be found around China except some enthnic group region like Xinjiang, a destination for Silk Road travel.

Ask for all black bottoms in your portion (RMB 5), top it off with some cilantro and chili sauce and be prepared to stink up Qibao. Afterwards, grab a cup of freshly cubed watermelon for RMB 1 to recover.

7. Pigs' Trotters

Although Zhujiajiao is the reigning pig's trotter town in Shanghai, Qibao’s trotters are just as tasty.

The soy-braised pigs' trotters at Hu Ji are soft and juicy with a hint of five spices but not overly sweet. They are the perfect edible takeaway to bring on the ride back into Shanghai proper.

The trotters will cost RMB 25-RMB 40 each depending on weight and the shop owners will chop up the meat into bite-sized pieces and pack it into layers of plastic bags until it is spill-proof (we tested this). These pigs' trotters, sauce and all, are delicious over a fresh bowl of noodles.

To get more about them via China travel agents.

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