Eat, Wok, Stare – Just Another Shanghai Kind of Food

Full disclosure: “I am not a foodie.” I am not going to show you luscious examples of all the savory dishes I ate in Shanghai, mostly because I forgot.   And, I basically eat when I have to eat something to keep my energy up, but I do choose carefully so I don’t become ill. Fast food is not my favorite so it’s only out of desperation that I go to one of those joints. (I feel that way about coffee at a certain coffee chain started in Seattle, too.)  There is something ‘too corporate’ about these chains and I would rather give my money to smaller businesses.

I also prefer food brought to me at a table rather than buffet-style, and in a foreign country, it is helpful when a menu is in both English and the local language, but a few photos illustrating the dish will do fine, too. I’m not that fussy. Otherwise I take a look around at what other diners are eating or ask the server what they recommend if they happen to speak English. No matter what, you won’t starve if you can’t speak the language. You just figure it out.

With that said, I absolutely relish seeing different foods in other countries and it is common for me to take photos of food-related items which are different from what I am used to seeing. Like sculpted ice cream on a stick:


Terrible photo because I was being rushed by others.

Eating in China was not totally ‘foreign’ to me since I grew up in a family who went to Chinese restaurants in our neighborhoods as special treats. And San Francisco was full of awesome Chinese restaurants. As a bonus, I learned how to use chopsticks early on in life. Shanghai carried on in my mother and grandmother’s lives until the day they died.  And now that I think of it, oddly enough the last meals I had with them were at Chinese restaurants, 17 years apart.

Arriving at the Pudong airport in Shanghai in March of 2015, one of the first signs I saw was for  Burger King.


The next day, I had breakfast in the dining room of the Astor Hotel, where I was staying, with an elegant and scrumptious buffet.

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And on my first walk along Shanghai’s busy Nanjing Road, a colorful case of lacquered fruit popped into my sight.


These colorful fruits seemed to be lacquered with a thick clear icing. Sugar, I presume.










A day later, during the first of two personal tour days my cousin John and cousin-in-law Denise, and I had with Mr. H., we were taken for lunch in locally well-known, too expensive (we paid for lunch on top of his hefty daily fee, although I admit he was worth it), and well-established restaurants somewhere in Shanghai. These restaurants were never obvious from the general tourist point-of-view and I doubt I could find them again.

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The first restaurant (and only one I photographed) was this weathered and splendid building with flying eaves, and which was definitely old enough to have been a place my family ate in the 20s and 30s.  We arrived after 1pm when most customers (looked like all locals) were finishing up lunch and taking their time talking over desert.  It was a busy Saturday and we had an extremely long wait before we were seated.


While waiting to be seated, I looked at this wall for longer than I was interested.

In contrast to seeing the ‘real Shanghai’ neighborhoods that morning during our drive, it was obvious there was no poverty in this opulent establishment and it was far from being a working class restaurant.


fish in the floor

Koi swimming beneath our feet.


This shrimp dish was excellent.


Denise and I were picking leaves off our lips and out of our teeth as we drank our tea.


The little pond roped off in the center of the dining room. Seemed a bit weird since no one could drown. But, maybe they were afraid of ‘other things’ happening.


One of several dining rooms in this palatial building.

While we were eating our pleasant lunch, there was a young Asian boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, who appeared to be fascinated with Caucasian people eating. I even ate with chopsticks which may have blown his little mind. I don’t know why, but he couldn’t stop staring and hovering, standing very close to our table, gravitating into my personal space to the right of my chair and maybe a step behind me. He openly watched our every move.  The boy’s family (presumably chattering away in some other area of the restaurant which I never could figure out) either never saw him to correct him about lurking or maybe he was the owner’s son? I have no idea.

In China, I noticed personal space is practically non-existent. This was my first time in Asia so if you have ever been in an Asian country you have noticed there is always the somewhat disconcerting feeling someone is looking over your shoulder or standing practically flush by your side.  I suppose with the high populations in these countries it is necessary and a non-issue to be so cozy with each other. It takes some adjustment to get used to the closeness of our fellow humans.

But, back at the restaurant, Mr. H.  finally barked out some stern Chinese words spurring the boy on to skedaddle over to the other side of the pond, closer to his invisible family.  I occasionally glanced around to find him in yet another corner continuing to keep his watchful eye on us. What was he so curious about, I wondered.

As we were leaving, I turned and looked back  to see the boy now standing at the edge of the dining room entrance, with a curious, almost wistful expression, watching us leave his familiar world. I smiled and sent him a small wave goodbye which prompted a sweet crooked smile from him as he happily waved back. It was kind of sweet in an innocent, stalking sort of way.

Later we went to another police station where my grandfather worked sometime during 1922-1942, and wandered through the imprisoned and creepy area which was down one of the alleyways I didn’t venture off of Nanjing Road. It was cordoned off by high concrete walls with a rolled barbed wire deterrent on top. The day had turned out to be very warm, which made me thirsty. As we were leaving to rush off to the next destination I saw the sugar cane carts outside the walls. I am not sure where the memory came from, maybe Chinatown in San Francisco with my grandmother, but I knew I liked sugar cane juice. I ground to a stop (Mr. H. was always in such a hurry!) and bought a cup of the juice while being reminded how refreshing it tasted.

Delicious sugar cane juice

Delicious sugar cane juice

During my 10 day stay, I ate at various places on my own. Most were a success, but not all. (During the 2 days with John and Denise after our time with Mr. H, we ate at the Subway on the Bund out of sheer desperation. Not my favorite place but it was close by when we were walking the Bund, plus we were hot, tired, and knew what to expect.)

One of the poor choices I made was ordering a burger from the bar in the Astor one early evening. I can’t seem to erase the taste of or the memory of the consistency of this so-called meat.

But to give the hotel credit, the little café in the lobby served excellent soup and the buffet breakfast served in the same ballroom where my family members must have danced at some point, tasted amazing.


The wonton soup in the Astor House café was excellent, the salad was sad, and they always served a banana with a meal.


Elegant way to have a cappuccino in the Astor House.












On the other hand, the little café across from another hotel not far from the Astor was another one of my random decisions which did not work out in my favor. Hope I don’t get sued, but this had to be my worse food experience in Shanghai. I thought I was being smart by avoiding the $12 for breakfast at the Astor by venturing up the road to what looked like a possible breakfast place. I had noticed the sign when getting dropped off at the hotel one night.

Unfortunately, another taste I can’t seem to forget was the ‘bun’ I ordered which also had some sort of indescribable meat inside. There was nothing fresh offered here and I should have known that if it was pre-packaged, odds were not in my favor. After one bite, I gave it back to one of the two women  saw working there and she started eating it with a big grin. Neither of them spoke English.  She seemed to be proving to me that it was delicious and I was the picky tourist.   I saw a cake slice which I figured would have to do as breakfast. That was tasteless. Perhaps that’s a good thing. The sad ending to this tale is it cost me more than what the breakfast at the Astor would have charged.  Not so smart, on my part, after all.

Overpriced restaurant

Overpriced restaurant




At another desperate moment, I saw an exterior Starbucks sign, walked the length of a enormous department store with individual stalls selling shoes, clothing, and cosmetics, only to fin this “Brewing Soon” sign. Luckily on the following block I found one already brewing and open.


Thinking this was milk with a ‘cute character’ on the bottle, I found that when there is a peanut, it usually means it is peanut milk. I have never heard of peanut milk and after one sip, I never need to hear of it again…


















There was an evening I found a 7-Eleven type market during a downpour, when I just wanted a glass of milk and a cookie to take to my room. (See milk bottle caption.)

And the day I wanted to sit and have a cup of coffee. (See Starbucks caption.)

To end my stay, I had dinner at the local restaurant just up the street from the Astor. I don’t know what happened, but I have no photos to mark this particular visit. It may be that I was distracted by the stares (again). This time it was a whole working family in this empty restaurant who seemed bored to death, so perhaps an old American woman having dinner alone was their entertainment. (It was late afternoon before most people went out for dinner. As I was leaving they were becoming busy with locals.)

Everything on the menu was in Chinese and no one spoke English, but there were some photos alluding to ingredients. I chose a soup with shrimp which was very good. And as I sat there being the center of attention, they were distracted for a little while by a delivery of  large plastic crates holding fresh fish (I could see them swimming inside when l stood up in my booth and glanced over the top of a couple of the crates.). This was obviously the catch of the day for their dinner menu.

This Shanghai journey was a time when it would have been helpful to know the Chinese language, but I got by and never got sick. Plus I learned something: I know to pay attention to a peanut character on a bottle of  milk.


2 thoughts on “Eat, Wok, Stare – Just Another Shanghai Kind of Food

    • Judith, I am not that brave either! But now I know the maw is the swim bladder which give fish their buoyancy! I like to know what things are but that doesn’t mean I have to eat them! :.)


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