Chinese food can be hit and miss in Australia, especially because there’s little that’s actually Chinese on the menu.
The truth is the honey chicken and sweet and sour pork dished up Down Under is but a shadow of China’s true culinary repertoire.
My love affair with real Chinese food began with the first bite of a dumpling I bought from a Beijing corner stall with some spare change. Four years later and I’ve reunited with that same soulful street food in Shanghai, the “Paris of the East”.
Places are always the Paris of something, but stumbling through Shanghai’s tree-lined Former French Concession in search of breakfast, I’m content with the description.
Our UnTour guide Kyle, an Oregon farm boy turned Mandarin-speaking foodie, sits us down at an unremarkable yet packed hole-in-the-wall.
First up, Dou Jiang. Savoury soy milk soup. I’m sceptical; soy milk is for the lactose-challenged, not to be drunk by choice. But this soup is bliss.
I struggle to remember eating something so beautifully balanced – and with Youtiao (deep fried Chinese breadsticks) to dip, it couldn’t be better.
The only thing stopping me from drinking more bowls is knowing we have several more places to eat at before noon.
On the same road we snack on chilli-covered roti, savoury Chinese crepes and lean pork dumplings, all cooked fresh in front of us.
Our guide is a godsend; there’s no chance an English-speaking tourist could find these hidden gems without local knowledge.
Most of the stalls have also switched from accepting cash to mobile payments through apps like WeChat that link up to a Chinese bank account.
The morning is broken up by a stroll through the district’s older streets and the Donghu Wet Market.
We even grab a coconut cold brew coffee at Egg, a cafe so hipster I become genuinely concerned we’ve teleported to Melbourne.
And the food keeps on coming – handmade pulled noodles, bamboo tofu and more dumplings (because you can never have enough dumplings).
Every stall is unassuming. Even the food is visually unremarkable but the flavours and textures just blow you away.
The day ends on a bite of gai daan zai – egg waffles popular in Hong Kong. These crispy puffs of goodness are delicious on their own or smothered in ice-cream like a sundae.
I struggle to pick my favourite dish but my overall love of Chinese food is emboldened.
It’s just a shame they don’t deliver to Australia.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Cairns to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, via Hong Kong.
Staying there: The writer stayed at the Sheraton Shanghai Hongkou Hotel. Rooms start at $A200 per night.
Playing there: UnTour’s Shanghai Breakfast Tour is held every Wednesday and Sunday. Visit UnTourFoodTours.com for details of this and other foodie tours in Shanghai and Beijing. Prices vary.
* The writer travelled as a guest of Cathay Pacific.
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