Is any foodstuff as booby-trapped as a xiaolongbao? Here are just a few of the things that can go wrong when you attempt to eat one of these iconic Shanghai pork soup dumplings: first, assuming your xiaolongbao is of the highest quality, its skin will be so thin as to be virtually translucent, and your chopsticks will almost certainly pierce a hole, releasing the piping hot soup into its grass-lined steamer basket, tragically never to be savoured – the catastrophe compounded as the newly pierced hole takes on board an excess of the vinegar-ginger dip. Or perhaps this sublime parcel of porcine perfection will burst en route to your mouth, shooting its contents over your shirt, chin or innocent bystanders. Meanwhile, misjudge their temperature and you risk a quantity of scalding pork soup detonating in your mouth. It's porky Russian roulette, I tell you.
But this crown jewel of Shanghai snacks is worth the risks, so I wait and I watch and I shadow, move-for-move, one of the city's hottest young chefs, Austin Hu, as he tackles the first of the dozen xiaolongbao (pronounced, "shaow-long-bow") in the basket before us. "It is all about the timing," Austin explains, deftly holding a thus-far-intact dumpling aloft with his chopsticks. "Getting them to the table straight away. That's the crucial thing."
We are in a branch of Din Tai Fung, a slick, modern chain that was actually founded in Taiwan by Shanghaiese émigrés. It is not what I'd expected when Austin offered to show me the Platonic ideal of xiaolongbao. I'd braced myself for a greasy back-alley joint: the kind of place towards which, in my experience, chefs tend to gravitate. "I know, but the one thing I'm always looking for is consistency," he says. "And these guys are consistently excellent."
Austin worked for several years at New York's Gramercy Tavern before returning to the city his grandfather had fled during the Cultural Revolution. In 2010, he opened his restaurant Madison, Modern American with a Shanghai twist, in the French Concession. Austin is one of Shanghai's new breed of chef-owner pioneers who are bringing a local/seasonal cooking approach to the city.
Austin, a super-fast talker with two degrees to his name, explains the essence of Shanghai cuisine as we tuck into a crunchy jellyfish salad (the crunchiness of jellyfish always takes me by surprise): "Shanghai cooking is basically home-style cooking, it's quicker, with lots of wok work," he says. "It doesn't have the chilli spice of Hunanese or the pepper spice of Szechuan. Its main flavours tend to be strong, based on soy and sugar, vinegar, garlic and ginger."
The next night Austin and I hook up again, this time with an assortment of chef friends – Chinese and expatriate – to explore the seedier side of Shanghai's street food. We make an auspicious start with the single most delicious dish (and, at 60p, the cheapest) of my stay, eaten at possibly its least auspicious dining spot. I hesitate to call where we eat a restaurant: close to the junction of Zhaozhou and Hefei Roads, it is more a side room to an overspill from a hole in the wall. Drums of water boil by the road, and oil-filled woks fizz and sputter beneath sodium light. Men sit hunched on low, three-legged stools, slurping from plastic bowls as if their lives depend on it; as I do too, once I have my first taste of the incredible wontons (essentially, large tortellini) filled with a peanut paste and served in a deeply savoury pork soup whose surface glistened with globules of sesame oil.
In quick succession thereafter come various bowls of steaming or fried deliciousness at equally insalubrious street joints possessed of equally masterful kitchens, before we end the night at the charcoal-fuelled carnival that is the Shouning Road night food market for an orgy of garlicky, grilled seafood costing just a couple of pounds a head. This is perfect late-night food.
Among our party is Shirley Huang, one of Shanghai's leading food bloggers: more than a million locals read her Chinese-language posts, she tells me. Deftly sidestepping the issue of how many my own blog attracts (comfortably "under a million"), I persuade her to show me a couple of her favourite street-food vendors the next day. Overhearing this, Austin and another Shanghai-based chef, Marc Johnson, formerly of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, add themselves to our group.
We meet for a preparatory lunch at a tiny, one-up one-down restaurant, Lan Xin, on upcoming Jinxian Road. Marc is waiting outside: "They won't let me upstairs!" he wails. "It's because the stairs are so steep, they don't think Westerners can cope," explains Shirley. The stairs are indeed crampon-steep; the restaurant is little more than a family home stuffed with a ramshackle assortment of tables. "If you had a Shanghai grandmother, this is what she would cook for you," explains Shirley as our food – braised duck, steamed eel, a whole pomfret marinaded in fermented rice, a pot of yendu xian, a pork and bamboo soup and a plate of steamed clover – arrives. "They've probably got a couple of them working out back," laughs Austin.
Afterwards, we saunter off into the surrounding streets, grazing on some small but dense lu dou gao (mung bean cakes, drenched in sugary sesame oil) before Shirley leads us to the ultimate goal of the afternoon, her favourite place for cong you bing (spring onion pancakes). "People queue for hours to try these," she says, gesturing to the crowd wedged into a narrow alley leading to what looks like a janitor's closet, where cook A Da is to be found. "His secret is that he cooks them much more slowly, so they really build up a good crust," says Austin. "He only makes 300 a day," adds Shirley, admiringly.
Wandering the French Concession's quiet, low-rise avenues, dappled with the fallen leaves from the plane trees which line them, can generate no small amount of cognitive dissonance: you feel like you ought to be in one of the quieter arrondissements of
Paris, yet the signage is in Hanzi, the air smells of hot peanut oil and soy sauce, and there's a man slaughtering chickens to order on the kerbside.
The next day, I take a walk to the South Bund, an up-and-coming nightlife zone. Dundee-born chef Scott Melvin has served time in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton in London. He now runs Table No 1 here on behalf of the latter at The Waterhouse, an ice-cool, post-industrial-style hotel that looks for all the world like an abandoned laundry.
After a stunning lunch – the sort of cosseting yet elegant food Atherton is known for – Scott, together with his girlfriend (and pastry chef) Kim Lyle, and I drive for an hour or so to Tongchuan Lu fish market. "We don't actually come here that often," Scott tells me as our driver deposits us amid the fish stalls. "If the stallholders see me, they triple the prices."
I am gripped by the fish stalls and their many unfamiliar species, and their vast stores of dried shark fins and sea cucumbers (the latter fetching up to £150 per kilo), both big-ticket items in Shanghai's snazzier restaurants. But the real stars are the hairy crabs, which look as if they are wearing elegant fur muffs.
Considered a pest in Europe, hairy crab are to Shanghai what foie gras is to Lyon or o-toro is to Tokyo – a must-try delicacy commanding a premium on every menu (the season runs September to November).
To be honest, I find them a bit of a non-event when I join Austin and the, by now, usual gang at the original branch of legendary Shanghai restaurant, Jesse. Jesse had been recommended to me by countless old Shanghai hands. Initially, I am at a loss as to why: it is noisy, over-lit and its air soupy with challenging aromas, but the food is fascinating, with very little that is familiar to me. We eat as the Chinese do in restaurants, 10 of us sharing numerous plates of ungarnished dishes around a circular table. I also try the "drunken" version of hairy crab, marinated in shaoxing wine. Served raw, its meat is unnervingly fizzy from fermentation; the slippery softness of sea cucumber is a reminder of Chinese cuisine's broad palette of textures, but it has a pleasant, mild flavour.
I had steered clear of the Bund waterfront area thus far, my trip being more about indigenous, day-to-day Shanghai food than glamorous "fine dining", but on my final night I succumb to its high-rolling allure and eat at the Peninsula Hotel's Yi Long Court. Its hushed Art Deco dining room is a world away from my experiences of the previous days: this is world-class haute cuisine, by any measure. Looking out at the great towers of Pudong as I tuck into spoon-tender braised beef with matsutake mushrooms, I think to myself: Shanghai really does have it all. This pungent, proud, pugnacious city is the face of modern China, the new New York, a world city for the 21st century.
'Eat, Pray, Eat – One Man's Accidental Search for Enlightenment' by Michael Booth is out now. His previous book, 'Sushi and Beyond', is a Guild of Food Writers award winner (michael-booth.com).
The writer travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838000; audleytravel.com), which offers tailor-made trips to China. A nine-day journey, visiting Beijing, Xian (for the Terracotta Warriors) and Shanghai costs from £2,495 per person, including international flights and domestic flights, hotels and private transfers and excursions. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies six times a week from Heathrow to Shanghai.
Din Tai Fung, 1376 Nanjing West Rd (00 86 21 6289 9182; dintaifungusa.com)
Madison, 18 Dongping Rd (00 86 21 6437 0136; madisonin shanghai.com)
Lan Xin, 130 Jinxian Rd (00 86 21 6253 3554)
A Da's alleyway is directly opposite 316 Nanchang RoadTable No 1 at The Waterhouse hotel, Maojiayuan Rd No 1-3 (00 86 21 6080 2981; waterhouseshanghai .com) Jesse, 41 Tianping Rd (00 86 21 6282 9260; xinjishi.com)Yi Long Court at The Peninsula Hotel, The Bund No32 (00 86 21 2327 6742; peninsula.com).
The full version of this article appears in the May issue of High Life magazine, available on all British Airways flights. See bahighlife.com.