Best Shanghai food walk: Qibao Old Street
Qibao (七宝) is the closest water town to Shanghai and it is home to one of the most popular food streets for Shanghainese.
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 (团子) / Tang Tuan (汤团)
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.
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Old Street Tang Tuan shops (老街汤团), 14 and 26 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie 七宝老街南大街14号和26号, 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m., + 86 21 6459 2917
2. Hai Tang Gao (海棠糕)
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 (七宝糕).
My favorite comes from the stall closest to the Qibao bridge, on the south side.
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No address. Just aim for the hai tang gao stand closest to the canal.
3. Lamb and Rice Wine (七宝羊肉和黄酒)
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 (阳春面) to fill up. The price for lamb is RMB 60 per jin (500 grams) to eat there and RMB 58 per jin for takeout.
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Boiled Lamb Restaurant (白切羊肉店), 37 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie 七宝老街南大街37号, 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
4. Banana Rice in Bamboo Tubes (泰国香蕉竹)
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.
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Bamboo tube stall, 3 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie 七宝老街南大街3号
5. Xiaolongbao (小笼包)
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.
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 (蟹粉小笼, 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.
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Long Pao Xie Fen Dumplings (龙袍蟹粉小笼馆), 15 Qi Bao Lao Jie Bei Da Jie 七宝老街北大街15号
6. Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐)
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 (腐乳酱) 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” (黑底).
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.
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Stinky tofu stall, 29 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie 七宝老街南大街29号
7. Pigs' Trotters (蹄膀)
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 (五香) 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.
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Hu Ji Pigs' Trotters (胡记酱蹄膀), 24 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie 七宝老街南大街24号,
The Qibao old town is approximately 30 minutes away from Shanghai downtown by metro. Take Metro Line 9 to Qibao Station (七宝站), and Qibao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie is 10 minutes away on foot.