Shanghai’s hometown food is no stranger to vegetables and other vegetarian dishes. Ben bang cai, as Shanghainese cuisine is known among locals, includes all types of meat-free cold dishes, stir-fries and noodle dishes, inadvertently friendly to modern vegetarians and sometimes even vegans.
But what about other classic Shanghai foods, ones that are traditionally made with meat, like soup dumplings and pot stickers? Being both Shanghainese and a vegan, I set out to survey five restaurants that are re-interpreting the hometown cuisine with a vegetarian approach.
The Vibe: Dinner parties for monks
The Specialty: Fried "eel", Shanghai-style vegan "duck" and chow mein
The Price: Monks aren’t rich; most dishes are 50rmb or less
Vegan Delights (a.k.a Ming Sheng), near Tianzifang, is owned by a Shanghainese who is particular about his food and insists on making almost everything in the restaurant. That’s a lot of mock meat. A lot of work. His chefs have been doing it for nearly a decade.
The chef doesn’t use any animal products, which, duh, but also doesn’t use any of the “five pungent spices” — not the brown spice mix, but the five elements that lead to anger (when raw) and passion (when cooked): garlic and four types of onion. That makes it okay with the monk community, and so they often host dinner parties here. No anger or passion in sight. Notice the engraving on the wall; it’s an excerpt from the Heart Sutra. When I went, they had just hosted a vegan wedding. So wholesome!
Food is an extensive playbook from the Shanghainese canon, from pot stickers to wontons to fried noodles, but standouts are their fried tofu skin (the vegan “duck”, or su ya) and the salt-and-pepper king oyster mushrooms (the fried "eel"), as well as the long list of mock meats, like vegan “crab roe”, braised “short ribs” and “squirrel fish”, a Suzhou classic.
The Vibe: Chinese classics minus the meat in a bright, clean space
The Specialty: Fried “pork” chop with Worcestershire sauce and sweet-and-sour “pork”
The Price: The fried "pork" chop is 28rmb
Huiyuan covers a wide range of Shanghainese classics, home-style dishes, as well as Sichuan style “dry pot” and salads and pasta. Like most other local vegetarian restaurants, the mock meat is made of soy protein and konjac. The place is up-to-date, with iPad menus, and a clean, spacious dining room.
The food, the food. The food is as good as Vegan Delights, and probably better than most conventional, meat-serving Shanghainese restaurants, though it is a bit gloopy and starchy. It’s a Shanghainese thing. It reminds me of my Dad.
Huiyuan also has many iconic snacks like spring rolls and that old Shanghainese classic (perhaps borrowed from the first wave of foreigners), breaded schnitzel with “spicy soy sauce”, which is how Worcestershire sauce is known in this part of the world. They recently changed the menu and got rid of the xiao long bao, which is a shame, but to compensate, they have zero-alcohol beer. Er, “beer”.
The Vibe: Veggie hot pot with a pedigree
Specialty: Organic veggies dipped in broth
The Price: Over 150rmb per head
Yan Ge Ge is owned by Hong Kong actor-turned restaurateur Timothy Zao, actor/vegetarian chef Jackie Lui and Shanghainese reality show star Tuyan. Are you impressed?
Their two-tier copper hotpot offers a porcini mushroom-based carrot soup in the top tier, and then a stock of your choice in the larger pot, from curry to Japanese pepper in a sour broth. I went for the tomato soup, which was great, as was the mushroom soup in the top-tier. Some of the mushrooms used are flown in from Yunnan, which explains why a mixed plate of mushrooms is almost 200rmb.
Yan Ge Ge has a few Shanghai-style homey dishes, too, such as braised spring bamboo shoots with tofu skin knots, fried “hairy crab roe” and shepherd's purse wonton. Taste is spot-on.
The Vibe: Soy!
The Specialty: Soy!
The Price: Cheap!
Shu Shui is part of the Dashu Wujie group, one of Shanghai’s finest fine-dining vegetarian restaurants. In Chinese, Shu (菽) is a general word for “legume” but when paired with shui (水) becomes 菽水, or genuine filial piety that doesn’t involve luxury. Indeed, everything is down to earth here, and almost all dishes are soy-based one way or another: flavored soymilk, savory douhua, fried tofu balls, and soymilk noodles.
Their soybeans come from Wuchang in Northeast China, and the soy milk here is definitely rich enough to justify the 10rmb price tag. The lion's mane soy milk “noodle” is the most popular dish here, though the “lion’s head”, usually a big-ass meatball, is the most impressive. The soy protein shotput is tight enough to play games with, but delicious enough to be lunch, especially at 29rmb.
The Vibe: Messy food court
Specialty: Vegetarian dumplings
The Price: Six xiao long bao for 30rmb; dumplings start at 9rmb for six
Dancing Dumplings' Wujiaochang chain has a better environment than the one we went to, which closed about ten days after we published this article.
Their signature dish is the soup dumpling, the xiao long bao, filled with diced mushroom, tofu, and a savory vegetarian jelly (it’s usually made with pork skin). Then they have 10 varieties of vegetarian dumplings, with fillings such as wood ear, red pepper, and celery. They seem to be mostly conventional Chinese and Asian flavors, no fancy truffle and the like. Most of them are vegan, and a few of them are only available as steamed jiaozi. The black pepper, zucchini and mushroom flavor is a must.
Chinese-style pancakes are also delicious. The sliced daikon pancake looks like a flatter version of the traditional Shanghainese snack, luobosi bing. The taste reminded me of childhood. That’s a good thing.
To see all of SmartShanghai’s listings for vegetarian restaurants, click here.