LIVING in a city means experiencing the local culture, and in Shanghai during the summertime that means late-night snacks, or yexiao (夜宵) as the locals call it.
Having lived for many years in Taiwan, I know a thing or two about night market and small street eats. But Shanghai has its own distinct late-night food culture that’s particularly popular during the summer.
Another fun aspect of midnight snacking in Shanghai is the eclectic mix of people. White- and blue-collar workers, musicians and other artists mix with intrepid foreigners as they savor a surfeit of tasty delights.
By themselves the snacks are enjoyable but they reach a new level of delectability when enjoyed with wine. The assorted mix of seafood, meats and many greasy or strongly flavored small dishes just beg for a glass of wine.
The main challenge is the environment and total lack of wine service infrastructure. This necessitates not only bringing the wine but also the glasses.
Temperature is another challenge. Summer nights in Shanghai seldom dip much below 30 degrees Celsius. Temperatures at these levels are wine killers so you’ll have to improvise. Storefront restaurants commonly have refrigerators, and as long as you’re a customer the boss will usually allow you keep the wines inside.
If it’s a street stand with no refrigerator then you really have to be creative. One rather unattractive yet effective method is buying ice at a nearby convenience store. Put the ice in the plastic bag they give you and add a little water while wrapping the handles around the neck of the bottle. Eureka, you’ve just made a homemade ice bucket!
Two of the most popular type of summer night snacks are crayfish (小龙虾) and BBQ skewers (烤串).
These mighty little freshwater crustaceans go by many names including crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, mudbugs and yabbies but by any name they’re undeniably delicious. They’re also the king of Shanghai summertime midnight snacks.
Simply steamed or cooked with spices and a ginger vinegar dipping sauce, crawfish are a delicacy not to be missed especially when they’re partnered with a crisp white wine.
My personal choice is a French Muscadet from the Loire Valley as the citrus qualities of the wine awakens the freshness and natural sweetness of the crayfish. Hardcore crayfish lovers always squeeze, then suck the head to enjoy the fatty yellow substance that is then perfectly offset by the acidity of the wine.
If crayfish isn’t the favorite summer night treat, then BBQ skewers take the title. The wide range of seasoned and marinated meats, seafood and vegetables that are grilled over a fire make a perfect ending to a late night.
The grease of the lamb, pork and beef meat skewers soaks up any alcohol that may be lingering in your system while the other skewers provide a diversity of flavors and textures. The only thing missing is a glass of red wine, preferably a lively and spicy red like a Cote de Rhone or other Grenache-centric wine.
Italian Barbera reds also pair amazingly well with skewers. Remember to slightly chill both these red wines.
No matter how long you have stayed in our lovely city, if you haven’t tasted stinky tofu (臭豆腐) then you have never really been to Shanghai. Try it and you can say you’ve been here, like it and you’re halfway to becoming Shanghainese. What to become a true Shanghainese? Good luck, the next qualifier is being able to speak the Shanghai dialect.
Contrary to what many people think, matching this pungent snack with wine is remarkably easy. All you have to do is look for food and wine pairing analogies in the West.
When pairing stinky tofu with wine we can borrow from the experience of Europeans in matching their stinky cheeses with wine. Whether its English Stilton, French Roquefort or Italian Gorgonzola, these cheeses are always best with a wine having a level of sweetness.
The sweet wine effectively offsets the pungent flavors and balances the palate. German Spatlese or Auslese Rielings are great companions while a big fruity Ausi Shiraz or California Zinfandel reds also work nicely.
If you desire something light, I suggest a Moscato d’Asti from northern Italy. These sweet or abundantly fruity wines will also mitigate the spiciness of the chili sauce that often accompanies the tofu.
Another popular savory night snack is Chinese-style fried chicken (中式炸鸡). This deep-fried delight is wonderful with wine. The sweet, salty and fatty qualities of the deep-fried chicken morsels meet a perfect partner in a fruity red wine with moderate tannins as these wines cleanse the palate while highlighting the natural flavors of the chicken. A Spanish Grenacha or Argentinean Malbec will do nicely here.
The genius of Chinese cuisine isn’t only experienced in elaborate dishes, it’s also manifested in simple snacks like scallion pancakes (葱油饼).
The flakey and slightly greasy pancakes are best enjoyed with fresh whites like a Spanish Albarino or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as the acidity of these wines cuts through the grease while accentuating the attractive texture.
A light fresh red would also work nicely.
Other popular snacks that are exceedingly wine-friendly include deep-fried pork chops with sticky rice cakes (排骨年糕), duck neck (鸭脖), the ubiquitous xiaolongbao (小笼包) and satisfying soups like dandang soup (单档汤), comprising pork stuffed tofu wraps with fried tofu stuffed with minced pork in a pork broth, wonton soup (馄饨汤) and duck blood soup (鸭血粉丝汤) with translucent vermicelli.
Lively Chianti reds from Tuscany or more weighty Nero d”Avola reds from Sicily are lovely with the pork chops and duck necks while light whites or a nice Prosecco are more appropriate for the subtlety flavored xiaolongbao dumplings and soups.
Question of sanitation
Shanghai midnight snacks are unquestionably delicious but there’s always the question of hygiene. In my experience, I find the most popular stands and small storefront restaurants are also the most sanitary. Sickened people are seldom return customers.
Common sense also plays a role. When possible I always look at the appearance and color of the ingredients while also taking a peak at the chopping board or food-preparation area. Should you see something dubious, then just walk on by as there are plenty of other options.