FOR the past month, George Liu spent at least two nights a week watching FIFA World Cup games with friends and colleagues. But instead of going to bars, they enjoyed the soccer fever — and food — outdoors.
“Because of the 11-hour time difference, almost all the games were after midnight, so we definitely needed some food and drink to keep us awake,” says the 30-year-old marketing specialist.
With glasses of icy beer accompanied by skewers of lamb, grilled chicken wings, fried stinky tofu and various dumplings, Liu cheered for his team, Argentina, totally ignoring the heat and what some consider questionable food safety.
Liu’s favorite midnight snack (yexiao) streets are Zhaozhou and Shouning roads, where food stall owners stew, steam, grill or stir-fry various snacks, from noodles and potstickers to squid and oysters, kebabs and crayfish.
“I love the casual atmosphere,” Liu says. “Although the food might not be as safe and good-looking as those in the fancy restaurants, at least I can have a variety of options at one time.”
Midnight snacks has long been popular among night owls in Shanghai, especially during summer. Although local-style food stalls are usually messy, noisy and crowded, young people keep visiting them for the rich choices and lively atmosphere.
Generally, barbecue, crayfish and stir-fried dishes are the most popular.
“Yexiao should be eaten outside rather than cooking at home,” says Qian Maojia, a 31-year-old Shanghai white-collar worker in human resources. “I feel so relaxed to go outside late at night in summer, in a casual TV shirt, short pants and slippers. It has become a habit of mine, and I believe many people around me in this city spend great summer nights in this way.”
Eating a bowl of dumplings or noodle soup might be the most traditional way to spend the late night. Food stalls can be a small restaurant or even a small handcart with a simple oven fed by a wood fire.
“Wood dumplings” got the name because of these type of handcarts. They show up only late at night, serving hot, delicious bowls of dumplings to Shanghainese. The price is as low as several yuan.
As time goes by, the midnight snacks culture is changing. Qian and his wife’s favorite is spicy crayfish (xiaolongxia). This seasonal dish, available only in summer, might be the No. 1 choice of many Shanghainese people, especially as a late night snack.
“We usually call several friends to gather at those food stalls of crayfish. We can eat a lot — sometimes 5kg for only four people,” Qian says.
The flavor is usually spicy and savory, and the level of spice can be adjusted to diners’ tastes. People can also ask the chef to add ingredients such as lettuce, tofu and niangao (sticky rice cake).
“The light vegetables and sticky rice cake absorb the heavy sauce of the crayfish. Hmmm, it’s hard to describe how amazing the taste is,” says Yang Ming, Qian’s wife.
When people have them, formal table manners do not work here as they wear a pair of disposable plastic gloves and use their hands instead of chopsticks. Barbecued meats are usually also available at the small crayfish stalls, as well as icy beverages and beer to wash down the spicy dishes.
But local people’s late night snacks are far from limited to crayfish and barbecue. Shanghai has several local snack stalls open only from late night to early morning, selling snacks people usually take for breakfast. Besides dumplings and different noodle soup, soybean milk (salty or sweet), flatbread and deep-fried twisted cruller are also popular items.
“Only after having a bowl of hot, salty soybean milk and a freshly fried, twisted cruller can I go to bed satisfied,” says Yang Yun, a young local pop singer who performs at bars.
With a different biological clock, Yang wakes up in the afternoon, stages in late night and goes to bed in early morning. Midnight snacks seem to be his main meal.
Several years ago there were only a few small stalls selling these snacks in Shanghai, mostly in the city center near Xintiandi where there are many bars and nightclubs. But now more and more food stalls of this kind are popping up around the city, according to Yang.
It’s not fine dining, but it’s fun to check out the night market offerings and it’s a definite part of the city’s culture. Midnight snacks are favored by construction workers getting off a late shift, taxi drivers, professionals working late, and anybody who wants a snack after a movie or a hard night of clubbing.
At a time of food-safety concerns, experts warn snack-seekers to be careful.
“Midnight snack stalls fill a need, but people should choose carefully and go to stalls that are attached to restaurants serving guests outdoors,” says Xia Xiangqing, a food expert with the Shanghai Restaurants Association.
Though snacks are delicious, most are high in fat — far higher than ordinary food, says Yang Kefeng, a noted nutritionist. People who don’t want to gain weight should not make it a habit to eat these night treats, he says.
But many people aren’t too worried, and expats go where the locals eat.
“I don’t need to dress up — shorts, slippers and even vests are fine; manners don’t mean much,” says Liu. “I love it.”
Many expats are also very much into the lively night scene, attracted by both the atmosphere and the food, some of which they cannot find back home.
Katsunari Okura, a 25-year-old Japanese living in the city for three years, is one of them.
“I really like the late-night snacks in Shanghai,” Okura says. “I love the vendors outside the Sun Moon and Light Center. There are lots of different choices, from barbecue to fried rice. We often go there after karaoke. My favorite is the egg-fried rice.”
Katherine Lo, from the US, says she always goes to a vendor around the corner from where she lives to get dumplings. “That’s what I love about the city,” says the 28-year-old who’s been here for six years. “You can still get good food very late at night.”
Here are some of the city’s popular yexiao sites.
Varieties of snacks
Every night starting from 7pm, people flock to Qishan Road, one of Shanghai’s popular places for street food and midnight snacks in the Pudong New Area. There’s a long line of stalls for several hundred meters, and plenty of tables and chairs.
It is near the Shanghai Maritime University. Crayfish, pancakes, barbecue, stir-fried dishes and shashlik are popular.
The most famous stall is Erzi Crayfish. It’s popular not only for the delicious taste, but also because all the crustaceans are thoroughly cleaned, purged, and their intestine removed.
Get there as early as possible because there are queues until midnight.
Cost: About 50 yuan per person
Crayfish is king
Food lovers have mixed feelings about Shouning Road — it doesn’t look too clean but the crayfish is so tasty. Along the street diners can also find barbecue, braised food, baked sweet potato, fried noodle and fried rice.
There’s also fresh seafood, such as oysters, mussel, and other shellfish and seafood. But crayfish is king and Shouning Road is nicknamed “the street of crayfish” because it well may be the only street dedicated to that food.
No. 23 Shouning Road is the stand-out and there’s always a long queue. It’s famous for slightly sweet ginger-vinegar sauce for dipping.
Cost: Around 70 yuan per perso
Huoshan Road in Hongkou District, formerly an unknown small, dark street near the North Bund, is becoming famous because of a 24-hour local snack store featuring home-made soybean milk, flatbread, deep-fried twisted cruller and sesame ball cake. The store has grown rapidly.
“Elder Shanghainese feel weird that we now eat those breakfast items as midnight snacks,” says Yang, laughing. “But I think it proves that we Shanghainese have Shanghai-style stomachs, accustomed to local snacks more than Western or even Cantonese dim sum.”
Yang’s favorite late night snacks include paigu niangao or pork chop and sticky rice cake in sweet soybean sauce. This local taste is tightly connected with local childhood memory, with the famous local brand Xiandelai. The first restaurant was on Yunnan Road, and now it has several branches in Shanghai.
“My mum often brought me to Xiandelai when I was a little boy. Now this flavor is still the best in my mind,” Yang says.
Shanghainese insists on their food traditions, eating the most authentic local food belonging to their homeland. At the same time, they also enjoy exploring new food stalls and sharing the new places they discover with friends.
Venues for midnight snacks
• Zhaozhou Road
Where: Close to Xintiandi
Specialty: Dumpling, noodle
• Shouning Road
Where: Close to Huaihai Road M. in Luwan District
Speciality: Spicy crayfish, barbecue
• Tongchuan Road market
Where: Putuo District
• Changli Road
Where: Pudong New Area
• Tongbei Road market
Where: Yangpu District
• Huoshan Road
Where: Close to North Bund in Hongkou District
Specialty: Local snacks like soy milk, flatbread, deep-fried twisted cruller and sesame ball cake