Well mamas, this is not the usual family friendly food review – anyone for freshly sliced snake meat?! We recommend you leave the babies at home for this one and instead grab your partner, visitor wanting cultural exposure, stranger, or generally anyone game to follow this less well travelled foodie road…
What is UnTour? Where is UnTour?
UnTour Food Tours were founded in December 2010, and aim to take clients “off the eaten path” to Shanghai’s most authentic restaurants and street food vendors. An urban culinary adventure rated highly by TripAdvisor and other forums, the venture was so successful they also launched in Beijing in July 2016. Their mission, they say, is to avoid ‘guidebook tedium’ by offering personalized and engaging experiences that showcase the best of Shanghai.
Stopping at four food-stops (each tour does four to five), our ‘personalised and engaging experience’ came in the form of our amazing guide Jasmine. Clearly passionate about food, (the street variety in particular), she was clear, articulate and knowledgeable about origins, evolutions, cultural nuances and tastes, and happily answered any esoteric (and Baijiu-inspired) questions we had. A group of tourists joined our tour at the last moment and the balance of ‘new’ tourists vs. ‘veteran Shanghai mamas’ (ahem, all of two years some of us) made for fun interaction as neither group knew quite what we were in for…
The Food and Drink
We rushed up to the group gawking at a slithering snake being held above a bucket outside our first stop ‘BBQ and Crawfish’ on Shouning Lu, and I immediately volunteered for a photo beside the snake, having previously filled up on a little Dutch courage. After a quick explanation where we learned that the snake was of local water variety, its head was promptly cut off with a pair of scissors and its body slit down the side (with the same scissors). The end of that relationship, it made an excellent introduction to the night and a great basis on which to judge culinary companions. Since nobody ran screaming down the street never to be seen again (we only had a couple of look-away-ers), we knew we were in for a pretty great night. We then traipsed excitedly upstairs to the modest restaurant’s noisy quarters and discovered we were in luck with crawfish season. The little black creatures wriggling in buckets outside on the street we had thought were scorpions were in fact crawfish that arrived on our plates cooked to pink perfection. A shellfish fan, I was delighted, thanking the Japanese for having brought the craw in from Louisiana for protein during the war. Some might find the dish hard work given the small amount of meat, but it’s worth it!
Other food included wonderfully tender skewered lamb kebabs with cumin, chilli, paprika and pepper, barbequed lotus root and shiitake mushrooms (a delicious twist on normal stir-fry), intensely garlic flavoured scallops (a personal favourite), ‘Chinese bruschetta’ (grilled garlic eggplant – a standout dish), lovely stir fried garlic shoots and mian gong (‘ear cake’ which was a spicy and stodgy type of bread). We were also given an introduction to xialongbao, being the ‘all in one’ meal for locals, and its transition to street food. All this was washed down with Qingdao and we were also offered Baijiu, a first experience for a lot of us! We soon understood why as our snake then appeared. Virtually unidentifiable being battered in salt and pepper and chopped into inch long pieces, it was slightly spicy and crispy and resembled a trendy bar snack, fun to nibble! For desserts we were brought puddings of mango with fruit and cream (a perfect antithesis to our barbequed food and a crowd favourite), taro pudding (an acquired taste for some but I liked it as it was not too sweet) and milk pudding with sticky rice – milkier than its Thai counterpart.
We then moved onto Lele Xinjiang restaurant (Dongtai Lu) for Uighur style lamb kebabs. These were distinguished from the first type coming from a lamb breed with unusually rounded rumps! This accounted for their fatty deliciousness on the skewers and we were shown photos of its unlikely variety! A vinegary cucumber salad lightened up the meal and we were also served Xinjiang black beer, pleasing the stout lovers. Speaking of stout, we passed by Jackie’s Beer Nest (Zhaozhou Lu) with Jackie himself holding fort. A Shanghai institution producing 500 liters a year, you can sample up to 39 varieties of craft beer!
Our last stop was La Wei Xian (Jianguo Dong Lu) for Szechuan cuisine. Learning that the Szechuan peppercorn was more citrus than pepper and grows on a bush, we then had traditional dishes of Ma Po Tofu, pork with green pepper chilli and hand pulled scallion oil noodles. Our spicy last stop, we couldn’t quite finish everything and staggered away with ‘ta pao’ boxes bidding farewell to the ‘naked chef’ Mr. Liu (he cooks with an apron and shirtless!). We were in unanimous conclusion that this was a memorable Shanghai experience!
Would we recommend it?
The tour is highly recommended for foodies, and for out of town guests who want ‘something different’. I would also recommend it to those living here for an interesting night of food and laughs with a group of people open to adventure. It is not recommended for fussy eaters or those with serious allergies. Some modifications may be made for shellfish (e.g. you just get more vegetable skewers) and vegetarians would just get more veggies. Celiac sufferers should avoid this as there is a lot of soy.
This tour takes around 3 hours and covers 2km in total. The price is 480 RMB per adult and 240RMB for children, but UnTour offers 10% off to all Shanghai Mamas members – just input ‘mamas’ into the discount code section of the website during check-out to receive your discount on each ticket you purchase! Book the experience at www.untourfoodtours.com !
Shirani Alfreds is an expat mother of two living in Shanghai, and writes about her experiences in a regular “Dragon Mama” blog for Urban Family magazine.