Shanghai Street View: Culinary Culture

Shanghai sets the table for Michelin Guides

A couple of culinary headlines this week are spotlighting the important role that food plays in defining a city’s character, not only in terms of local tastes but also its openness to out-of-town flavors. Shanghai’s culinary evolution over the last 2 decades has been nothing short of spectacular in that regard, as the city transformed from a regional backwater dominated by local fare like xiaolongbao to one where top-notch flavors from throughout China and abroad are widely available.

One headline clearly reflected that transformation, with word that the world famous Michelin series has chosen Shanghai for its first-ever dining guide for a mainland city. That selection almost certainly miffed culinary aficionados in Beijing, which until recently had the undisputed crown as China’s culinary capital for its diverse mixture of local cuisine and out-of-town flavors.

The second headline was more controversial, and saw some criticize the soon-to-open Shanghai Disneyland for high prices at restaurants inside the park. Such practice is actually quite common throughout the world for similar attractions, whose operators take advantage of location-based monopolies to charge high prices for food and other items for visitors who have little or no other choice.

While the Disneyland story is more about prices and less about actual food, to some extent it also reflects Shanghai’s rise as a culinary capital in China. That’s because the mere thought of a world-class attraction like Disneyland in Shanghai would have drawn laughter and disbelief just 20 years ago. Thus the park’s imminent opening represents the arrival of a new level of entertainment that also includes a more global dining experience.

All this talk of global tastes contrasts sharply with the China I discovered when I first arrived here in the 1980s. That China was about as provincial as they come in terms of cuisine. It was nearly impossible to find anything but local flavors in most cities at that time, and even cuisines like Sichuan that are quite popular today were nearly impossible to find in most places.

The one slight exception was Beijing, which had a limited selection of out-of-town cuisines due to its large foreign population and also many people from other parts of China. But even then the number of restaurants serving non-local cuisines was quite limited, and I had to do quite a bit of digging to find enough suitable restaurants for a dining guide to Beijing that I wrote at that time.

Flavor Feast

Fast forward to the present, when Beijing, Shanghai and most other major Chinese cities have a wide range of restaurants serving popular domestic cuisines from the likes of Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong, Xinjiang and the Northeastern region. Despite its relatively late arrival to the game, Shanghai has played rapid catch up and some might say its new selection for China’s first Michelin Guide shows it has overtaken Beijing as mainland China’s culinary capital.

The French publisher announced it will launch the inaugural edition of its Shanghai Michelin Guide this fall, spotlighting the city’s wide array of both Chinese and foreign cuisines. Michelin Guides are famous for their high-brow approach to food, reflecting the wide array of pricey, high-end eateries that have opened here over the last 2 decades. But equally impressive are the wide array of more affordable ordinary restaurants that also cover a very wide range of domestic and international flavors.

The Disneyland news was a bit more controversial, and reflects the huge scrutiny the park is drawing as it nears its official opening in just a month. The park has been conducting a soft-opening for the last few weeks, and some who have visited are complaining that most meals inside cost 70 yuan or more, or the equivalent of about $10. Disney responded to this first of what are likely to be many minor controversies by saying it set the pricing after drawing on experience from others in the industry and considering demands of the Chinese market.

That amount may sound high to some, though such ransom-style pricing is quite ordinary in this kind of situation. The reality is that parks like Disneyland only make part of their money from ticket sales, and an equally large portion comes from selling things like food and souvenirs to captive visitors. Most visitors will already be splashing out thousands of yuan for their Disneyland vacations, so a little extra for food probably won’t faze them too much.

At the end of the day, both the Michelin Guide decision and even this Disneyland food controversy both reflect Shanghai’s arrival on the international culinary stage and for that reason are something the city should be proud of. It could do even more to promote its recent culinary diversity, which fits nicely with the city’s history as a melting pot for people from throughout China and the around the world.

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