Situated in Shanghai’s Qingpu suburb about an hour out of town by bus, Zhujiajiao is the place to try Shanghai rural specialties not found in the city. But like with any water town, you have to sift out the good stuff from the tourist fodder. So forgo the street eats. Sacrilege, I know, but most are Zhujiajiao specialties repackaged for tourists with shoddier ingredients, and oodles of cheap oil and sugar. Skip the “legendary” pig’s feet too. You can find comparable trotters in the more accessible Qibao Old Town or on many Shanghai food streets. And while Zhujiajiao’s zongzi are renowned throughout China, wait until the Dragon Boat Festival. We’re focusing on Zhujiajiao’s bounty of native, wild-caught, in-season delicacies – the locovore movement 1,700 years before tie-dye headbands, Birkenstocks, and pretentious prices. The place for these specialties is Sun Ji Restaurant, a former ancient riverside dwelling whose owner grow up in the countryside and knows the following dishes like the back of his wok-weathered hand.
Little fried river fish, (旁皮鱼, páng pí yú)
Fished from the surrounding rivers (which are sparkling compared to most China water sources), and fried while flopping, these tubby little guys have to rank among the best battered bites in China. On the street they’re sandy and shriveled, at Sun Ji they’re flaky, moist, crisp, and fat like a guppy with a beer gut. Not much bigger than Pepperidge Farm Goldfish they present the perfect bar snack. I even lugged a bag of them home to munch while watching basketball on TV. Don’t worry, the bones disappear after a few crunches so you can pop ’em whole. Price: 20RMB per jin.
River clams with Chinese chives, (韮菜蚬肉, jiǔ cài xiǎn ròu)
These bitty bivalves are like the big bang of clams; all the universe’s flavor crammed into a morsel the size of a pea (geoduck, eat your siphon out!) They’re so sumptuous and bursting with liquid that when stir-fried with chives they flood the veg with briny broth richer than chicken stock but not filling in the least. Ladle the liquid, clams, and chives onto your rice and chow down. Price: 18RMB.
Little river snails (青壳螺蛳, qīng ké luó si)
Not those golf-ball sized ones, but the tiny ones with the periwinkle shells. While you can find hordes of these clustered in tanks outside Shanghai restaurants, Zhujiajiao’s are the tenderest around due to the relative cleanliness of the water. To extract the meat from its calcified little yurt, cover one hole and suck on the other (now now) so the curlicue of meat springs out in one piece. Novices might need to enlist the aid of a toothpick. Little river snail season is waning fast so get them while you can. By mid April they start carrying more gritty white eggs than meat. Price: 10RMB.
Toads (虾蟆, há ma)
I won’t lie, before going to Zhujiajiao, I thought the only way people interacted with toads was getting urinated on by ones they handled, or licking them for a cheap DMT trip and ending up paralyzed from the eyes down. However, Zhujiajiao residents gobble these little croakers by the kilo. To prep, they snip the head with scissors, and then slip off the pee/poison-coated skin like a mini-neoprene wetsuit, after which the toads are ready to be doused with seasoning, and grilled, fried, steamed, whatever. Sun Ji’s toads are grilled over a bed of spices so they take on their aroma, and heaped on a plate cold (薰拉丝, xūn lā sī). What these wild-caught toads lack in meatiness, they make up for with dark, gamey flesh that’s more like a quail’s than like Shanghai’s “other white meat” frogs. The grill lends them a nice smokey aura as well. But beyond being just tasty meat bundles and an ingredient in witches brew, toads are said to nourish your skin because of their capacity to coat their own with poison – a far cry from the whole wart belief in Western mythology. Now’s the time for eating toad as they’ve bulked up on resources (and therefore flavor) in preparation for giving birth in the coming weeks. Price: 30RMB.
Red-braised river fish (鸡哥郎, jī gē láng)
As far as we know, jigelang only inhabits bodies of water in and surrounding Zhujiajiao. Silver-scaled with a shovel-snout, this medium-sized fish has light, cloud-like meat that you could prob eat off the bone with a spoon if it weren’t for the tangle of bones in each bite. Still, the airy texture coupled with the sweet-sour hong shao glaze make it worth a bite. Price: 55RMB.
Shun Ji Restaurant – 198 Bei Da Jie, Zhujiajiao (朱家角镇北大街198号). Tel: 5924-6964.
Getting to Zhujiajiao from Shanghai: Take the Huzhu express bus (沪朱高速快线, RMB 12) from Pu’an Lu, Yan’an Dong Lu to Zhujiajiao, which is the terminal station. The ride will take about 50 minutes. The Huzhu express bus departs from downtown every 30 minutes, and the last bus from Zhujiajiao back to Pu’an Lu leaves at 9pm – so keep an eye on the time! Early afternoon Sunday is the best time to hit up Zhujiajiao, especially if the weather’s overcast as the town will be a lot less crowded.
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Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].