While many Westerners like their food headless, some Chinese dishes entail just a head, and even on whole animals the head’s often the prized part. At seafood banquets, my mom would first wrench at the fish’s milky eye with the tenacity of a toddler trying to nab a gum ball wedged in the machine’s slot. And during a lobster dinner where my mom faced the awkward task of introducing my future dad to her mother, grandma lost herself in the food fray, sucking the crustaceans’ brains with drawn-out slurps. Animal heads are growing in popularity too, so to help overcome your fear of going head-to-head with your food, we’ve rounded up Shanghai’s four tastiest noggins.
Xialongxia are some of China’s most drooled-over crustaceans, the summer equivalent of hairy crab, which is why you see these scarlet scuttlers mounded on outdoor tables throughout Shanghai from June to August. Though no bigger than marker cap, a xiaolongxia head is literally half the package. When cooked, it becomes a chitinous tumbler filled with a cocktail of green tomalley and spices, usually the 13-spice combo of chili, cumin, garlic, aniseed, cinnamon, and more. You wrench it off, and guzzle the juice, which tastes creamy and tingly with a sweet finish. I wish I’d known about this liquid goodness when I was on a soft-food diet due to removal of my wisdom teeth, as I would have downed it by the beer bong. Crayfish season has unfortunately waned, but next year, hit up either Duan’s Crayfish or Xuyi Xia if you live in Pudong!
Duan’s Crayfish – 107 Changhua Lu, near Anyuan Lu (昌化路107号, 近安远路). Hours: 4pm-4am daily.
Okay, so it’s more of a carapace than a head per se. But whatever the thing is, it’s the reason people will pay up to 500RMB for this otherwise spindly crustacean come the fall hairy crab season. This shelled capsule abounds with lump meat, tomalley, and in the females, buttery orange roe, which is by itself, one of Shanghai’s most coveted ingredients; appearing over silky tofu and in xiaolongbao. Get the Yangcheng Lake variety (38-70RMB for small, 200-300RMB for large) at the Tongchuan Fish Market between November and early December.
Tongchuan Road Seafood Market – Tongchuan Road, near Lanxi Road (海鲜美食街, 铜川路, 近兰溪路). Closest Metro Stop: Zhenru (真如) Line 11.
Easily the most common noggin, you can find a fish head bug-eyeing you from most Shanghai menus. Varieties include carp head in tofu and soup, carp head hotpot, and Jesse Restaurant’s specialty roasted cod head with spring onions that must be reserved in advance. But most prevalent and our favorite is Hunan double pepper fish head, giant river crap head split down the middle and firebombed with pickled chilies, one half with green and the other with red like spicy confetti. Guo Yuan, Xiang Quan, Di Shui Dong, Guyi, and Southern Memory serve sumptuous renditions, but you can find an edible version at your average Hunan haunt. Even on a dry carp, the head presents a lush oasis with meat morsels of differing textures, oil, skull gelatin, and eyeballs, which taste like gooier balls of chalk wrapped in the plastic you find on soda caps, but they remind me of home.
Guo Yuan – 524 Dongjiangwan Lu, near Dong Tiyuhui Lu (东江湾路520号, 近东体育馆). Tel: (0)21-5696-1183.
The mention of pig head might conjure up nightmarish images from a grindhouse splatterflick, and Shanghai’s pig head dishes will only reinforce these. One of the best brain boxes is Lu Jia Zhuang’s salted pig’s head (xian zhu tou), a sneering swine skull evocative of dessert carrion, who’s meat has been chiseled off and mounded next to it. Thankfully the taste is a full 180 from the look; salty and fatty like more marbled corned pork.
In the mood for something sweeter? Hit up Huaiyang Hotspot Wangdonglou‘s braised zhu lian; all the skin from the front of the head including the ears, snout, and cheeks ripped off in one piece – bringing new meaning to the Chinese expression “losing face.” The pig face arrives on a plate leering up at you through eye slits like an edible halloween mask, with Peking duck-style mantou, cucumber, onion, and decorative fruit segments arrayed around it. These do little to mitigate the ghastly appearance. However, pig’s face is one of our most cherished Shanghai eats, and as far as we know, the only dish of its kind in the city. The flesh is a blend of pork fat and gelatin; succulent as the fattiest hong shao rou, but not as bloating. Even the ears, which usually taste like crunchy Live Strong bands, seem to liquefy in your mouth within a few munches – a tribute to the fact that the face is simmered for half a day. So cram some quivering face flesh into a pillowy bun with veg and sauce and enjoy. But don’t arrive too late as they only cook a select number of faces per day. 178RMB/half, 328RMB/whole.
Wangdonglou – 4/f, L4-24, 196 Daduhe Road, near Yunling Road (大渡河路196号, 近云岭东路, 长风景畔广场4楼L4-24). Tel: (0)21-5286-8848.
Related: Shanghai’s top 6 wet markets
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].