The Husband, and I are not typically organized tour people. Instead, we prefer to go at it alone in a foreign country, fumbling over words in a language vastly different from our own, and studying maps and guidebooks ahead of time so as to plan our trip. That’s why I was a bit taken aback when a high school friend of mine who had previously done a solo-trip to China suggested that while in Shanghai we look into taking an Untour.
UnTour Shanghai is a small guided tour operation run by Jamie and Kyle – two expats that decided to create a company that did tours differently than everyone else. To that end, Jamie and Kyle decided to focus on their respective passions and skills. Today, UnTour runs five different type of foodie walking tours (featuring everything from traditional Chinese breakfast eats to fantastic night market delights), as well as, running tours. And while I’ve been known to lace-up my shoes and head out for a run in the past, this time it was the dumpling tour we were after.
On the morning of our tour, we met up with our tour guide Carla, and six other hungry foodies at a picturesque corner in the French Concession. Our group of nine people would spend the next three and a half hours walking from street stands to small neighbourhood restaurants, sampling the best of Shanghai’s dumplings. Given that Shanghai is famous for its dumplings, I was more than a little excited.
As we walked to our first stop, Carla told us a bit about herself. Carla is a European expat that has lived in China since approximately 1988. It was in China that she married her husband (also European) and gave birth to several children. She speaks Mandarin fluently and is intimately familiar with the culture. Throughout the day we came to know Carla as impressively articulate, and well educated. In fact, I’d say that getting to experience China through the eyes of an expat and long-time resident of the country was one of the highlights of not only our trip to Shanghai but also our month-long journey throughout the country. I say this because the Chinese people, while extremely kind, can be exceedingly reserved and guarded when sharing their experiences, and it is difficult to have one of them open up beyond their concerns for loss of face.
Shanghai is a city of approximately 25 million (!) people but of those only about 12 million are original to the city — the rest are migrants. And like migrant populations across the world, those people bring their own culinary traditions with them to their new home. That’s why throughout Shanghai one finds small stalls and restaurants with cooks dedicated to serving the food of far-flung regions to their fellow country-men and women. And while as a tourist it would be nearly impossible to find those delicious locales, and to discern which ones are safe to eat at, with UnTour as your guide – it’s easy.
Our tour lasted approximately four hours and we ate more than my stomach could handle. There were a lot of delicious highlights during those four hours but those dumplings that the Husband is holding above will forever remain the epitome of dumpling perfection in my mind. I kid you not, I was positively giddy as I watched the skilled cook lightly fry the bottoms of the dumplings to crispy perfection, and then steam them to finish them off. The filling of the dumpling themselves was perfectly juicy and hot, while the dumpling pastry was just delicate enough.
I died a million culinary deaths as I ate those dumplings. And if I’m ever in Shanghai again, I intend to make a beeline to that stand, while praying to God that the tried and true recipe hasn’t changed.
Frankly, I have to give Kyle and Jamie kudos; they have put together a fantastic tour that not only allows foodies a chance to try the fried dumplings they are likely to be more familiar with but also sample some different dumpling delicacies. Chief amongst these is the king of Shanghai dumplings – the xia long bao (above), or soup dumplings as they are commonly referred. Xia long bao are delicious pork dumplings that are filled with tasty and piping hot soup. There is an art to eating a xia long bao without burning or making a disastrous mess of yourself – and UnTour see to it that you leave your tour a soup dumpling eating expert.
During our tour there were two deviations from the dumpling-fest. The first was jian bing made by the friendliest street food seller anywhere.
Jian bing is a breakfast delicacy of the Shandong region which is perhaps best likened to a crepe. The expert cook will spread and work the batter into a very thin, large round shape, before cracking an egg inside, adding various sauces, and green onions, before folding the crepe around pieces of crispy fried dough. And while I know that description may sound strange, you will have to trust me when I say the end result is incredibly delicious.
Just look at that beauty. Sigh.
The other non-dumpling delight we enjoyed during our tour was a steamed bun vaguely reminiscent of those one sees in dim sum tables in Vancouver – except these ones had a tinge of spice, making them all the more exciting. Frankly, I’m glad we taste these buns early on in our tour as I may have been too full for them as the day progressed.
Bottom Line: Would I recommend UnTour Shanghai? Emphatically yes!!!! If you’re an adventurous traveller, who is a die hard foodie, and is willing to step out of your comfort zone for half a day – absolutely!!! For $65 per person we ate like kings and saw a side of China that we otherwise would have missed. And for those that have dietary restrictions, want a smaller group, or are looking for one type of eats in particular, UnTour also offers private tours!
Question: Have you ever taken a food tour? Do you think you would? I have to confess I probably would have said no to a food tour prior to our China trip but I’m now a believer!!!