Falling in Love with Food in Shanghai

Written by Natalie Chen (Washington University in St. Louis), Student Correspondent for CET Shanghai, Spring 2024

With only one month left in my semester, there are already a few things (and many people) that I am dreading saying goodbye to come June. I’ll miss the coffee shops near campus, my aesthetically-pleasing internship commute, and the convenience of using WeChat for everything. However, when I go back to the States, I have a feeling the thing I will complain most often about missing is the food. 

Upon arriving in Shanghai, one of the first things our program leader told us was that we would fall in love with the food in China. Specifically, he said many alumni eat at least one dish that they think about for years to come, often attempting in vain to recreate the same culinary experience at home. Although I definitely agree with his conviction, I don’t know if I can identify a specific dish that I’ll miss more than others. But, I can say I’ve become accustomed to the experience of eating fantastic food at literally almost every meal, which might be even worse in terms of adjusting back to life at home. 

Here are some of my favorite eats so far, along with some context and memories that hopefully also provide some insight into my time in Shanghai: 


Starting off strong, one of the first restaurants our roommates took us to was one of the most famous hot pot chains, Haidilao. Admittedly, I had eaten at Haidilao before in the States because there is a location in my hometown. However, Haidilao in the States is very expensive—potentially costing maybe $50 a person. In China, thanks to our student discounts and our decision to go during happy hour, I think I only spent about $5 during our first Haidilao adventure. 

As a hot pot enthusiast (who often makes scrambled-together hot pot concoctions in my college apartment), I have loved every outing to Haidilao not only because of the lower prices and high-quality ingredients but also because every hot pot dinner leads to great drawn-out conversations. And as if it couldn’t get any better, you can also sign up for a free gel manicure right outside the restaurant while waiting for your hot pot.

Dining Hall at Donghua University

A hand holding a freshly made jianbing with chicken, potatoes, and lettuce
There is a jianbing station at the cafeteria where you can get a fresh jianbing made in minutes!

As students at Donghua University, we spend a lot of meals eating at the dining hall given the limited kitchen space in our dorms. There is a wide variety of yummy food to choose from, but the American students all have a soft spot for 煎饼 Jianbing, a crepe-like pancake that also has egg in its base. The ones in our dining hall are brushed with a dark savory sauce, filled with green onions, and topped with a brown-ish crispy cracker (薄脆). From there you can add your own toppings—my go-to is chicken, potatoes, and lettuce. They’re easy to eat on the go, delicious, and only cost about $1.50. 

Sichuan Restaurant

A large array of Sichuan cuisine laid out on a table with many small bowls
We wandered into a random Sichuan restaurant after a CET activity and had a great meal

More often than not, when we eat out in large groups, there will be a beautiful spread like the one pictured above from a Sichuan restaurant. After going on a CET optional activity where we took a simple walk around a cute neighborhood in Shanghai, most of us went to eat a meal together. Sichuan food is known to be spicy, but if you can handle the spice, it’s a must-try. Even when the heat burns your tongue, the flavors still come through. I think my favorite dish from this meal was the eggplant, or maybe the spicy chicken. This meal cost each person maybe $5, and the picture doesn’t even encompass all the food we ordered.

24-hour Beef Noodle Soup Shop

A bowl of hand-pulled beef noodle soup and chopsticks on top of the bowl in Shanghai
Some of my favorite memories of the semester involve eating at the 24-hour beef noodle soup shop nearby campus

Growing up eating my Chinese grandmother’s beef noodle soup, I normally hesitate to order beef noodle soup at restaurants in the U.S. However, we found a second home at the 24-hour beef noodle soup shop, only one block from Donghua University. I know that earlier I said there’s not one specific food I’m going to miss the most, but if I had to choose one, it might be this. 

My go-to is 牛肉手工面, which is hand-pulled beef noodle soup. The best time to go is late at night. Last week, some friends took a break from studying and went at 2:30 am last Monday because the broth gets more flavorful throughout the day. The best nights end at the beef noodle soup shop. A bowl only costs about $2!

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