Should You Take a Food Tour in a Foreign City?
Entering 2020 has meant entering my third year living in Shanghai, China. This has been a big moment for me that is somewhat undercut by the fact that I’ve done almost none of the important things that a tourist should normally do in a foreign city.
I’ve seen very little of the cultural sites and have taken absolutely no tours. The only important parts of the city I’ve really seen are ones that I saw completely by accident on my way to or from work.
Because I’ve seen so little, it meant that when my brother visited for Christmas I had absolutely no idea what to do with him. Luckily for me, he suggested a food tour.
“A tour of food?? Dear god…..”
I couldn’t believe that there existed such a thing as a food tour, but it’s real! My brother booked us into a tour with ‘Lost Plate,’ an American-based tour company started by a Chinese entrepreneur.
Lost Plate claimed that they could provide a walking tour of the city, explaining the local sites along the way and introducing us to the best restaurants.
This was a dream for me because not only have I seen very little of the city, but I know very few of the local restaurants.
So we booked in on the company website and once the day came around we embarked on the tour.
My first thought once the tour started was how uniquely Chinese it felt. It was very informal right from the start with our guide not checking us in but instead giving us locally made fruit snacks. She also took our dietary restrictions hilariously casually.
“You’re allergic to seafood? There is one soup you cannot have, I will stop it from going into your mouth.”
Before booking, the website promoted unlimited drinks including beer. How this materialised was our guide carrying cans of beer in her shoulder bag and bouncing them as she walked. She instructed us to simply ask for a beer whenever we felt like one (although they usually exploded because of their adventure in the shoulder bag).
The very informal nature of the tour provided a local charm that I really enjoyed. It didn’t feel like a factory experience and the guide clearly loved her job.
She took great pride in explaining every element of the city we were seeing and took just as much pride in the food. As we sat down to eat some dumplings, she explained how to best eat them so that the soup inside wouldn’t burn our mouths.
When it was time to sit for noodles, she explained the long history of the restaurant we were eating at and the history of the noodles themselves. Her tales of illegal businesses and secret recipes only served to make the food taste even better.
We started the tour in a restaurant called Shanghai Dim Sum. They had dumplings that were claimed by the guide to be “better than that of a nearby Michelin restaurant.”
The dumplings were indeed delicious, maybe the best dumplings I’ve had in a while. Of all the restaurants we visited, this will be the one that I return to in the future.
Continuing the Tour
After Shanghai Dim Sum we stumbled down the street singing and drinking our beers. It felt strange to openly drinking in the streets because it’s illegal in most places, but not in Shanghai.
We then climbed to the 5th floor of a building into a far less glamorous restaurant that made pork belly. This famous Chinese dish is always delicious and is famous around the world. We were taken to this particular restaurant because it was supposedly the best in the city, but it was nowhere near the best I’ve had. It was in this restaurant that I began to suspect that the restaurants weren’t being chosen because they’re the best, I suspect they are the highest bidders in a marketing scheme that targets foreigners.
Regardless, the pork belly was good, and once we were finished we were on our way.
After eating in the first two restaurants, we were then taken to several street vendors. These sellers opened us up to the most local dining experiences. We tried a seaweed pastry thing at one place and some wontons at another.
The third restaurant was a house that had been converted into a restaurant way back when owning your own business was illegal.
The sign for the business simply said: “noodles” (in Chinese) and the owners were an old married couple. We heard tales of days gone by as we ate and left with a new appreciation of the older generation of Chinese people who lived through terrible times.
After finishing the noodles, we made our way to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that sold a delicious Chinese mango dessert and after that, we finished the adventure at a local brewery that sold locally made craft beer.
Although it was clear that the restaurant selection was a “pay-to-play system,” it didn’t take away from the fact that the evening was a wonderful experience.
The others who joined my brother and I on our expedition were nine fellow tourists from all over the world. We bonded over food and had a grand time getting drunk and joking about how the most unique elements of China contrasted wildly with that of our home countries.
If you’re in Shanghai, looking for a great night out, and an opportunity to meet new people, I highly encourage a food tour. You’ll taste some local foods and maybe even make some new friends. There are lots of Instagrammable moments and a lot of history. It’s definitely a great way to spend your night in a far off city, although is also a lot more expensive than touring yourself.
However, if you’re giving your own tour, who will give you the history? Or jiggle your beer? For first-timers, I definitely think it’s the way to go.