Where do I even start with this one?
The aptly named 七宝镇//Qi1bao3 Zhen4 (lit. Seven Treasures Town) is an absolute must-see. Shanghai’s closest water town isn’t just that. It’s a snack food paradise and a barbecue lover’s fantasy, a photographer’s dream, an architectural wonder, a relic of ancient China.
Qibao is by far Shanghai’s coolest water town. Wandering through the Old Street will take you the day if you plan it right, but I strongly suggest throwing out those plans. Most likely, you’ll be enticed by every other storefront selling Chinese-style sweets. Don’t stress about it too much. The sooner you accept the fact that you’ll have to make multiple trips to Qibao to truly be “done,” the sooner you get try that curious-looking meat on a stick.
Speaking of which…
1. The meat on a stick is an absolute riot.
Chicken drumsticks? Of course. Fried quail? Got it. How about whole roasted and skewered? Sold by the dozen. Pork trotters? Define which foot. Duck head, neck, and wings? Absolutely. Try each of them — one variety here, another there, a third, fourth, and fifth after taking a short break. Vendors are ubiquitous and their fare is equally delicious [Tile 1].
It’s not just land animals that they cook to perfection, they do aquatic creatures too. You can find squid, prawns, frog, and fish in abundance here. Particularly popular is the roast squid tentacle. It’s cooked on a teppan-esque hotplate in bright orange sauce (don’t question it) and sold on enormous skewers. You’ll want to try one of these ones too.
Grab a couple portions of whatever looks best and wander through the town a bit more.
2. The place has a spectacular old city scene.
The pictures speak for themselves. Qibao is beautiful in an unexpectedly eclectic sort of way. The header photo above and the first two photos below depict the entrance gate to “Qibao Old Street” [header picture above]. Through this gate stands a three-tiered pagoda surrounded by a square where events are often held [Tile 1 below].
Qibao Old Street is actually comprised of multiple pedestrian roads (although in China the term “pedestrian” is used loosely) gathered around the crossing of the 浦汇湖 (Pu3jiang1 Hu2) and the 北横泾 (Bei3heng2 Jing1). Once you enter the Old Street proper, you’ll see a few more scenes with the two rivers, the classic stone bridges, and Tang-era style buildings [Tile 2].
3. Chinese sweets are unique, to say the least.
While making generalizations in a country as diverse as China is bound to be contradicted, Chinese sweets tend to be more savory than Western counterparts in my experience. Desserts often contain sweetened bean, sesame, nut or seed paste in combination with a sticky rice product and/or berries. Baked goods like cakes, cookies, and moon cake (yue4bing//月饼) also tend use the same sweet paste filling and are eaten plain. Compare this to Western use of chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon with sweetened fruits, dairy products, and artificial sugars.
It might seem strange that Chinese sweets (they’re called ‘sweets’ for a reason, right??) differ so much from what most Americans are used to, but in a city that uses rice and soy products in combination with sweet, sticky sauces, Shanghai likes its meals sweeter than most. So if sugar’s your game and savory desserts won’t suffice, then it’s probably Shanghainese cuisine that you’ll take a liking to.
While visiting, be sure to try the tang1yuan2//汤圆 soup [Tiles 1, 2] and any of the sticky rice treats pictured below [Tile 3]. The soup is usually made with balls of black sesame paste covered in dough and dunked in sweet broth, but savory varieties exist too. You can also buy crispy cookies and puffed rice and nut treats here, but these are more widely available in downtown Shanghai.
4. The atmosphere is lively and inviting.
Everything about Qibao expresses the fascinating mixture of old-meets-new that typifies the city of Shanghai. The packed streets, countless vendors, and infinite array of products all meld into what is undoubtedly Chinese, undoubtedly Shanghainese: more, bigger, faster [Tile 1].
And yet, the town hearkens back to a time when China was small, before rapid industrialization and glittering urbanization. Even without the high-rise buildings and neon signs of ultra-modern Pudong, Qibao is vibrant. Look inside any corner store and you’ll find hawking vendors selling traditional tangzhuang and qipao [Tile 2], making nut paste treats by hand, preparing green, oolong, or Pu’er tea in beautiful white ceramics.
5. The STINKY TOFU will actually change you.
This is the single most important factor in making Qibao a must-see when in Shanghai: the stinky tofu is world-shatteringly good. When you’re walking down the Old Street and get hit by a pungent wave of rotting garbage, go closer to the source. You will never unsmell this smell, but once you take the plunge and eat just one piece of this fermented tofu, you won’t mind — this acrid stink will fill your dreams.
More important than the smell are the unique taste and texture. Likening the flavor to that of blue cheese or fermented bean curd misses the mark. 臭豆腐//chou4 dou4fu is literally rotten soybean paste left in a pickling brine. The ingredients of the brine influence the flavor — one made from vegetable, meat, and mustard greens likely imparts greater spice than one made with dried shrimp, bamboo shoots, and herbs.
As is the case with most Chinese cuisine, regional and individual variations abound. Deep fried and served with chili sauce (and/or a sweet soy-based sauce in Shanghai), the almost-crunchy salty exterior contrasts perfectly with the almost-solid juicy interior. After sampling quite a few types, my personal favorite is the crispy, black Hunan variety served piping hot and soaked in chili sauce.
6. The town has a history longer than the Great Wall.
Qibao’s history is more impressive than it might seem. Though the place seems relatively modern in the sense that the buildings seem to have been built within the past few hundred years and subsequently maintained, the town itself dates all the way back to the Song Dynasty — predating the newest and most visited parts of the Great Wall near Beijing. By the time that world-famous symbol of China had been built in the Ming Dynasty, Qibao was already a prosperous city of commerce.¹
Qibao Temple, famed for having once housed the seven treasures after which the town is named, has a millennium-long history.² The temple was built during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of 907-979CE, then renovated and expanded during the Ming Dynasty.
7. The hype is part of the experience.
Qibao is often regarded as Shanghai’s go-to place for the amazing snack food mentioned above. The place is historic, picturesque, and exciting. It’s a place where you can get lost among the locals. You can sit down for a 11D movie (bet you never knew there were so many dimensions) after buying a tangzhuang and tangyuan.
The town might require an hour-long ride on the metro with a couple changeovers, but ultimately, the hype is part of what makes Qibao such a worthwhile place to visit.