You see them on every street – Shanghai’s plethora of convenience stores: Family Mart, Kedi, 7 Eleven and Lawson’s. They are the real kings of convenience, supplying to the city’s most carnal needs: hot food, drinks, cheap alcohol, and uh, sex toys/condoms.
Pride of place at front of store are steel tubs filled with murky looking soup and miscellaneous items on skewers, guan dong zhu (关东煮, derived from Japanese oden). Immensely popular with locals, they are often unfathomable to outsiders. But maybe we're missing out on something totally delicious? Our intrepid online editor Ryan Kilpatrick sampled the lot of them, and here’s his lowdown on the best of the bunch.
Curious for more? Watch the whole experience in our online video.
龙虾风味棒 (Lobster flavor stick) Tiger clubs
Having lobster suffixed with the word "flavor" does little to inspire confidence in the high-quality ingredients on offer here, but the tiger-striped cylinder of seafood is one of few items on offer to taste just as interesting as it looks.
The main body of the skewer is composed of kamaboko (pumo蒲鉾) imitation lobster meat - pureed white fish combined with MSG and binding agents.
Lurking within the lobster loaf is a cache of fine lobster roe caviar - or what, considering its bargain basement price and spuriously yellow glow,could only be a convincing simulation of the aforementioned.
Don't let the proclivity for fakery throw you off, though. These lobster wheels will steamroll the flaccid flavors left lingering on your tongue by its less interesting cousins and deliver a surprisingly salty and satisfying payload within.
Should you try it? Go right ahead.
魔芋丝 (Konjac threads) Taste the Devil's tongue
Despite the enticing name, there's not much magic to the "devil's taro." Chewy and somewhat bland, it may not be the most exciting taste experience in the city; but as the most popular item available at Lawson, it's almost guaranteed they will have been sitting in the soup the shortest.
Konjac is valued more for its texture than taste, of which there's not much to speak of beyond a subtle saltiness that excites zero taste buds. The large, starchy corm of the plant is turned into a gelatinous cake and then run through a grid of sharp blades to produce the noodles, which are known in Japanese cuisine as shirataki or "white waterfall." The konjac flower, meanwhile, blooms into a dark purple spathe up to 55cm long, lending it the sobriquet "devil's tongue."
If you're not convinced, consider the health benefits of devil's tongue: unlike the Prince of Darkness's eponymous food cake, konjac is vegan, gluten-free and has zero net carbohydrates as well as a celery-like amount of calories.
Should you try it? Maybe give this one a miss.
法兰克福香肠 (Frankfurt sausage) The Frankenfurter
Dodgy meat will always look that little bit more menacing to us than dodgy tofu or root vegetables. Perhaps it's something to do with the psychology of food aversion, a million-year-old survival mechanism that has ensured the survival and evolution of the human species.
That's something worth contemplating as you survey the somewhat grim offerings behind the glass showcase of various meats waiting to be nuked for your dining pleasure. It might even cheer you up. In the case of Lawson's Frankfurter sausage, though, it's worth the risk.
Most of the alternatives emerge from the microwave amorphous globs of flesh smeared with spicy sauce that makes your taste buds dead to the world, but the Frankfurter offers a meaty mouthful that's accented, not blanketed, by a peppery kick. Paired with a can of mid-range lager from the fridge cabinet and hey presto– who needs Oktoberfest?
Should you try it? Absolutely.
番茄肉丸汤 (Tomato soup with meatballs) Bianlidian Borscht
The main drawback with the skewer selections in most local convenience stores is the blandness of the soup, which sees ingredients meant to soak up the tastes of rich broths simple lying languid in tepid water instead.
Here’s a fun fact: thanks to Xinjiang, China is now the world's top exporter of tomato products; but the fruit/vegetable (let's call the whole thing off) is not indigenous to China and was only brought over from South America in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, stashed in East Indiamen cargo holds.
The most enduring and popular adoption of tomatoes to the Chinese palette was undoubtedly ketchup, transliterated into English via the Cantonese ke-jup (tomato sauce，茄汁) but it wasn't the only one…
As White Russian émigrés poured into Shanghai after the October Revolution, seeking refuge in the only free port in the world willing to take in stateless exiles, a localized version of borscht soup was also developed.
Unlike it's stocky Ukrainian forbearer, thick with beef and the deep purple of beets, Shanghai-style borscht was a thin and beet-less broth, a kind of tomato soup with a sweet and sour tinge: a textbook case of successful product localization.
After 1949, droves of Shanghai residents - both Chinese and Russian - resettled in Hong Kong and brought the recipe with them. Today, it remains a staple on any cha chaan teng’s (casual diner, chacanting 茶餐厅) Canto-Western menu, and is better known as Hong Kong-style borscht.
Combined with a selection of Fujian-style gongwan (pork ball, 贡丸) and mini-shizitou (‘lion's head’ pork balls, 狮子头) meatballs, a trip to your local neighborhood Lawson can give you a uniquely Shanghainese experience in the most understated and unassuming way imaginable.
Should you try it? Tangy and slightly spicy, this one’s a winner.