Recently, I’ve found myself back in Shanghai. I left Shanghai 33 years ago, and although many of you know that we lived in Beijing for three years, it has always been my intention to come back to Shanghai to live like a Shanghainese again and reminisce about the past (Translation: Eat Chinese breakfast or more specifically, Shanghai Breakfast in Shanghai) .
All of our previous trips to Shanghai have been just 3 to 7 days long, so this time Bill and I decided to rent an apartment for two and half months (thanks to Airbnb). As you can probably imagine, this stay also includes a lot of eating and testing new recipes and ingredients for The Woks of Life. After all, we can’t forget about our day jobs!
After a fitful first night in the city, we were out at the break of dawn looking for a Chinese breakfast, if not, THE Shanghai breakfast that’s been on my mind: da bing (大饼) and you tiao (油条). Just so you know, Shanghai‘s addresses are marked by street name and lane # (or alley). Inside each lane, there are many, many households. Where there is a large group of local residences, the da bing and you tiao are not too far, because these are staples–nay they are absolutely crucial to the functioning of a happy Shanghainese person.
In the old days (i.e., my memories from 33 years ago), for 10 cents RMB, you could get a set Shanghai breakfast meal of da bing, you tiao and dou jiang. Back then, it was an indulgence and a sign of a good life, while an average man’s breakfast was boiled leftover rice with water served with a piece of fermented tofu (腐乳) or a bit of preserved radish. What a stark contrast that was in those days!
These days, the Shanghainese dearly call their four top choices of Chinese breakfast items, four warriors (四大金刚). They’re like four faithful fighters holding their positions all these years to make sure that the city of Shanghai continues buzzing. Here they are:
Sesame Pancake, da bing (大饼)
It’s flaky and loaded with sesame. The rectangular ones are slightly salty and the round ones are slightly sweet. Wrap a piece of fried dough inside, and you’ve got the “good life” in hand!
Fried Dough, you tiao (油条) (here is our recipe)
They are crispy and chewy at the same time (is there anything more heavenly?). And like all fried foods, they are damn good. The pairing of you tiao with da bing is like Shanghainese bread and butter.
Soy Milk, dou jiang (豆浆) (here is our recipe)
If you think you’ve had good soy milk from the supermarket, you haven’t lived until you’ve had it freshly pressed from soybeans. It somehow manages to be savory and sweet at the same time, and of course, the Chinese have capitalized on this with preparations varying depending on your preference. Eating a set of da bing and you tiao can be a bit dry, but if you wash it down with a bowl of soy milk, that is what dreams are made of!
Steamed sticky rice with fried dough wrapped inside, ci fan (粢饭)
Plain is how I like it, but some people like to add sugar, pork sung and/or preserved/pickled vegetables. I hope to post a recipe at some point! So if you are tired of da bing, you tiao, and dou jiang, try the combo of ci fan and dou jiang.
As you can see, breakfast is all about carbs in Shanghai. And sometimes carbs wrapped in carbs, carbs on the side of carbs–you get the picture.
Back to our mission. Happily, we found a street full of stalls selling all these delicious treats about an avenue away from our apartment without much effort.
Pretty much immediately, we were each wolfing down a set of da bing and you tiao while standing right in front of the stall–two hungry maniacs people-watching (and being watched). And, as always, Bill was busy snapping unflattering pictures of me. But I’ll let it slide for the sake of showing you all just how GOOD this food is.
Even though breakfast choices in a metropolitan city like Shanghai are far and wide, I’m not surprised that these “four warriors” are still standing firm after all these years. For many people, me included, they are symbols of our hometown, a reminder of our fondest memories and our childhood dreams for a better life. Today, a set of da bing, you tiao, and dou jiang costs about 5RMB (less than a dollar). It’s a “luxury” most people can now afford.
Besides the four warriors, Shanghai’s breakfast repertoire also includes pan fried buns, ci fan gao (糍饭糕), scallion pancakes (葱油饼), wonton soup (馄饨), sticky rice balls that come sweet or savory (咸或甜汤园), noodle soups, etc., etc. The choices have also expanded throughout the years with many small merchants (mostly husband and wife teams) from places like Shandong, Hunan, Zhejiang, and JiangSu pouring into the big city, setting up small stalls and thriving.
They bring with them delicious breakfast items like jianbing (煎饼), egg pancakes (蛋饼), pan-fried mantou (煎馒头), pan-fried dumplings (煎饺) and many other different kinds of bing or pancakes (饼). The list can go on for a while, and, obviously, we’ve photographed all of it for you to drool over.
Scallion Pancake–we have a couple of recipes (here’s Sarah’s simple scallion pancake recipe and our 9-layer scallion pancake recipe) for this classic standby, but we learned some new techniques that we will be sharing soon! One word that we’ve learned that will make the pancakes great: oil! (No surprises there, but let’s see if we have the stomach to really do it right! Stay tuned…)
Shanghai Wonton Soup–we have a recipe for this, but I noticed that in Shanghai, a lot of stalls will add a couple drops of vinegar to really add an extra dimension of deliciousness. Try it next time, but, remember, just a few drops of vinegar!
Jianbing–There’s the approximation made by Kaitlin, and then there’s the real thing. It’s definitely time for us to put together the real deal! Stay tuned for the recipe!
Egg pancake (蛋饼)–we saw this in Beijing also, but this version was so good that we had to share! This one’s also on our recipe development list! The couple running this stall was so into what they were doing that they paid no attention to us!
This bowl of Eight Treasures or bā bǎo là jiàng (八宝辣酱) noodle soup was surprisingly good, even though it does not look like much. Like we always say, with Chinese cooking, sometimes letting simple flavors shine is the best way forward.
Pan-Fried Buns, 生煎包–I am still researching this recipe! (The girls will tell you just how many botched batches of buns they’ve choked down at this point). It’s going to be like one of those Dim Sum Shrimp Dumpling-type recipes again–tricky, but once we get it, perfect. Doesn’t the sight of this make you drool?
So the next time you find yourself in Shanghai, skip the hotel spread and look for these breakfast stalls. Whatever you decide to try first, eat like a local–take it back to share with your traveling party, eat in the tight-quartered stalls, or you can do what we do–eat from one stall to the next on two feet. All these wonderful breakfast items are at your fingertips, and all you have to do is ask–ask a local, ask a street sweeper, ask a lovely old man who is looking for someone to talk to–trust me when I say that they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Just in case you want to know, the breakfast stalls we go to are located by the intersection of 打浦路 （da pu Road) and Qu Xi Road (瞿溪路). Hope to see you there!
But if you are not up for the street version of these Chinese breakfast items, here are a couple of restaurants that specialize in these breakfast items that you can try. Locals eat at these more comfortable restaurants too ;-)
张记油条 （Zhang Ji You Tiao， 武(wu)夷(yi)路(lu) #331）
桃园眷村 （Tao Yuan Juan Cun, 徐(xu)家(jia)汇(hui)路(lu)#618号）