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Rise and shine with street fare

MORNING in Shanghai means traffic, seniors doing exercise in the park and traditional street breakfasts made by vendors with bamboo steamer baskets, cauldrons and hot griddles.

The breakfast stall is an institution and some ("most" is too sweeping) Shanghainese still awake to the mouth-watering smells of deep-fried dough sticks, assorted dumplings, pancakes and rice balls.

Twenty years ago, there was at least one breakfast stall serving various foods in the entrance of each lane - those were the days of cozy lanes but most are long gone and breakfast stalls are getting scarce as well.

In many modern residential communities, it's hard to find a breakfast stall selling traditional fare. Some Shanghainese are so fond of old-time breakfast that they still walk blocks every day to the nearest stall. Vendor and buyer get to know each other. The vendor often can tell at a glance what the buyer wants, adds the exact amount of sugar to the buyer's hot soy milk and even can guess at his, or her, mood.

The most famous traditional Shanghai breakfast foods are the "four heavenly kings" (sida jinggang). These are dabing, a thin pancake spread with sesame seeds; youtiao, a deep fried dough stick; cifantuan (a steamed, glutinous rice ball stuffed with zhacai, a kind of spicy preserved pickle; rousong, crushed dried pork or salted egg yolk); and soy milk.

Sometimes there are a few small tables outside, but today people usually eat on the go.

In a typical old-time breakfast, people sat around at tables where served by the stall owner. A typical breakfast would be one dabing wrapped around one youtiao. A big bite of both combines the deep-fried crispiness of youtiao and the fluffliness of the dabing pancake. A cup of hot soy milk is a must, balancing the oily taste of fried dough and the dry pancake.

In addition, another important Shanghai breakfast food is wonton, a stuffed dumpling made with thin dough and served with fried egg soup. There are many kinds of stuffing and soup. Some wonton is stuffed with shrimp and others with pork; some soup is a little spicy because the vendor adds ground black pepper, some has an onion aroma because of green onions that are added.

Since Shanghai is a city of immigrants, breakfast has come to include some food culture from other regions, especially northern China where wheat is preferred to rice. It's not hard to find many food stalls or snack shops selling various kinds of baozi, a steamed bun or dumpling with stuffing. Xiaolongbao is the most famous, usually stuffed with a pork and containing broth.

Actually, another popular breakfast dumpling is shengjianbao. It's a bit larger than xiaolongbao, about 4cm diameter) and its bottom is pan-fried. It's less famous than xiaolongbao but more popular among ordinary Shanghai people.

Some breakfast stalls provide other baozi that are simply steamed buns with stuffing, such as fatty meat, fresh-textured vegetables and sweet red bean paste. Stuffing made of jujubes or black sesame is recommended in winter because in traditional Chinese medicine theory, these foods have a warm yang nature, which warms the body when it's cold.

These days, baozi isn't always made of refined wheat flour; sometimes there are other grains, including wheat, sorghum, black rice and corn. Thus, the baozi are less bland, more colorful and a little coarse and chewy.

Since many expats don't know the names of all the breakfast treats, this week we interview the owners of various breakfast stalls and describe some traditional and authentic breakfast foods.Dabing

There are two kinds of dabing in Shanghai, one has an oval shape with a sweet flavor, while the other is round with a salty flavor. Both have a crispy texture and the charming aroma of flour, oil and sesame seeds.

We visited a breakfast stall in Hongkou District owned by a married couple and watched the husband rolling out the dough, using a brush to spread a layer of oil and then sprinkling white sesame seeds on top of the thin pancake. When asked why his dabing tastes so delicious, he emphasized that "for making dabing more crunchy and fluffy, I add some yousu (a mixture of flour, oil and yeast often used in flour-made Chinese dim sum) to the dough." He added that precise heating control during the baking also plays a critical role.

When biting the sweet dabing, a sweet and warm syrup bursts into the mouth; when biting the salty dabing, a strong, mouth-watering aroma mixing sesame seed and onion exudes. However, eating this breakfast treat can be slightly undignified as a result of the large amount of sesame seeds that are left stuck to one's lips.


The fragrance of youtiao, mixing oil and flour, can attract people from meters away. White dough is drawn out in long, thin strips, shaped into a plait and then quickly fried in a pot of hot oil. The dough soon expands to form a golden-colored stick.

When served, both ends taste crispy and the middle part seems a little soft. Some traditional Shanghainese prefer dipping youtiao in soybean sauce to enhance the flavor.

Although, many fast-food chains such as KFC and Yonghe King offer youtiao, a relief to those concerned about food hygiene standards, most Shanghainese would agree the taste and memories of this street breakfast cannot be authentically replicated.

Soybean milk

Shanghainese alter the temperature of soybean milk depending on the seasons. During summer, the sweetness of soybean milk is enhanced when served cold. In winter, it is best served hot - not only providing warmth for the body but also making the original flavor of soybean more evident.

Although sweet soybean milk is more popular, many stalls provide a salty variety as well. Scoop a bowl of hot soybean milk with no sugar and add some dried shrimp, laver and shredded youtiao, and finally some soybean sauce and spicy oil. This hot and spicy drink can hit the spot and make you sweat in the winter.

Price: dabing 0.9 yuan; youtiao 0.9 yuan; soybean milk (sweet/salty) 1 yuan

Address: 15 Hailun Rd


If the equivalent of the phrase "American as apple pie" was to be applied to Shanghai, it could be "Shanghainese as shengjianbao."

Dumplings are fried in a round iron pan until the bottom turns golden and crunchy. During frying, the chef spreads onion and sesame seeds enabling their fragrances to infiltrate the dumpling. At the same time, the chef continuously turns the pan in a clockwise direction to ensure each dumpling is heated evenly.

The stall we visited located on Hailun Road is recommended. The broth of their shengjianbao is juicy, containing fatty fragrance. And the bottom part of the dumpling has a crispy texture and smoky flavor, incorporating a charred aroma. Ask for some vinegar, since it can balance the heavy flavor of the pork.

Laoyang shengjian

Price: 8 yuan/50g

Address: 24 Hailun Rd


For picky diners, tasty wonton should meet several standards. First, the skin should be thin but also pliable. Secondly, the stuffing should be fresh enough - meat left overnight or refrigerated is not acceptable. Finally, the wonton soup should be clear to stimulate appetite and have a rich flavor to enhance the wonton's original taste which is quite light.

This snack shop sells more than 20 kinds of wonton with different fillings which can be briefly categorized into vegetable, beef and seafood. According to the staff's explanation, the most popular is the mushroom, mustard and pork wonton. The mushroom's aroma, paired with the mustard's fibrous texture creates a rich taste and is also healthy.

Their wonton soup has a distinct character, not simply mixing water with different seasonings but using gaotang, a kind of meat soup simmered for several hours, and is freshly made everyday by the owner surnamed Xu.

We recommend trying their wonton in the morning, but be prepared for the lengthy peak-time queues which are also an inevitable experience of Shanghai street breakfast.

Chun Hong Wonton Shop

Price: Mushroom, mustard and pork wonton 9 yuan/bowl

Address: Rm 104, No. 1, Lane 600, Minxing Rd


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