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May 16, 2012

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Traditionalists in breakfast heaven

LOCALS were queuing up for Shanghai's most well-known breakfast food, "four heavenly kings," early yesterday morning in the city's first standardized breakfast store, which was launched by a wet market.

The store in Hongkou District provides Shanghainese' favorite cuisine at a very low price with a government subsidy. More importantly, the store provides safe food made under the supervision of the local government.

Shanghai plans to build 400 similar standardized stores near large communities and Metro stations this year to help locals get safe and cheap breakfast conveniently.

Twenty years ago, there was at least one breakfast stall serving the traditional breakfast at the entrance to each longtang, a small alley flanked by Shanghai traditional shikumen-style (stone-gate) houses. But most are long gone and have been replaced by the mushrooming bakeries.

Many catering firms are not interested in selling the old-time breakfast because of the small profit and hard work to make the cuisine food, especially youtiao.

"The work of making youtiao almost amounts to that of making lunch," said the Hongkou District Commission of Commerce deputy director surnamed Wang.

"But youtiao only cost about 1 yuan (US16 cents) for each stick."

The production of youtiao requires lots of oil, and producers need to install equipment to separate the oil from water that goes into the sewage system, according to the city's environmental protection regulations.

Moreover, cooks have to get up very early to prepare the food, which causes a heavy burden on companies for the labor costs.

Some street stalls have been reported to use mechanical oil to produce youtiao. More traditional breakfast stores have closed under the pressure.

"I took youtiao as my breakfast every week in the past," said Tang Caiying, a 62-year-old resident. "But now it's hard to get the food," she said. "I don't dare to buy it from some unlicensed venders, who may use sewage oil retrieved from the drains."

To provide safe food and reduce the burden on food companies, the government has helped the food store win cheap rent in a state-owned wet market.

The standardized store uses proper oil, which will be changed every day, Wang said.

In the next step, the district will build 25 similar stores selling various breakfasts, including assorted dumplings, pancakes and rice balls, to benefit the residents.

Citywide, 400 standardized breakfast stores, which will feature take-out food, will be built this year, officials said.

'Heavenly kings' detailed

The "four heavenly kings" (si da jing gang) are

1Youtiao, a deep-fried dough stick. White dough is drawn out in strips, shaped into a plait and fried in a pot of hot oil. The dough expands to form a golden-colored stick. When served, both ends taste crispy and the middle part a little soft. Some traditional Shanghainese prefer dipping in soybean sauce.

2 Soybean milk. 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.

3 Cifantuan, a steamed, glutinous rice ball. Originally it was only stuffed with youtiao and seasoned with sugar. Later, many other stuffings have been added, such as zhacai, a kind of preserved pickle, rousong, crushed dried pork, and ham sausage.

4 Dabing, a thin pancake spread with sesame seeds. Two kinds in Shanghai - one has an oval shape and is sweet; the other is round and salty.


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