Shanghai’s other winter favorites
While colorful frosted cupcakes and donuts dominate the windows and counters at Shanghai’s bakeries and cafes during the festive Christmas season, traditional street snacks have never lost their appeal in the eyes of the locals. To many, these snacks are an integral part of Chinese culture and tradition and they always manage to evoke memories of their childhood. As these snacks are always served warm, they also offer customers a comforting reprieve from the cold during winter.
Besides chestnuts, Shanghainese people also love their baked sweet potatoes. This root vegetable is so popular among the locals that it was even analogized in China’s most celebrated contemporary novel, Fortress Besieged with author Qian Zhongshu comparing it to an illicit affair and how “having it isn’t as good as not having it”.
Like chestnuts, the aroma of baked sweet potatoes is one of the main reasons why people are drawn to this snack. Most of the baked sweet potatoes are unseasoned, with the flavor depending solely on the freshness of the produce. Besides the small carts manned by street vendors, there are hardly any other places in Shanghai that sell this inexpensive treat that is usually costs less than 10 yuan ($1.6).
Another local favorite is the deep fried radish cake, which the Chinese believe is an ideal vegetable to eat during winter as it helps to provide a balance to the copious amounts of meat that people tend to consume during this period. Shredded and mixed with aromatic spring onions, the muffin-like Chinese cake is a snack many like to consume before dinner.
Last but not least, there’s Shanghai’s own version of popcorn (also known as “pop rice”), which is made by replacing corn kernels with the staple food for Chinese. But instead of using the sort of popcorn machines seen at amusement parks, pop rice in China is usually created using a very rudimentary method of heating — the rice is cooked in a blackened, vase-like pot that is suspended over a large flame.
The vendors of pop rice are often elderly men and women, and some of them offer slightly fancier versions by adding sugar syrup over the snack to enhance the flavor. Vendors can usually be found near the entrances to schools, where children can almost always be seen running away in fear when they hear the rice popping. They always return, though, to buy a few packets of this well-loved crispy treat that is just as popular with the adults.
Rice pops are created inside a rustic pot along the street in Shanghai in winter.