Good morn­ing, Fan­tas­tic Four

A quar­tet of Shang­hainese break­fast fa­vorites that used to be ubiq­ui­tous in the past have been given a new lease of life in a mod­ern eatery. ex­plores the his­tory of th­ese iconic foods and their re­nais­sance

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

Shang­hainese peo­ple call them the “Big Four War­riors”, but this term doesn’t ac­tu­ally re­fer to he­roes from folk­lore. Rather, it is the term for four of the most well-known break­fast foods that have been around for decades.

The quar­tet com­prises dabing (Shang­hai pan­cakes), youtiao (fried dough sticks), dou­jiang (soy milk) and cifan (rice ball/rice cakes) and are col­lec­tively nick­named as such be­cause they have man­aged to fend off com­pe­ti­tion from other types of food that have made their way into the mod­ern day break­fast diet.

Find­ing a stall in Shang­hai that sells the Big Four to­day is as dif­fi­cult as ex­plain­ing to the city’s new­com­ers how th­ese snacks have de­fined the morn­ings of those from the el­der gen­er­a­tions. In the past, they were as preva­lent as to­day’s 24-hour con­ve­nient stores.

To­day, how­ever, they are mostly found in ghetto-like wet mar­kets or hid­den in some se­cluded cor­ner among of­fice build­ings, promptly van­ish­ing af­ter the morn­ing rush hour or be­fore the cheng­guan, ur­ban ad­min­is­tra­tors who are al­ways on the prowl for small ven­dors with­out li­censes, start work.

Some say th­ese ven­dors have grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared along with the demise of the shiku­men, Shang­hai’s his­toric lane houses. Oth­ers ar­gue that they aren’t as pop­u­lar th­ese days be­cause busy ur­ban­ites can­not af­ford the lux­ury of sit­ting down and hav­ing a leisurely break­fast. How­ever, the cof­feesip­ping and muf­fin-munch­ing crowds in chain cafes such as Star­bucks may have in­val­i­dated that ar­gu­ment.

In 2012, the mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment launched a “break­fast pro­ject” and au­tho­rized the first free-of-food-safety-con­cern stalls that sell the Big Four in the city’s north­ern Hongkou district. The snacks sold like hot cakes, at­tract­ing peo­ple who drove for an hour only to wait an­other hour or two in line, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia.

But de­spite the brisk busi­ness, th­ese stalls suf­fered a deficit of 17,000 yuan ($2,607) af­ter the first month be­cause mak­ing money from the cheap snacks — they cost less than 3 yuan a piece — against high rentals and la­bor costs was deemed “im­pos­si­ble”.

Again, th­ese break­fast de­lights faded into the shad­ows, un­til a Shang­hai na­tive named Tang Wei­dong de­cided to spark a re­vival, al­beit one that gen­tri­fies the “Big Four War­riors”.

Hav­ing run a wom­enswear com­pany for over 20 years, Tang opened Taoyuan Vil­lage late in 2014. Named af­ter a town­ship near Taipei, the all-day break­fast eatery of­fers tra­di­tional Shang­hai fa­vorites in a chic, cafe-like en­vi­ron­ment with con­tem­po­rary pack­ag­ing. The prices too have changed — snacks at Taoyuan Vil­lage cost three to four times more than the of­fer­ings from the street stalls.

The chef at Taoyuan Vil­lage hails from Taipei, a city which cui­sine has in­her­ently been in­flu­enced by the Shang­hai res­i­dents who moved there af­ter 1949. The four break­fast sta­ples served at Taoyuan Vil­lage fea­ture a lighter fla­vor, have less of a crunch and aren’t as oily as those sold by street ven­dors.

Tang’s con­cept has turned out to be a hit among the lo­cals and has ar­guably lured some peo­ple away from the week­end brunch menus at western restau­rants and cafes. On week­days, of­fice work­ers and tourists who yearn for a bite of the city’s lo­cal fa­vorites form long queues out­side Taoyuan Vil­lage’s seven out­lets in Shang­hai. There is cur­rently one branch in Bei­jing, too. Its man­age­ment team said that there will be a to­tal of 15 out­lets in the coun­try by the end of this year.

Iron­i­cally, most of the out­lets are lo­cated in sleek shop­ping malls, the place where Shang­hai’s his­tor­i­cal lane houses and street food ven­dors used to be. Ac­cord­ing to Tang, the lo­ca­tion plays a part in brand­ing — even if the prod­uct is just a hum­ble pan­cake.

Con­tact the writer at xu­jun­qian@ chi­


The Big Four War­riors have al­ways been the break­fast foods of choice for most Shang­hainese peo­ple.

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