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