The comforting taste of one’s roots
In the suburban Shanghai area of Pujiang, noodles are more than just a meal for the residents — it is also the only connection these people have to the life they used to enjoy in the heart of the city about 20 kilometers away.
Pujiang town, situated on the east bank of the Huangpu River, is the largest of the three satellite towns on the outskirts of Shanghai that is home to the millions of people who have been relocated to make way for urban projects in the city.
Zhang Peijun’s five-table noodle stall, located on a bustling two-lane street in one of the most populated neighborhoods in this district, serves nothing but the most common East China-style soup noodles — straight and slender white noodles presented in what looks like a ball of yarn immersed in crimson red soup and accompanied by chopped green onions and wok-fried toppings that could include a variety of ingredients.
“With this, I am still a countryside Shanghainese. Without, I might just be an outlander,” said a 63-year-old retired factory worker surnamed Su, one of the shop’s most loyal customers.
Su compared his relocation from the upper corner of the city to the “countryside” where he is currently in to an old tree being uprooted and transplanted in a foreign location. He is one of the 27,600 residents who were relocated to Pujiang town in 2006, as their original homes were torn down to make way for the development of the 5.38-square-kilometer Shanghai Expo Park.
However, senior residents like Su only manage to feel at home at Zhang’s tiny shop named “Old Shanghainese Noodle Shop” that measures less than 30 square meters.
“It tastes original,” said Su, while slurping his noodles that were topped with wok-fried pigs’ intestines. He showed little intention of leaving after finishing his meal and looked content to just relax in his seat at the entrance of the shop.
“At first, they came to me for the noodles. But now, food is secondary. Being here with people like themselves is the main reason,” said Zhang.
Zhang graduated from a local culinary vocational school in the 1990s and was apprenticing in usually accompanied by socializing, something that is too overwhelming for his physical and mental health. Another reason was to avoid the wrath of his wife, who almost always cooked rice at home.
“When you tell your wife you are dining out, she might be less some of the most traditional noodle houses in downtown Shanghai till 2003, the time when many of these eateries fell prey to the wrecking ball.
Although he has always been confident of his skills in the kitchen, the 43-year-old Shanghai native found little luck in the business world until two years ago when a friend sensed a business opportunity in Pujiang and urged him to move over.
As it turned out, this friend’s foresight was rather accurate as business has seen steady growth since Zhang opened his stall. Together with his eight staff and two stoves, the eatery churns out between 400 to 500 bowls of noodles every day, triple the amount sold when he first started.
Another factor behind the brisk business is the fact that there’s still little competition in the neighborhood. There are only a few small restaurants located in this town and food chains like KFC or Starbucks have yet to set up shop.
“Most of my regulars are old people. Some would come every day for two meals. The young people would also come and eat, but they have alternatives,” said Zhang, in a stained white chef’s jacket that has the name of a Japanese restaurant.
“It’s from my former employer. I’m using it to save money,” he joked.
Zhang has about 12 loyal customers who would dine at his shop daily. They usually show up before or after the peak meal hours as this means they get to hang around for a longer duration. Zhang would often offer them yellow rice wine while they exchange opinions about the rocketing property prices in Shanghai and how much the city has changed.
“Shanghai has undergone very radical changes over the years. But my noodles don’t change,” Zhang said.
Zhang Peijun's noodle stall is a favorite hangout among many of the elderly people in Pujiang town.