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Shanghai Street Food #14 Bào Mǐ Huā 爆米花 Exploding Rice Flowers


It’s 5pm and already dusk in the warren of streets down behind the fabric market on Lujiabang Lu. Autumn is fading fast and soon winter’s short days and long cold nights will be creeping in. Ahead, in the darkening light, I can see an orange glow coming from a strange set-up on the pavement. There’s a crouched figure, surrounded by sacks of grain, and bags of what look like….like puffed rice breakfast cereal. He’s slowly rotating the strangest looking medieval cast-iron device over a naked flame, powered by a gas cylinder sitting next to his legs. Smoking a cigarette, he turns the handle of the black contraption, and I notice a pressure gauge near it’s neck. The needle is pointing to the red. The whole thing looks kind of dangerous. 

Then, the explosion occurs. I’m not expecting it, so there is no photograph of the actual moment and I may or may not have slightly screamed, and/or flung my hands over my head to protect me from the shrapnel. He has directed the neck of the iron chamber into the mouth of a big wide rubber tub to his left, which empties into a sack. A lever is quickly pushed, and BANG! white puffed rice explodes spectacularly into the tub with a giant cloud of black smoke, puffing dramatically in size as soon as it leaves the pressurised confines of the iron chamber. Around us, the force of the explosion has set off car-alarms all down the street, but hungry buyers are already pushing forward to get a bag of the still hot puffed rice. 

I only learn afterwards that the name of this street snack is bao mi hua – which translates poetically as ‘exploding rice flowers’. If I’d known that beforehand I might have stood a little further back… The rice is heated under pressure until it reaches the right point for puffing (that would be pressure gauge in the red), then the sudden release of super-high pressure causes the rice grains to explode into light white puffs. Just like popcorn really, but you can’t make this one at home. As well as puffed rice this vendor also puffs other grains, like millet. It is most commonly eaten as a snack on its own, or you can add hot water and eat it for breafast. 3 yuan a bag, two bags for 5 yuan.


In a nod to OHS, notice the flimsy piece of plywood protecting passing pedestrians and shiny black cars from exploding rice.


Catch up here on the other street foods you’ve missed!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

  • Anonymous

    Fiona, your funny story saved my day!
    Can't wait to see it AND live it all next year! Greetings from a snowstormy Paris, Michaela

  • http://eggwansfoododyssey.com Liv Wan

    I had this exploding rice flowers in Taiwan before but our exploding rice flowers is like sweet and thicker rice cake (really tasty!). But I'm really scared to walking pass by one of those exploding rice flowers thing because they sometime will make extremely loud noise. lol Thank you for sharing this blog. It reminds me a lot of good memories when I live in Taiwan and Shanghai. 😉

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Liv, next time I'll be watching from the opposite footpath…;)

  • http://croquecamille.wordpress.com/ croquecamille

    So what do they taste like? Are they seasoned at all?

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/01147344578518296814 Lauren Zabaneh

    This was so fascinating! I've never seen anything like it before! how fun. sounds good to me! did you get a bag? or just hid behind that "protective" barrier…what a hoot!

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    So I did buy a bag, inching forward carefully until I knew the coast was clear…they look and taste very much like puffed wheat breakfast cereal – soft, springy, not crunchy, and a little bit sweet. The kids loved them for breakfast with milk.