Thanks to a reader who once lived in Shanghai I was alerted to the existence of this great street breakfast food. She told me of wonderful balls of sticky rice stuffed with a crunchy stick of deep fried dough (yóu tiáo) and salty sour pickles, made on the spot to order.
I looked and looked for these, yet for weeks didn’t see them anywhere and I began to wonder whether they just weren’t sold in my neighbourhood. It turns out, however, they were right under my nose the whole time. At my local breakfast stalls I had seen tall heavy wooden pails lined with a cloth and assumed that they contained freshly made soft tofu. Wrong.
They’re actually filled with steamed fragrant sticky rice used to make what I like to call Breakfast Boules (they’re round and heavy) or cí fàn 糍饭, literally ‘sticky rice meal’. This is a typical Shanghainese breakfast food, and the Shanghai name for it is slightly different – cí vèh.
(Just as an aside, there is no pinyin (the standard romanised way of writing Chinese words so that pronunciation and tones can be reproduced by non-Chinese speakers) for the Shanghai dialect, so it is more difficult to approximate these very local names. I spent an hour with three Shanghainese foodie friends trying to pin down the Shanghai names for local street foods, and they all came up with something slightly different. Very confusing!)
When you order ci fan, The first thing the stall-holder does is put on a pair of white cotton gloves and take a clean white cloth from the side of the wooden pail. The gloves and cloth have been moistened by the steam of the cooked rice, important so the sticky rice doesn’t stick to her hands.
The sticky rice inside the wooden pail is a colourful combination of white, black and purple grains. I like to have a combination of both in a sort of yin-yang arrangement which looks pretty, and tastes nuttier. The balls look heavy, and they are – these rice doorstops will keep you going all day.
To make ci fan she flattens a handful of sticky rice onto the moistened white cloth, then takes a freshly deep-fried you tiao and bends it in half in the centre of the rice.
Next comes a spoonful of finely chopped pickles and another spoonful of sweet dried pork floss, with granulated white sugar as an optional extra.
Then she crushes and folds the you tiao even more until it is scrunched into a small ball, and the sticky rice is folded around the whole pickled-crunchy-salty-sweet filling and shaped into a ball.
To eat ci fan neatly it should be kept in the plastic bag in which it is delivered to stop your hands from getting too sticky.
The first bites are all sticky rice, nutty and sweet, but soon after your teeth sink into a wonderful contrast of textures and flavours – the crispy crunch of the you tiao, the salty sourness of the pickles, and the sweetness of the pork floss. Delicious to a lover of savoury breakfast foods, like myself. But just try and finish a whole one – I challenge you!
Ci fan 3-4 yuan (50-60c) each, sold at most stalls where there are also fried you tiao.
The Shanghai Street Food Series
Now in its third year!
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 14 Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 16 Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
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 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