Eleven am, and I’ve already eaten eight different street foods and seen parts of my own neighbourhood I didn’t know existed until today. What a great morning!
When our friend M visited last week I knew she’d be game for a morning dedicated to street food, and I had recently heard that Untour Shanghai was offering small group street food breakfast tours. Shanghai is the sort of city that attracts a lot of visitors when you live there (we’re up to a hundred so far), and I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting things for them to do. It’s largely selfish, but a person can only visit the Pearl Tower so many times before feeling a certain creeping ennui at the mention of the place. Untour seem to have the edge in terms of tours that might actually be interesting, even for a local. I’m dying to try their ‘Weird Meat’ tour, and I have quite a few friends who would enjoy the ‘Gay Asian Adventure’ or the ‘Chinglish Quest’. Sounds more enticing than ‘Highlights of the Bund and People’s Square’ doesn’t it?
We began the day early in Xiangyang Park, a shady spot just off Huai Hai Lu, to see rows of elderly Tai Qi practioners gracefully step in perfect unison, and a small group of women practicing with flowing silk fans. The burst of turquoise betwen the trees was spectacular. Nearby, two elderly women were stripping leaves from a small tree, they explained that the leaves had an essential oil which, when crushed and rubbed over your fingers, nourished fingernails and cuticles.
Very interesting, but we were starved, and food was nearby.
The intersection of Xiang Yang Lu and Changle Lu is an early morning street food bonanza. Every stall is sizzling, steaming, frying or stirring the breakfast for hundreds and hundreds of hungry customers. We began with a crisp savoury bing, a griddle-fried flat savoury pancake sprinkled with sesame seeds, or spice. It’s a filling breakfast, and the spiced version with chili, cumin and scallions is flavoursome enough to eat on its own.
Or for something more substantial this huge, fluffy egg bing is like a cross between an omelette and a pancake – the egg bubbles away on the griddle then the edges are folded over until it reaches its final, much smaller size.
Small bing, large bing, plain bing, spiced bing. All here.
The next stall sold Shanghai potsticker dumplings, fried on the base, steamed on the top. The round dumplings with balck sesame seeds and scallions are shengjian bao, filled with soup and pork. The folded dumplings are guotie, filled with pork. To stop them sticking to the pan, the vendor grabs the edges of the pan with a pair of hefty pliers and gives it an almighty spin every minute or so. Towards the end, he pours water in the pan and covers the whole thing with a heavy wooden lid to let the steam finish the cooking.
First delicious round of breakfast over, we took a walk through a hidden lane I’d never noticed, full of washing, and balcony gardens in pots, and good cooking smells. The local ladies are just returning from the wet market with their shopping.
We had several more food stops – local hand-pulled noodles with scallion oil, the wet market, a much-needed coffee stop, xiaolongbao – before heading over to Nanchang Lu, and reputedly Shanghai’s best cong you bing maker. Cong you bing are flat scallion pancakes flavoured with little pieces of salted fatty pork, and simply one of the most delicous foods in the city.
I’m really embarrassed to say, I had never been to this cong you bing vendor, even though he is right on Nanchang Lu. There was always a long, long queue (a sure sign of good food) and I was always hurrying out of the house and running too late, as usual, to stop. By the time I got home his tiny shop was closed. So the tour was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d been missing, and as it turns out I had the best bing in Shanghai right on my doorstep all along. I’ll be making up for the disappointment of lost opportunity, don’t worry!
The shop sign. The’shop’ is run from the vendor’s tiny ground floor kitchen, opening onto a small lane. Three yuan for 1 piece (about 50c), considered a bargain by everyone in the queue.
The crowds subside just enough to get a better view. Inside the tiny dark kitchen, one bent and elderly man is running a military bing operation. The dough is rolled and folded in a special way to ensure a flaky finish, and on a griddle dough is first fried, then finished off inside a 44-gallon drum kiln, to give them the essential crisp that distinguishes these cong you bing from all others.
The outside – buttery, salty, and crisp. Take a bite and the inside yields soft flaky dough studded with sweet scallions and salted nubs of pork. Incredibly rich and very satisfying, it would be challenging to eat more than one. At least now I can die happy having at last tasted the cong you bing of Nanchang Lu.