Where in the world is this?
Well, not only breakfast but also, at just about every meal time, you will find something to eat out there on the streets of Shanghai.
Yes, we’re talking street food here, the thing that makes for a unique local eating experience in just about any given location. Singapore has its hawker food centres and Hong Kong, its dai-pai-dongs. But, there’s something special about Shanghai’s food offerings that may arch over whatever can be found in these other two locations.
One of the best pictures I ever missed taking was of a Shanghai street eatery located in what was then the so called Dutch concession area of the city, in an area located between the main railway station and The Bund, a walk I may need to retrace at some time. This eatery was located in the elbow, a junction of two back street lanes, in this quarter.
I knew I was on to a good thing when I saw what may have passed for a milkman elsewhere in the world, doing his rounds and making his deliveries. On his barrow, he had several crates of bottled milk, fruit juices and some other kind of milk or yogurt drink. As I drew up to him, a woman in her nightwear and dressing gown emerged from a side door in this lane to make some purchases or pick up her order from the man.
A little further down this lane was another man standing over this rather greasy brown barrow contraption. It looked like a collection of oil drums wired together on a wheeled chassis. On the one side was this blackened wok. On the other side, this flat plate. He was in the process of cooking up a breakfast of fried doughnut sticks and omelets. Once the egg mixture was semi-cooked, the fried doughnut stick was placed on top and omelet was wrapped around the stick and it was good to go.
Then, down at the end of this lane where it turned and disappeared, was this sort of dog’s leg elbow forming a corner. Essentially the area around this little enclave was bare brick. Well, it might have been bare brick. It was now glistening in part and a grubby soot black elsewhere.
Against this back drop were billowing clouds of white steam and, in this mist, these figures clad in white moving around.
This scene immediately grabbed my attention. Here was this alley which, at a time and before water born sewerage, may have served as a “night soil” lane. At the end of it, was this organic and pulsating entity. It looked really weird and decidedly out of place.
As I approached it, elements and entities started coming into view and started to assume more recognizable shapes. Stacked high were these huge steam glistening bamboo baskets. Each time they were opened up, like dragons, they breathed out these huge billowing clouds of white steam made even more magnificent by the soot blackened surfaces surrounding this little alcove.
The white shadowy entities that I had seen from afar were the people manning this facility. They were all dressed in white, freshly starched and pressed uniforms. The women wore white head caps, the men had on starched white chef’s hats.
People had started to line up to make their purchases before taking them away. On either side of the main serving counter were a couple of make-shift tables and rickety wooden chairs. There was seemingly nothing permanent here and yet, judging from the blackened walls, this place must have been operating from here for eons.
The reference to the “best picture I never took”, stems from the fact that this scene was something I witnessed some 20 years ago now, a time way before digital and all things like that. This was also a time when a western face in a place like this was just that, out of place. Picking up a camera to take pictures here didn’t quite seem to be the thing to do here. So, that picture never got taken.
The images forming part of this feature story sort of come in as a second best and to hopefully make up for that missed opportunity.
Today, while some things may have changed, everything is still seems much the same as they seemed then. All the options are still to be found here. One shop sells steamed buns, another may serve up soup noodles and then there’s the guy making savory pancakes.
In this instance, this gentleman’s food stall got my attention. So much so, I had to sample his product. Excellent and, very simple and delicious. Simple as in spreading out the batter – as in a standard pancake mix – over which is spread a little sweetened jam of sorts, sprinkle over this a little pickle, add a splash of chili and then, stack on this crispy cracker of sorts, roll and fold up the pancake, cut it in half and placed the whole lot into a brown paper packet and that’s it. In part, soft and crunchy, in part spicy and sweet. And, as they say, “simply wonderful”.
While lining up, yes there’s always a queue, the gentleman in front of me gave the chef a fried doughnut stick to add and have rolled and wrapped up into his order. So, a variation on the above.
And that’s it, breakfast in Shanghai. Enjoy – comments and queries are welcome.
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originally written and posted on 131212 – reposted on 190119