The early bird gets the…baozi?
Shanghai's breakfast scene
On my first morning living in Shanghai, I woke up at 5AM after a jetlagged, sleepless night and went out to go for a quick jog. What a shock I had when I exited the hotel in to a steamy 25-degree morning. The streets were already packed with locals starting their day. Initially surprised, I started my jog and was in awe at all the street food and hole-in-the-wall stalls that were starting to churn out an abundance of delicious breakfast treats and tantalizing smells.
Steam billowed out of wooden steamer baskets filled with baozi (包子 - stuffed, steamed buns), oil splattered from deep-fryers filled with you tiao (油條 - a fried dough stick/crueller) and carts were wheeled on to the streets with flat griddles attached to them for cooking crunchy jian bing (煎饼 - Chinese crepes).
As a newbie to China, all these smells and sights were completely unknown to me. I did know one thing though – life here was going to be like walking in Anthony Bourdain's footsteps. I had only ever seen streets like this on episodes of Parts Unknown.
Initially I took a while adjusting to Shanghai's busy early mornings and loud ayis (阿姨 – auntie) yelling outside my apartment at 6AM. However, I soon learned to love the mornings for the many benefits they bring (…mainly the endless breakfast foods to enjoy).
I have since made it my mission to taste and explore all of Shanghai's early morning breakfast foods. Anyone living here can do the same. You can eat a week's worth of street food breakfasts for less than the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks!
So let's get started – what can you eat for breakfast on the go in Shanghai?
Si Da Jin Gang (四大金刚 – The Big 4 Warriors)
This is Shanghai's answer to the diner classic - bacon, eggs, toast and a coffee. Ask any local Shanghainese about the major breakfast staples and you'll hear all about these four foods – da bing (大饼 - big bread) – a baked sesame and scallion flatbread; you tiao (油條 – a fried dough stick/crueller); ci fan (粢饭 – sticky rice balls filled with your selection of you tiao, pickled vegetables, pork floss, and salted egg); and dou jiang (豆浆 – soy milk, either sweet or salty. Your choice!).
You can dunk your freshly fried and crispy you tiao in a hot bowl of dou jiang (step aside Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Horton's). Or munch on a simple da bing on your way to work. No matter how you do it, you can rest assured that you're in for a hearty and delicious breakfast! These 4 staples have been fueling locals through bitter cold winters for generations so clearly they are doing something right.
These big 4 warriors are just a small selection of what Shanghai's busy morning streets have to offer. There is a special local breakfast waiting for you depending on your mood.
Are you late for work and need a quick on-the-go breakfast?
Baozi! Pillowy-light steamed buns with an assortment of different fillings. There is the classic rou bao (肉包 – a pork bun that bursts open with hot juices and fat that soak in to the light bun) or cai bao (菜包 – a veggie-filled bun that will keep all vegetarians satisfied). In Shanghai, this usually has dried pickled veggies, shitake mushrooms and/or small chunks of dried tofu. If you've got a sweet tooth, then you're in luck with the famous dou sha bao (豆沙包) that is filled with sticky sweet red-bean paste.
If you're in need of that fried crunch in the morning, then grab yourself a cong you bing (葱油饼). These scallion pancakes are pan-fried then baked to give you a breakfast treat that is somehow oily and crunchy but also light and flaky.
Have a little more time to sit down and enjoy a hearty breakfast?
Sheng jian bao (生煎包)! These pan-fried dumplings are the dangerously delicious cousin of the baozi, the Shanghai-famous xiao long bao (小笼包 - soup dumplings), and a fried dumpling. Get ready to sidle up and sit shoulder to shoulder with the locals – labourers, business people and grandparents – on a small stool. Bite in carefully and let the fatty juices flow out of these delicious fried dumplings!
Curious to try breakfast from another part of China?
Jian bing! Imagine a delicate French crêpe combined with a breakfast burrito – this popular street food has it all! Originally hailing all the way from the northeastern province of Shandong. This quick on-the-go breakfast can now be found on any street corner in Shanghai.
These are my favourite go-to breakfast on the way to work so here's a quick breakdown of what makes them so special.
A batter made from a variety of grains (sorghum, millet, and corn) is spread over a hot griddle before an egg is cracked on top to fill in the gaps. A handful of cilantro, green onions, and pickled mustard tuber is tossed in then it is folded in half. Sweet hoisin sauce (and maybe a dash of chili oil) is spooned over top and a crispy bao cui (薄脆 - fried wonton wrapper) is put in the middle.
I usually can't take a more than a few steps before digging in. A combination of textures from the crispy bao cui and the soft, fluffy scrambled egg hits you first upon biting in. Then as you savour your first bite you have a unique sweet and salty flavour from the hoisin sauce and pickles. It truly manages to hit every craving you might have in the morning.
I still get up early before work some days to take a new route to work solely to observe and smell the different foods that are hidden down every alleyway. Although I've lived in Shanghai for almost two years, I still get that giddy feeling of excitement and curiosity from the morning smells of the city that I had way back on my first morning jog here.
So…what are you waiting for? Set your alarm and get yourself out of bed to taste the best of what Shanghai has to offer. You won't be disappointed.