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Sniffing out real Shanghai breakfast
By Xu Wei

FOR many older people, typical Shanghai-style breakfast means the "Four Heavenly Kings" (si da jin gang 四大金刚) - da bing (大饼) or Chinese pancakes, you tiao (油条) or deep-fried dough sticks, ci fan tuan (粢饭团) or steamed sticky rice balls, and soy milk.

These traditional foods are simple and delicious, easy to grab from vendors on the way to work without having to sit down at a restaurant.

In the old days, vendors worked at the entrance to many old lanes and aromas filled the air, so you could follow your nose to breakfast.

But urbanization has bulldozed many traditional neighborhoods and in place of many small eateries and vendors, there are bakeries and higher-end restaurants.

Traditional breakfast is also difficult to find because making the food is labor-intensive and requires getting up before dawn. And the profit is low; dinner is much more profitable.

Cao Kefan, a popular TV host and gourmet, says that some restaurants claiming to offer authentic Shanghai breakfast fail to deliver the genuine article and real flavor.

"Food and emotions are closely related," says 50-year-old Cao, a judge of the popular TV cooking competition series "Master Chef."

"Many Shanghai people of my age grew up with these old-time foods and snacks. They are more than daily fuel, they evoke heartwarming memories and nostalgia for home," he adds.

Cao tells Shanghai Daily that in its second season starting tomorrow, the show will go in search of China's famous local delicacies.

Old-time Shanghai breakfast is on the list. Cao and the crew also plan to visit suburban water towns and have a long street banquet with locals.

The show will be broadcast twice a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10pm on Dragon TV. The judging panel also includes Fairmont Peace Hotel Executive Chef Steven Liu and Liang Zigeng, one of Asia's top creative chefs.

"It is a pity that so many traditional Shanghai delicacies are on the verge of vanishing," Cai says. He misses traditional laohu jiao zhua (老虎脚爪) or "tiger claws," a sweet baked pie shaped like a tiger's paw, and fried turnip pie.

"They were so much fun in my childhood," he recalls.

Cao and the other jury members recently visited Shanghai's most characteristic old-time breakfast stalls. The tasty experience and recommended dishes - the Four Heavenly Kings and more - will be broadcast on the show at the end of this month.

Pancakes and dough sticks

Every day and night there are long queues at the breakfast and midnight snack stall on Huashan Road, which opens from 10pm to 10am.

Both Chinese pancakes (da bing) and deep-fried dough sticks (you tiao) are crisp and aromatic.

Pancakes can be either sweet or salty; sweet pancakes are made with sugar and covered with sesame seeds, while salty pancakes are covered with shallot slices.

Compared with Western pancakes, Chinese ones are made from a thin dough, not a batter, and fried in a pan or on a skillet.

Deep-fried dough sticks are golden in color and very fragrant.

The fermented dough is mixed with alum powder, twisted into long strips and deep-fried in oil.

Diners often order a bowl of hot soybean milk or tofu pudding (豆腐花 3 yuan). They can add some dried shrimp or seaweed to the pudding. Some people like to dip the dough sticks in soybean milk.

The stall also sells deep-fried rice bars and egg pancakes.

Address: 203 Huoshan Rd

Steamed sticky rice ball

In the morning, the only food for sale at Aunty Shen's Shunan Restaurant is ci fan tuan (steamed sticky rice balls).

Every day Aunty Shen steams two buckets of red glutinous rice, which is then pounded into dough, shaped into balls, stuffed with sweet or savory filling, dusted with rice flour and steamed.

Originally an imperial court snack, the rice balls became popular with everyone for their variety and creative fillings.

Instead of using the usual sweet fillings such as sesame, sugar and red bean paste, Aunty Shen also stuffs the rice balls with deep-fried dough stick or pickled eggs.

The small restaurant has been open for more than 20 years and many locals grew up eating Aunty Shen's rice balls for breakfast. Every day nearly 1,000 rice balls are sold for around 4.5 yuan (72 US cents) each.

"People who are dedicated to doing one single thing for many years are admirable," says Martin Qian, a 30-something loyal customer. "The smooth, warm and chewy balls are more than food. They evoke many childhood memories."

The rice balls are favorites with workers in nearby office buildings since they provide rice for energy and egg for protein.

Address: 100 Nanyang Rd

Wonton soup and spicy noodles

These are two breakfast favorites at 88-year-old Meixin Snacks on Shaanxi Road N., which serves around 1,000 diners for breakfast and lunch every day. Shanghai and Ningbo dishes are the specialty.

It's not romantic, but it has a warm, homey feel.

The savory dumpling soup for 10 yuan contains pork and mixed greens including shepherd's purse and pork. The soup is very thick. Dumpling skins are smooth and elastic.

The spicy noodles with pork, also 10 yuan, is topped with tasty pepper sauce.

According to chef Xue Qiyong, the noodles are handmade daily from flour and eggs, so they are smooth, tender and chewy.

Also popular are the tang yuan (汤团) or glutinous rice balls, a typical Ningbo snack that is a must-have for the Lantern Festival during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations. The round shape symbolizes family reunion.

Sweet rice dumplings are made of black sesame, sugar and sweet osmanthus and savory dumplings are made with pork and dried shrimp. Uncooked dumplings can be ordered by those who want to cook them at home.

Address: 105 Shaanxi Rd N.

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164