Shanghai is a city of 20 million people, and as far as I can tell, they ALL like to eat. A lot. This tendency works out really well for us, because there is always a new dining hot spot to try or a gorgeous produce stand around the corner.
Oh, and you can get delivery from pretty much any restaurant in the metro area if you can’t be bothered to leave the house–which may or may not be the case on days when the temperature has hit at least 101 F (38 C) while the humidity hovers around 60%.
In general, food is a big deal here, and one significant incarnation of this phenomenon is the proliferation of street vendors who cook and sell everything from dumplings to soup with noodles to kabobs to mysterious but tempting deep-fried concoctions. In the hustle and the bustle of city whose inhabitants are constantly rushing from one place to the next, often on foot, you can’t beat the convenience of this kind of ubiquitous ‘fast’ food. The morning street scene, in particular, is rife with people eating out of steaming paper bags or plastic sacks and drinking their yogurt beverages as they weave through the crowds on their way to work.
But to confess, I was wary of plunging into this manifestation of Shanghai culture. The good reason is that I’m pregnant and supposed to be more careful about what I eat and how it is prepared. However, the real reason is that, although I adore food, I’m pretty picky about trying new things and I’m definitely NOT that person who will pop something in her mouth first and ask what it is later. And I know it probably doesn’t make any logical sense, but for some reason it just feels safer to eat at a restaurant, where the food is prepared in an out-of-sight kitchen by someone you never see in circumstances you never encounter and then brought to you on a clean plate than to eat something that is prepared right in front of you and flung into a bag.
My scruples about ‘street food’ were eventually worn down, however, by the most intriguing of all roadside food performances: the creation of the ‘dan bing’ (or ‘jiao bing,’ depending on whom you ask). After gazing longingly from afar for a couple months, I finally broke down, stood in line, and told the lady that I would have the ‘same thing’ as the person in front of me–since at that time I didn’t know the name of the item I was asking for.
And here’s what happened. Step 1: Savory batter is ladled onto a hot griddle and spread into a very thin layer.
Step 2: A raw egg is cracked into the middle of the batter.
Step 3: The yolk is broken and the egg spread out across the rapidly cooking crepe.
Step 4: Toppings! The options are cilantro (coriander), green onion, some kind of dried shellfish (I’m guessing shrimp?), and black sesame seeds. Don’t worry–I’ll get to sauces later.
Step 5: Toppings are sprinkled (I took everything, of course…).
Step 6: The first fold. The masterpiece in progress is carefully scraped from the griddle and folded in half.
Step 7: Sauces! The dark brown one is sort of an oyster sauce, I think, and then the red one is a dollop of spicy chili and garlic.
Step 8: The second fold. The sauces are spread and the piece de resistance is inserted–a rectangular sort of rice crisp, which gets wrapped inside the crepe as it is folded into thirds.
Step 9: The whole thing is tossed unceremoniously into a plastic sack, and I drop my money into the appropriate container as I grab my breakfast.
Total time elapsed: 45 seconds–like, I could barely take pictures fast enough.
Total cost: 2.5 kuai (which translates to 37 US cents).
Total epicurean experience: pure delight. The contrast of spicy and savory, soft and crunchy, warm and cool, is brilliant.
And as I bike away, another eager customer pushes forward for her turn.
My only regret? That I didn’t try this months ago!
About the author:
Laura T is an American expat from the Pacific Northwest, former high school English teacher, current French Concession resident, mom of two gorgeous kids and a brand new ShanghaiMamas blogger. Yay!