The culinary colonisation of the globe may now have us all eating the same old margherita pizzas and arrabiata pastas. But there is one last bastion of gastronomic independence: breakfast. The things we can bear to put in our stomachs right after rising are often the most culturally authentic things about us. And nowhere is that truer than in China.
Nobody loves things western more than the Chinese, but when the sun comes up on any Chinese city the east dominates the breakfast trade. Like their ancestors before them, even the most westernised Shanghainese queue up before bamboo towers of steamed buns, spitting woks of crispy bottomed dumplings and steaming vats of rice gruel, to eat food that proudly declares its Chineseness.
They’ve got nothing against a good cornflake here or there, just for variety, or even an Egg McMuffin on the run, but a soup-filled bun made with dollops of pork fat — the much-loved Shanghai shengjian mantou — goes straight to the heart of mainlanders like no cornflake ever could. And of course, all that fat, salt and carbohydrate goes straight to the heart muscle too. But reason not the nutrients: at its best, breakfast is not just food, it is more like love.
One young millennial queueing at the neighbourhood “baozi” or steamed bun stall in Shanghai’s former French concession, said he was there for a bit of a bun “chaser” to the bowl of Cheerios he had consumed at home. East meets west in this young man, who says he’s just as happy to draw from either menu for his first meal of the day. But when it comes to taste? China wins hands down.
China’s stubborn adherence to its bun-and-rice-gruel antecedents means that even western fast food restaurants such as KFC have to learn to wrap a steamed bun to survive in the mainland breakfast market. In fact, KFC’s rice porridge with pork and hundred-year-old egg is so popular at breakfast time — paired with a deep fried pastry or “youtiao” for a set meal as low as $1 — that it’s often sold out by the time I get there.
But for all that Shanghai loves its buns, street eats of all varieties are under threat in China, says Anna Greenspan, author of Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade. Soon after I moved to China in 2008, for example, the city tore down one of the most famous and best-loved food streets, Wujiang Road, leaving Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway in its place. “In the developed world, there is a renaissance of street food culture, with the food trucks,” she says. Not so in China, where street food markets are seen as unhygienic, noisy and just plain un-futuristic. In December, yet another famous Shanghai food street was demolished.
To add insult to injury Shanghai’s largest state-owned food group, Bright Food, recently bought the British breakfast icon Weetabix, and is working hard to introduce western shredded wheat and milk culture to China. Good luck with that. Weetabix seems to be tackling the snack market first, recently introducing green tea and dark chocolate Alpen cereal bars, just for the China market. But outside the Jiadeli supermarket, opposite the bun stall where UnTour took us, Yue Yumei, 53, says she’s never even heard of Weetabix. Vive la dumpling, I say: let them eat street food.