Jiaozi: the life and soul of Shanghai
The government nursery school I work for in Shanghai 上海has three campuses all within 1km of each other. Right in the middle of this toddler triangle sits a small hole-in-the-wall eatery (小吃店 xiǎo chī diàn) serving Jiaozi (饺子 jiǎo zǐ) – boiled dumplings stuffed with meat, spices and herbs, along with exotic sides such as knots of dried kelp or duck’s neck. I first stumbled across “Authentic Shandong Specialty Jiaozi” (正宗山东特色水饺 zhèng zōng shān dōng tè sè shuǐ jiǎo) – let’s call it the “Jiaozi Kingdom” for short, whilst walking home from my first day at work. It was a sticky mid-September afternoon and I hadn’t yet found time to eat; that afternoon I ended up staying in the “Jiaozi Kingdom” for 3 hours slowly chomping my way through 50+ dumplings.
P – a friendly man named Beef Peace (牛和平 niú hé píng) is originally from Linyi 临沂, Shandong Province 山东 and can usually be found stirring Jiaozi from a large pot of boiling water precariously balanced between the eatery front and the street. Since moving to Shanghai, P’s family eatery has become a second home for me. In the evenings, his two children fill the room with laughter as customers come and go slurping, burping and chatting to one another.
The significant socio-economic value these eateries (as well as street food vendors) bring to local communities has been overlooked and as such research, statistics and academic literature is lacking. Whatsmore, the industry’s status as an informal economy further complicate the acquisition of concrete and reliable figures. Hence the research in the following story was conducted by myself and in Chinese as I relentlessly tried to decipher notes and figures from food-stained pages.
Food is the bloodline of Shanghainese cultural heritage yet government crackdowns on small eateries and street food vendors in 2016 were received with mixed emotions. Those disbanded by local law enforcement officers (城管chéng guǎn) never returned, ridding owners one-by-one of their livelihoods . In Beijing, following the aftermath of the crackdown, netizens on Weibo said the city was “killing its street food” . However, the logic behind the crackdown wasn’t entirely irrational; noise and air pollution from street BBQs declined and general safety increased as those precarious large pots of boiling water and naked gas fires were taken away.
Beneath the gentrification and beyond the Bund with its surrounding 3.3 million square metres currently under construction (figure from 2015)  lie the original streets of Shanghai which provide an abundance of food to locals including: crispy yellow crab cake (蟹壳黄xiè ké huáng), roasted sweet potato (烤地瓜kǎo dì guā), smelly tofu (臭豆腐chòu dòu fǔ), tea eggs (茶叶蛋chá yè dàn), bubble tea (奶茶 nǎi chá) and egg tarts (蛋挞 dàn tà). In the mornings, disorderly queues bend around corners as people toss baozi into frail plastic bags. At midday, holes-in-the-wall hustle and bustle as people stop by to grab a quick meal, or takeaway drivers dash in to pick up food parcels for someone in an office somewhere. In the evenings, the streets are lit up by flashing neon lights and a million different smells wafting in all directions.
When you walk into the “Jiaozi Kingdom” you find yourself slightly blinded by the excessively bright lights bouncing off the white-tiled walls. To your left there is a fridge, a small kitchen area and half of the boiling water pot. To your right, P’s wife and mother are usually sat stuffing, folding and pinching the Jiaozi. Step down into the back of the restaurant and you find yourself in an enclosed space holding 6 tables, 26 plastic stools, a working fan, a broken air-con and shelves stacked with all things pickled. Back in the doorway P’s wife and mother are sat stuffing, folding and pinching. Less than a teaspoon of filling is placed at the center of the dough which delicately rests in the palm of one’s hand – the edges are squidged together and you end up with a dumpling that somewhat resembles an ear. Above these tables reads a bright China-red menu covering the entire the wall – translated below:
(10RMB for 14, 14RMB for 20, 19RMB for 28)
- 白菜肉馅 (bái cài ròu xiàn) cabbage & mincemeat
- 韭菜肉馅 (jiǔ cài ròu xiàn) leek & mincemeat
- 芹菜肉馅 (qín cài ròu xiàn) celery & mincemeat
- 韭菜鸡蛋馅 (jiǔ cài jī dàn xiàn) leek & egg
(12RMB for 14, 16RMB for 20, 22RMB for 28)
- 香菇肉馅 (xiāng gū ròu xiàn) shiitake mushroom & mincemeat
- 荠菜肉馅 (jì cài ròu xiàn) shepherd’s purse & mincemeat
- 三鲜肉馅 (sān xiān ròu xiàn) three varieties of mincemeat
- 鲜肉馅 (xiān ròu xiàn) seafood
(14RMB for 14, 19RMB for 20, 25RMB for 28)
- 牛肉馅 (niú ròu xiàn) beef stuffing
- 羊肉馅 (yáng ròu xiàn) mutton stuffing
(At the time of writing, 1RMB = £0.11 / $0.15)
Jiaozi 饺子are one of the oldest foods in the history of Chinese civilization. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Zhang Zhongjing 張仲景 a prominent Chinese writer, physician, and inventor of the Eastern Han dynasty, noticed that upon returning to his hometown many of his loved ones were suffering from frostbitten ears. He took scraps of dough and stuffed them with mincemeat and seasoning; he then folded them to look like ears, boiled them and fed them to the village –ultimately curing them of their frozen little ears. The popularity of Jiaozi grew with each generation, spreading throughout mainland China and beyond. Jiaozi (饺子 jiǎo zǐ) are phonetically identical to jiaozi (交子jiāo zǐ), the first paper money invented during the Song Dynasty (960AD –1279AD). These small, boiled, succulent dumplings have become synonymous with money over time and nowadays are consumed at Chinese New Year as a metaphor for eating money. The symbolic nature of jiaozi饺子 is profound as certain fillings can represent specific wishes – for example those filled with dates (枣子zǎo zǐ) and chestnuts (栗子 lì zǐ) supposedly represent the imminent arrival of a son where the word for dates is homonymic with early (早 zǎo) as the character(子zǐ from chestnuts is with children (孩子 hái zǐ).
P’s “Jiaozi Kingdom” is run day in, day out and is open 16 hours a day for 7 days a week. The busiest times of day are between 8:00 – 9:30, 11:00 – 14:30, 17:00 – 20:00 and then a stable, constant flow of customers until closing at midnight. I asked P once how many Jiaozi they make in a day and the best response I got was: “A lot”. So… over the period of a week I sat in the “Jiaozi Kingdom” at various times of the day and found that the average person spends 16RMB. They order immediately as they walk in and from street-stool have their Jiaozi served in 4:21 minutes. Generally, people will stay for 23 minutes (although the range is between 12 – 98 minutes and varies depending on whether the customer is alone or in a group). During the busy times, P receives an average of 32 customers every hour. If there is no space to sit down, people will stand in the street or linger until a space becomes available.
Life at the “Jiaozi Kingdom” might sometimes feel monotonous stuffing, folding, pinching, stuffing, folding, pinching. Nothing changes and the daily routine isn’t dissimilar. But like so many other holes-in-the-wall, the “Jiaozi Kingdom” not only provides the local community with a reliable, quick and cheap source of food, but it acts as a means of social inclusion . And it is this community that unearth Shanghai’s true character. Once, on a quiet Tuesday evening a group of raucous elderly people barged in; one was wearing a t-shirt that read “f*ck mi dog” with a cartoon cat below. The group of three women and two men commanded their Jiaozi from P ordering well over 100 between the 5 of them. On the surface, the average customer is typically male, wears inexpensive clothing and is between the age of 19 – 35. Yet if you go deeper you begin to break the surface of Shanghai’s local food economy and understand exactly who this community is.
During peak hours, groups of friends of all ages clamber over scattered stalls to find space to eat – slurping, burping and chatting. A report by Beijing-based Dianping and Meituan which offer delivery and food-ordering services, estimated that in 2016 China spent 3.5 trillion yuan (£390 billion or, $507 billion) on dining out – with hot pot seizing the market share at 22% . If you put that figure into context … the total amount the Chinese spent on eating out in 2016 was greater than the GDP of Sweden (according to recent figures from the World Bank). Can one empathise with Shanghai for striving for a modern, cosmopolitan and pristine city when the process of gentrification is stripping the city of its character and knocking the old out from under its feet. It’s impossible to say whether little holes-in-the-wall like the “Jiaozi Kingdom” are likely to be under threat any time soon, but as fish and chips is to Brits, Jiaozi are to the Chinese – and they are here to stay.
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