Photograph by Tracie McMillan
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Vendors selling bing and soy milk at dawn outside the seafood wholesale market in Shanghai. When the market closes down this fall, they plan to move into a stationary restaurant nearby.

Photograph by Tracie McMillan

Eating China: Fast Food Surprises and Market Chaos

You never know what you might find to eat at a Shanghai seafood market before the sun rises.

We’ve been subsisting a lot on hotel breakfast buffets, which the business joints we’ve been staying in offer routinely. (And do fairly well with, I might add. They’ve not yet resorted to the waffle-batter foil cups and cereal dispensers common in U.S. business motels.) But recently, for logistical reasons, we took an overnight train—which meant no breakfast on offer. And that meant our first stop was KFC for iced lattes—a treat the chain introduced in China just last year—and then to a popular Taiwanese fast food chain for a taste of domestic fast food.

We got a bowl of warm, fresh soy milk; two baozi, one with pork filling, the other with sweet red bean; salty pickled vegetables to go in the corn porridge; fried dough sticks; a viscous soup of shredded seaweed and noodle-like slices of tofu skin; and, at my researcher’s insistence, a hard-boiled tea egg.

The standout, to my surprise, was the soy milk. In the U.S., soy milk is sweet and blandly silken. Here, it had appealing grassy notes, the same way that edamame does, and was a little bit coarse. it wasn’t a substitute for cow’s milk, but something entirely different—in the best way. And the youtiao—fried dough sticks—came in a close second; these are sold all over, including at street stands, and their light, airy and deliciously webbed interior reminds me of America’s beloved cruller donut. Much to my surprise, dough sticks aren’t sweetened, and are often stuffed into other things, like jianbing—the fried pancake that’s a popular street breakfast choice. More about that later.

A few days later, my researcher and I kicked off our visit to Shanghai’s wholesale markets with a visit to the seafood market, Tongchuan Lu, on the city’s north side. The visit gave us an up-close view of wholesale chaos, with all the muck and glory of it. Seafood, I can now tell you, is a particularly dirty busiess because everything depends on having water to keep the merchandise alive. Water pours out of trucks in great waterfalls, pools on the sidewalk with fish and frog guts, burbles in holding tanks, splashes out when catfish and eels escape; drains off the shrimp stacked in wire boxes. It’s fascinating, not very sanitary, and like nothing I’ve seen before.

There were large red banners up all over the market reminding vendors and buyers that it’s being closed on October 31, to make way, I’ve been told, for more modern development. The vendors will relocate into the city’s other wholesale markets, and this one—guts, puddles and all—will disappear.

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This vendor makes a thin crepe of wheat, corn, and soy flour batter, smears it with raw egg and bakes the whole thing on a griddle. He flips the crepe while it's still flexible, and then tops it with green onion, cilantro, a fried dough wafer, and a flavorful hot sauce.

Even wth all the guts and smells and dirty water—my researcher boldly wore flip flips—we were hungry by the time the sun started to come up. Luckily, there’s a phalanx of street vendors serving the market, and on our way out we stopped at one serving freshly made bing—baked layers of a flaky, oily dough, similar to the Caribbean roti you can get at the better shops in Brooklyn. We got a coupe wedges of them, cut into strips and stuffed into little plastic bags. Mine had been dusted with meaty seasoning power and some chile, giving it a nice morning kick. This time the soy milk was disappointingly watery.

Second to last stop was an all-purpose wholesale market. It’s a big, modern facility, and immaculate compared to Tongchuan Lu. We took so long at the seafood market that we arrived fairly late in the morning: 7 a.m. By then, most of the big wholesale vendors were packing up shop .But that led us to a surprisingly beautiful space: The pork wholesale cooler, which workers told us fills up around 1 a.m. Full capacity, they said, is between 7,000 and 8,500 half-hogs.

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Workers in the hog room at an urban wholesale market in Shanghai, just before their day ends at 7 a.m.

The busiest section was a stretch of vendors who’d set up sun tents and were selling multiple vegetables. Picture the most chaotic farmer's market you’ve been to in the U.S., except that two-thirds of the customer have decided to ride mopeds and motorcycles through the market instead of walking. It was a little much.

Luckily, I’d fueled up before we entered the market with a jianbing from a voluble vendor outside. This, my researcher said, is the way jinabing is supposed to be made; apparently, we’d consumed a subpar version earlier in the trip. (I had no idea.)

I was eyeing the youtiao at the vendor next door, who seemed to be giving our vendor some advice, but we got distracted and didn’t bother. I’m hoping there will be a next time so I can visit her, too.

McMillan traveled through China on assignment for National Geographic and sent us her observations on food and culture along the way. You can find other installments in our Eating China series here and here.