We used to go only on days when the sun was out and the air was always full of tiny seed pods floating down from the trees. They got in our eyes, in our hair. Now we go there almost every day in spite of the downpours, the 1000% humidity, the unbearable heat.
This place is called Zhengsu Lu, a little snack street five minutes from where I have class. There’s a guy who sells baozi 包子 on the corner, whose vegetable buns my friend once described as 'like a warm hug'. Across the road, there's a wanton place with its legendary sesame chilli dipping sauce. On the corner, the fruit shop where the lady likes to chat to me about my family background while she chops the heads off pineapples with a giant cleaver.
There is a 拉面 noodle shop on Zhengsu Lu that we visit sometimes but not often, because the 老板 (the boss) is a bit of a creep who gets out his camera every time he sees us. But when he’s not around, it’s calming to watch his son stand in a cloud of flour, stretching and spinning long pieces of noodle dough. He throws the dough against the bench and it makes a whoosh-slap sound. The dough separates into thin strands and he chucks them in the boiling water. The noodles only need to cook for a minute before being tossed in a bowl with soy sauce, sticky fried spring onions, chopped coriander and lots of chilli oil. There’s nothing like the texture of real hand-pulled noodles made from dough you just watched being flung in circles in the air: fresh, springy, each noodle slightly a different size and shape.
Then there’s the dumpling shop run by two girls who wear matching orange caps. When I discovered their shengjianbao 生煎包, fried soup dumplings, it was like a new best friend flying into my life just when I needed them most. Almost perfectly round, a doughy but thin skin, filled with pork and chives and lots of hot soup. The best places fry them ‘face-down’ for a thicker, crispier base. I eat them sitting at one of the rickety tables by the street, shimmers of heat rising from the giant wok behind the counter.
But between the baozi stall and the dumpling stall is the most important one of all: the Bread Man. The Bread Man sells lots of different kinds of bing 饼. The word ‘饼’ is usually translated as ‘pancake’ or ‘cake’ but that doesn’t quite cut it; 饼 really encompasses anything flat and round and edible, often made with flour. The Bread Man makes savoury egg pancakes 鸡蛋饼, sesame pancakes 芝麻饼, spicy sesame pancakes 辣芝麻饼, pastries filled with red bean paste and lots of other types of 饼 I haven’t tried yet. We each have our own favourite. Mine is the sesame pancake.
When we lived in Shanghai when I was younger, my mum used to bring these home from her weekend morning walks. We had lazy feasts at the kitchen table: fresh sesame pancakes, boiled dumplings with vinegar and soy sauce. We wrapped leftover pieces of 饼 in greaseproof paper and stored them in the fridge for midnight snacking.
芝麻饼 is like a savoury flatbread, chewy but fluffy at the same time. The word ‘pancake’ is misleading but feels like the closest fit. Layers of dough are stretched and folded on top of each other before being rolled out into a circle, giving the 饼 a flaky texture and crisp outer crust, coated in crunchy sesame seeds. Soft, warm, golden. The taste of sesame oil and spring onions and a hint of garlic. The most satisfying crunch.
This was the Shanghainese comfort food I missed the most when we moved back to New Zealand. There were no recipes that I could find (in English at least) for this exact type of 饼. The next closest thing was spring onion pancakes, 葱油饼, the Northern Chinese fried equivalent. Sesame seeds appear nowhere in 葱油饼 recipes so I added them myself. I picked spring onions from my mum’s garden, bought fresh yeast and good quality flour. I spent an afternoon kneading the dough, letting it rise, rolling it out, then folding and re-folding the corners of each layer on top of one another, a bit like folding those little origami fortune tellers we used to make at school.
The resulting pancake was nothing like the real thing: dense, not light and fluffy. Too much time spend working the dough with my hands, not letting enough air in.
We went back to Wulumuqi Lu a few years later in search of our regular 饼 street vendor, but he was gone. It’s been ten years since then, though, and Shanghai’s 芝麻饼 taste just the same. A lot like home.
March and April feel really far away. Back then, everything was still new and overwhelming. The smell of plum blossoms everywhere and strawberries so soft they fell apart in my mouth. After going outside I’d run my fingers through my hair and those fluffy seeds from the trees would fall to the floor. Lots of rain then, too, but nothing like now.
It's June, which means I keep seeing this poem in various places on the internet. It is June. I am tired of being brave. Anne Sexton. The poem is beautiful but boy, it gets me down. It is late June and I am in Shanghai and I am not tired at all. June in Shanghai is for cold bubble tea, for kissing, for 3-yuan soft-serve ice creams and drizzle mixing with sweat on skin. When we touch we enter touch entirely. I think that's the line the poem should be remembered for.
I wander back to class along Zhengsu Lu in the afternoon heat, umbrella in one hand, ice cream in the other. The air has that pre-lightning feel to it. It is June.
What I've been listening to
- Yumi Zouma's latest album reminds me of peachy gold clouds on Wellington winter mornings. And when people ask me what my city is like, I just want to play them this.
- I got through 12 hours of bus travel between Huangshan and Shanghai this weekend by listening to The Heart, a podcast series of love stories and anti love stories and everything that's terrifying and beautiful about human intimacy.
What I’ve been reading
- In the horrifying wake of what happened in Orlando last week, I keep returning to this piece "Please Don't Stop the Music" by Richard Kim.
- Hera Lindsay Bird has a book called Hera Lindsay Bird coming out next month. While we wait, here's a poem by her called "Monica" that I first read a month ago and haven't stopped thinking about since because it is insane.
- My friend Jackson Nieuwland wrote a cool poetry chapbook called 100 which you can download here.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.