Lately the weather in Shanghai reminds me of when I was fourteen, when I went to high school here, when we used to sit on the grass outside Starbucks after school drinking mango smoothies and watching boys with bad haircuts skateboard across the hot concrete. It always smelled like sweat and damp grass. As May got closer it rained more and more. It was hot, but nothing like the bright shockwave of heat that always came in June. Summer was just within reach, and we were restless.
Certain foods attach themselves to memories. Memories attach themselves to foods. My earliest memories are the ones where I can smell or taste something: two-minute noodles and pink plastic chopsticks, apple juice in green cups, chocolate ice cream covered in sprinkles, buttered toast with the crusts cut off, peeling the thin rice paper off the bottom of warm, fluffy char-siu bao.
It’s when I’m sitting on the grass doing my homework after class that the teenage-dream pre-summer smell hits me. It must be something to do with the late afternoon light, the warmth, the terrible humidity that’s making my hair frizzier each day.
And since I spend lots of time thinking about food, and since I’m back in Shanghai now after eight years, all the taste-memories come rushing back: crispy dumplings, spring onion and sesame pancakes, Starbucks blueberry muffins (which, I discovered yesterday, still taste the same), cinnamon-coated pretzels, chocolate milk, waffle fries from the cafeteria, peach iced tea, and warm pineapple buns.
I can’t remember my first pineapple bun. I think it must have been when I was around ten. Whenever we travelled to see family in Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong, pineapple buns were a daily staple. They were everywhere, not just in every bakery but in every supermarket and café, their bright yellow tops shining happily out of shop windows alongside rows of egg tarts and brittle sesame cookies.
Like me, and like most things I love to eat, pineapple buns (boluo bao, 菠萝包) are not fancy. They’re usually the size of a bagel and made of fluffy, sweet dough with a crumbly, sugary, bright yellow coating on top. That’s it. They come from Hong Kong and are listed by the government of Hong Kong as part of the city’s official cultural heritage. You can find them in Chinese bakeries all over the world.
The name in Chinese literally means “pineapple bread” but the bun contains no trace of actual pineapples, as far as I can tell. The only link, as my Aunty Bin pointed out to me in a comment on my Instagram post (thanks, Aunty Bin) is that when the yellow topping is decorated in a criss-cross pattern it vaguely resembles a pineapple. But the name is perfect nonetheless, full of sunshine yellow.
In Shanghai, I pass several bakeries on my usual route between the university and the subway station. I usually end up biking home with a paper bag in my basket that has a warm boluobao inside. Even when I eat them in mid-winter—or perhaps especially—they remind me of sun, tropical heat, and family.
In Wellington we don’t have any Chinese bakeries (correct me if I’m wrong, and also take me there as soon as I get back) but we do have a decent-ish selection of yum cha restaurants. Here, towards the end of the lunch hour, servers carry around trays of sweet treats (the Wellington yum cha scene still hasn’t graduated to trolleys) including egg tarts, peanut cakes, pink gelatinous rice things, mango pudding, and pineapple buns straight out of the oven (er, microwave).
On the brink of collapsing into the familiar meat-and-carb yum cha coma, we usually lower our eyes as the trays approach. “No, we’re finished, thank you,” we mutter. And then one brave person calls out: “Wait—we’ll just take some boluo bao.”
Mooncakes, the cakes eaten during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, are meant to look like little moons. Pineapple buns look like shining suns. The kind served at yum cha restaurants are smaller and brighter yellow, sometimes with rich custard baked into the middle. Even after eating twice your weight in dumplings and spring rolls, you can’t resist the smell: like warm sugar and butter and freshly baked bread all rolled into one. The exact stuff dreams are made of.
For a long time I didn’t actually know what boluobao were called in English.
My introduction to Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka, the three languages my mum and her family can all speak, was through food. The first Mandarin words she taught me when I was little were niunai, milk, and mianbao, bread (I guess because I was a little kid who ate a lot, and still does).
Along with boluobao, I grew up with Cantonese dim sum classics such as hagao (steamed shrimp dumplings), shaomai (shrimp and pork dumplings), char siu bao (BBQ pork buns), and luobogao (turnip cake). It was only when I got older and ate dim sum with my friends that I realised I didn’t know the English names. To me, English words don’t quite exist for them. “Steamed shrimp dumpling” could mean any old shrimp dumpling, not the delicately folded spheres with translucent skin that are hagao. Until we moved to China when I was twelve, these were the only scraps of Cantonese and Mandarin that I knew. But I knew them well.
It’s with words like these that I’ve always managed to communicate with my grandma, Popo, who doesn’t speak English. Ni chi le ma? Chibao le ma? Have you eaten? Are you full? The last time we visited I asked her how to make one of her simple chicken curries. After dinner the three of us sat round the table: Popo explaining the steps in Hakka, Mum translating into English, me writing everything down. In the background I could hear my Gung Gung watching a Cantonese soap opera, and the tiny clicking sounds of moths and mosquitoes flying at the netted windows.
The sun is out when I stop by Tsui Wah Restaurant & Bakery on my way home. I didn’t know this place existed until something caught my eye as I walked past one day not long ago: a man coming out of the kitchen carrying an enormous tray of enormous shiny buns, straight from the oven, steam still rising from them, and sliding them one by one into the bakery cabinet. I stopped in my tracks. Since then, I’ve been a regular.
Shanghainese people really know how to snack. I consider myself a very experienced snacker, but the truth is I know nothing. Here, entire floors of giant supermarkets are devoted to snacks: crackers, nuts, cakes, cookies, candy, dried fruits, dried meat, dried fish, dried octopus, dried everything. The Chinese bakery is a crucial part of this #snacklife. At all hours of the day it is crammed full of grannies and grandpas piling their trays full of pastries, buns, and several loaves of bread. At first I thought it couldn't possibly be all for them but now I'm not so sure. If so, they're living the dream.
The warm smell of the bakery wafts out into the street. Sugar, yeast, melted butter. Standing in the pineapple-bun queue, I can see right into the kitchen where two bakers wearing white hats roll pieces of dough into fat balls. For the crumbly topping, the most important part, they cut what look like large sheets of golden pastry into squares and lay each square over each bun. They brush them generously with egg for extra shine. I try to get a sneaky photo but one of them sees me, then laughs at me for a full minute. I guess no one’s tried to photograph unbaked pineapple buns before.
If you don’t get your pineapple bun dabao (to-go), it arrives at your table on a plate, cut in half and with an astonishingly thick slice of butter in the middle. Let’s be clear: I’m a firm believer in butter. But there’s a time and a place for it (crumpets, waffles, hot cross buns). “Buttered pineapple bun” may be the cutest nickname in the world, but the fact is: a pineapple bun is beautiful and satisfying enough on its own, best enjoyed while biking home at night or wandering through the streets in the late afternoon.
Homesickness comes in waves but there are many known cures, even for the biggest ones. Usually it’s the lack of colour here that makes me want to be somewhere else.
So I notice things. At the fruit shop where a lady sits carving pineapples out front, I take note of all the colours and try to fill myself up with them. Sunny mangoes, fuschia-pink dragonfruit, blood oranges, watermelons, blush-orange papaya, strawberries so red and soft they look about to burst. I notice when the gutters are full of crushed plum blossoms from last night’s rain. At night I take note of the sky: tonight it is a thick, dark, burning purple. I notice the city lights at night, the way they disperse weirdly in the fog, pink and green clouds eating each other above the buildings. And I read as much as I can. I eat whatever makes me happy. I seek out sunshine. However weak and hazy it might be, it’s there. I feel it.
Last weekend we sat squeezed together on a bench in a narrow lane, eating noodles out of cardboard containers balanced on our knees. It had begun to rain. It’s only April but it had the taste of summer rain: warm, fragrant, heavy. We were deep inside the maze of little lanes known as Tianzifang 田子坊. The place was packed full of tourists. We sat out of the way of the sea of umbrellas, blinking rain and steam out of our eyes.
Where tourists abound in Shanghai, so does overpriced Western food. We could have picked anything: waffles, sandwiches, New York style pizza, Chicago style pizza, spaghetti Bolognese. We’d taken a bus and changed subway lines three times to get here. But when you’re tired and hungry and your feet ache and it’s starting to rain, there is only one thing that will do.
When I learned that cōngyóu bànmiàn 葱油拌面 (literally spring onion oil mixed noodles) existed in the world, I knew they would become a big part of my life. The dish consists of a bowl of fine hand-pulled noodles tossed with spring onion-infused oil, dark soy sauce (the thicker, less salty kind), and strips of spring onions (scallions, if you’re American) that have been fried until dark, bittersweet, almost crisp and caramelised.
This is the Shanghai version of cacio e pepe: simple, satisfying, beautiful. Like with most Italian pasta dishes, the magic lies in the noodles-to-sauce ratio. Here, the ratio usually sits it an excellent 7:3. A modest amount of sauce, and an unspeakably huge amount of noodles.
The chef spoons the oil and the crispy onions over a thick wad of noodles. You use your chopsticks to mix it all together yourself. Then you demolish them. With practice, you learn not to regret it. You learn to think of those fried spring onions as a real, genuine part of your daily vegetable intake. You learn to prioritise happiness.
Cōngyóu bànmiàn are sometimes called ‘bànmiàn’ for short. At breakfast and lunchtime (and dinner, if you’re me) people shout these two short syllables across counters and tabletops all over Shanghai. The sharp falling tone of each word makes me want to say them louder, to give them more oomph, a bit like saying a swear word. Sometimes the lady at the cashier knows what’s up before the second syllable has left my mouth. She nods, serious and businesslike. Girl’s gotta get her bànmiàn.
It’s become a kind of ritual. I ride my bike there after class, I order my noodles, I collect my chopsticks from the little chopstick washer and dispenser that hums pleasantly in the corner, and I sit at the bench full of people eating alone. More than half are eating bànmiàn.
Back in Wellington I do things alone all the time during daylight hours. I work, I eat, I write, I go for walks. But at night, things change. At night, aloneness in a public space means strange looks and unwanted attention. It means knowing the quickest, safest route. It means pretending to talk on the phone and gripping your keys tightly in your pocket.
But here, maybe like all big cities, aloneness is part of the city itself. I never feel unsafe. I walk long distances with my earphones in, never once needing to cross the road to avoid someone. I ride my bike through the quiet campus without glancing behind me. I order my noodles and eat them in peace, and for a little while, I don’t feel like an outsider anymore.
Today there were three downpours. The first coincided with me needing to get to class. I stepped out of my building and wondered if I would actually make it; I had never seen so much water fall out of the sky, never heard it make so much noise. Rain streamed down the sides of my umbrella and splashed me in the face. Bikes and scooters tore through the water, small waves breaking against the footpath. In between downpours the air smelled like mud and crushed flowers.
It rained again as I walked to my closest dumpling-and-noodle joint called 豫申园 for dinner. It’s not my favourite but it’s the cheapest, which counts for a lot when you live in a Shanghai on a student budget. The road was splashed across with pink and green from the neon lights above the street. Steam, or smog, seemed to be rising from it.
I could smell my noodles before they reached me: warm, bitter, a little sweetness mixed with the sharp smell of soy sauce. Like all best foods, bànmiàn are messy. They’re impossible to eat with any degree of restraint or attractiveness. Another benefit to eating alone is that the only person you can splatter with soy sauce is yourself. With each bite I feel increasingly powerful and glorious.
The man next to me devoured his bànmiàn alongside a plate of six fluffy, crispy, soupy shengjianbao 生煎包. This is a level of Shanghai hardcore I have not yet reached. But I’m getting there.
Each time I’m at a new place where the menu is only in Chinese, I take a picture of it on my phone and later look up the words I don’t know. This is how I discover new ways to eat.
葱, cōng, is one of my favourite characters. It’s complex and messy but also elegant, made up of twelve short strokes that fit closely together like a cluster of leaves. Or like the dark shreds of crisp onions left in the bottom of the bowl. When 葱 is combined with 绿, lü, which means ‘green’, it becomes ‘lush green’: bright green, verdant. A colour you see everywhere in New Zealand. A colour you don’t see here. Except in the food: handfuls of this colour sprinkled over dumplings, into bowls of noodles, over pieces of dough being kneaded and rolled out by the old man in the white cap. I can taste it.
At 11:45am on a Saturday I wait in line at my local Yang's Dumplings. It smells like hot oil and toasted sesame seeds. Steam gathers near the ceiling. As the peak lunch rush approaches, noise in the food court builds.
The regulars and the serving staff are used to me by now. Only a few older aunties stare, and when I look back at them they look away. A little boy waiting in line behind me bumps into me. His father apologises in English. "Mei guanxi," I reply. It's all good. He looks surprised for half a second, then turns back to his phone. "Wo è si le," the little boy moans repeatedly. I'm starvingggg. Me too, little bro.
There are no seats, only one long stainless steel bench where grandmas and their grandkids sit elbow-to-elbow, shovelling soup and dumplings into their mouths. I can't read the menu but it doesn't matter since there are only two separate windows where you queue for two different kinds of dumplings: the famous shēngjiānbāo 生煎包, fried soup dumplings, and guōtiē 锅贴, pan-fried dumplings. I hand the chef my order receipt and he piles four fat guōtiē into a plastic container. He points me towards the vinegar-and-chopsticks station before remembering I already know where it is. He chuckles.
I eat them standing there under the fluorescent lights, right next to the chopsticks-and-vinegar station. First the crunch, then hot soup scalds my tongue–I wasn't expecting soup–then gingery, garlicky meat in the middle. I've got soup in my hair and all over my chin and there's a grandma staring at me who finds it hilarious, but I don't care. I take one bite, and every single worry melts away. I take one bite and I'm home and away from home at exactly the same time.
During my first week in Shanghai, I tried all kinds of dumplings I can't find at home. But after six days I needed something familiar. I needed comfort food that was something other than Oreos.
Guōtiē 锅贴 (literally potstickers) are the pan-fried version of shuĭjiăo 水饺, boiled dumplings. I love both kinds equally and which one I choose depends on my mood, the time of day (breakfast or lunch means shuĭjiăo, dinner means guōtiē) and whether or not I've waited an acceptable length of time (two days, or one if feeling fearless) between eating a lot of fried food.
The first time I tried real guōtiē—not the sad, withered kind you can get at Chinese takeaway shops in Wellington—I was twelve. We had just moved to Shanghai from New Zealand, and everything about the city was loud and bright and bad-smelling. Like all expat families here, we had a housekeeper. Her name was Xu Ayi.
There is nothing like the sound of water hissing as it hits the wok and the lid being clamped down over it. Xu Ayi made dumplings in our kitchen almost every day. I came home from school to the smell of vinegar and the sound of her smashing cloves of garlic on the kitchen counter. I used to watch her mix Shaoxing wine with soy sauce and a cold beaten egg, then add minced pork, chives, garlic, ginger and white pepper to the blue-rimmed enamel bowl.
She showed us how to fold the dumplings but my mum and I were never very good. Her expert fingers sealed each one shut with precisely four folds spaced evenly along one side of the curve. On a plastic tray that had strings of blue roses printed along the edges, she laid them all out like rows upon rows of tiny crescent moons.
We took her recipe home with us, tried to recreate them. They were good enough; we made them almost every week. We got very good at folding. But the filling, the xiànr 馅儿, was never quite the same. The difference was never something we could pinpoint. It wasn’t to do with the ingredients but the texture, the ratio of crunch-to-soft, the feel of holding one between two chopsticks. Maybe it’s impossible to recreate the exact weight of a memory. But we keep trying.
Tonight I walked down the road to my nearest dumpling joint, the name of which I can’t yet read. The staff wear orange t-shirts and the girl at the counter has stick-on jewels on her nails. At 7 o’clock, long after most families have gone home, young people are grouped together at tables but are actually eating alone, watching TV shows on their iPhones propped up against the chopstick dispensers. No one looks up when I sit down.
The guōtiē are cheapest here, 5元 for a plate of four. The skin is almost as thick as the dough used for shēngjiānbāo 生煎包 which makes for extra crunchy bottoms. They come sprinkled with black sesame seeds and chopped spring onions. These Shanghai guōtiē, the kind you can get at street stalls all over the city, are unique. They are big, heavy, and filled with soup as well as meat.
They taste a little bit like home: like eating breakfast with my mum with the radio on in the background, or eating dinner in my one-bedroom Kelburn flat with the windows steamed up. They taste like that one winter in Beijing when I thought I might die from cold and homesickness and dumplings were the only cure. They also taste like a new place. Black sesame, much sweeter vinegar than the kind I’m used to. Thick skin.
Walking home after dinner, I paused before crossing the road to watch clouds of steam rising in the dark above the man tossing strips of meat in hot chilli oil and sesame paste at his food cart. I got distracted by the sky; although well after dark, it was purple and burnt orange around the edges. I keep noticing what smoke does to the sky here. The way smoke warps light and colour. Forgetting for a moment that green walking signals are meaningless, I almost walked into the path of a bus.
But today a girl asked me for directions in Chinese and I could actually give them to her—in Chinese. I’m learning. I’m learning to cross the road like I know where I’m going. I’ve learnt to stab the dumpling with one chopstick to let the hot soup cool before biting down.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.