Breakfast for champs

A quick and dirty rundown of Shanghai's local breakfast food items.

I’ve been to fancy restaurants, cruise ship fine dining, 5 star hotel buffets and Bund life dining, really, the whole shebang. But somehow I always find myself back in line for my 1.5rmb 油条 (bing you tiao) breakfast. Maybe it’s the local in me. Maybe it’s the Chinese orange stools. All I know is I’m still a sucker for Shanghai street food. That’s why I want to introduce you guys to the different breakfast cuisines so you can try for yourselves. Special thanks to my dad for providing me with details about the prices and makings of these food items during his childhood days in old Shanghai.  

Let’s start with the classic 油条 (you tiao), which is a thin slice of dough rolled and fried in a pan until puffy and crispy. These fried breadsticks were sold for 4 cents thirty years ago and were seen as reasonably priced, staple breakfast food. Back then Chinese people could only purchase meal items with the limited amount of food stamps each family received. Unable to afford luxurious eats like meat and sweets, youtiao was often the alternative.


Next we have (da bing) also known as 烧饼 (shao bing), which is my personal favorite. This is basically flatbread made by flattening a small ration of dough and adding sugar or salt in the center, depending on your choice of sweet or savory. Bakers sprinkle sesame seeds on top and add a bit of water on the bottom of the dough before sticking it in a traditional Chinese tin can stove. Once the breads rise, they are taken out of the oven and placed in a row for customers to purchase as they rush to work. Take note that some dabing are thicker than others. The thicker layered ones (which are more filling) are made with more oil in the process whereas the thinner ones (which are crunchier) are made with added water. Savory dabing cost 3 cents whereas sweet dabing cost 4 cents in the past and now sell for about 1.2-1.5rmb on the streets. Many people like to wrap their youtiao with this flatbread to make a sandwich-like breakfast.


包子 (bao zi) are steamed buns that can be stuffed with various fillings such as meat, veggies and sweet paste. Chinese people tend to eat baozi in the morning and save the sweet type for dessert. Other steamed buns to look out for in restaurants or on the streets:

馒头 (man tou) – Steamed buns without fillings, mostly served with main dishes

(cha shao bao) – Cantonese steam buns stuffed with honey-glazed pork (my favorite)

(xiao long bao) – Delicately thin steamed buns that hold soup and meat (Shanghai classic)

生煎馒头 (shen jian man tou) – Fried baozi stuffed with meat and soup

豆沙包 (dou sha bao) – Steamed bun stuffed with red bean paste

奶黄包 (nai huang bao) – Steamed bun stuffed with yellow custard paste

 Meat filled baozi were sold for 7 cents in the past – something people only pay for if they really felt like splurging that day. Now they can be bought on the streets for 1.5rmb.

Can’t finish a local breakfast meal without your protein. 茶叶蛋 (cha ye dan), literally means tea egg in English. To prepare this, storeowners first cook hardboiled eggs before gently cracking them and placing them in a pot mixed with tealeaves and salt to boil. These eggs taste as good as they smell because they’ve usually been marinated for hours to allow the flavor to sink in. They are so good that I usually eat two in the morning before work or school.


I also like to eat 豆腐 (dou fu nao) while I have my dabing. This dish is created with soft tofu in a bowl added with pickled vegetables, dried baby shrimps, soybean sauce and chopped green onions. Soft tofu can be prepared as both savory and sweet, but Northern Chinese tend to eat savory for breakfast. Doufunao are sold for 1.5rmb on the streets now.


Lastly, almost every local breakfast restaurant will provide you the option of (dou jiang), which is sweet soybean milk. It’s basically soymilk with added sugar, which people like to drink warm while they chow down on their breakfast meal. It’s a shame that I’m allergic to this because the aroma of doujiang can be killer.


This is only a basic coverage of what a typical local shop can provide you in the morning. Different places can offer up different items including dumplings, potstickers, pulled noodles and pan-fried scallions. I encourage you to try as many of the local staple foods as you can, because they are freshly cooked in the morning and will cost you almost nil compared to the raid of pricey restaurants spreading across the city. Although these canonical food items are relatively cheap for Shanghai standards (let’s be real where will you find a meal cheaper than 3rmb?), it’s interesting to note that prices have risen between thirty to fifty times more since my father was a kid. This not only reflects Shanghai’s increasingly expensive living standards, but also the rapid inflation that we have been encountering in the last several years.

PS: All the photos in this post were taken at my favorite local breakfast shop. I refuse to eat at any other breakfast place because they honestly make the best sweet dabing ever.