When the nationalist Kuomintang army retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing to Mao’s communist forces, the island experienced a sudden influx of immigrants from around Mainland China, many ripped from their homeland and moved into crowded, hastily-assembled housing complexes.
These gave rise to tenement communities, called military villages (眷村, juàncūn). During the years after the war, these new immigrants kept the memory of their hometowns alive, recreating the dishes of their childhood but – out of necessity – using local ingredients and adapting the recipes.
Out of this homesickness arose a new type of Taiwanese cooking called Military Village Cuisine (眷村菜, juàncūn cài), tweaking such Chinese classics such as beef noodle soup, zhajiang noodles and stir-fried bacon and turning them into something uniquely their own.
Breakfast foods were no exception, and we are very glad to see Shanghai embrace Taoyuan Village. We’re not sure how the name got by the censors (the direct Chinese translation of the name is Taoyuan Military Village) as any reference to the great China divide – however obscure – is usually killed off quickly by government bureaus.
However, the hearty breakfast fare of this Taiwanese import is being happily and hungrily embraced by throngs of local diners, eager to dig into Taoyuan Village’s specialties: soy milk 豆浆, dòujiāng), Chinese crullers (油条, yóutiáo), stuffed rice balls (饭团, fàntuán) and flaky flatbread (烧饼,shāobǐng).
While prices here are higher than you would find at street vendors, Taoyuan makes up for the discrepancy in quality and freshness – there are no concerns here about old oil or odd additives. All of the branches feature an open kitchen, where you can watch your crullers puff into long, golden batons of airy dough. Added bonuses are the well-designed interiors – open, bright and with free wi-fi – encouraging you to post up here for an afternoon and watch the world go by.
The menu is laid out in traditional slats on the wall behind the ordering counter (all in Chinese).
Soy milks across-the-board are outstanding, boasting that subtle, creamy nuttiness that only comes across when soybeans are high quality and freshly pressed. Of the seven options, savory soy milk (咸豆浆, xián dòujiāng) is our favorite, a bowl with floating continents of soft tofu, adorned with nuggets of cruller, pickled mustard root, green onion and dried seaweed. Drizzled with fragrant vinegar and chili oil, the breakfast dish is utterly beguiling, full of umami richness and bites of silky and crisp textures in turn.
Sweet tooths will appreciate the other soy milk options, such as the classic sweetened with sugar (甜豆浆, tián dòujiāng) or soy milk sweetened with red dates (红枣豆浆, hongzao doujiang), the dried fruit lending a caramelized, honey-like sweetness to the bowl. The classic accompaniment to both is a cruller. Do as the locals do: dip your cruller into the soy milk and devour. For dessert, sweet tofu (甜豆花, tián dòuhua) is more silken than milk, dressed with peanuts boiled in osmanthus syrup and drizzled with golden syrup.
Rice balls are essentially rice burritos without the tortilla and Taoyuan’s are particularly good, as the rice itself is fragrant and flavorful, sticky but still holding its individual grain. We particularly love the one filled with Taiwanese sausage (香肠饭团, xiāngcháng fàntuán). Grilled until the juices run, the sausage is scented with anise and black pepper, accompanied by pork floss (肉松, ròusōng), pickled radish and mustard root, fried egg and deep-fried cruller, so that all of the textures and flavors mingle together.
Best of all, this spot is not just for early risers. Those looking for a late-morning meal, lazy afternoon snack or even for a way to satisfy a late-night craving are in luck: Taoyuan is open until 2:30 a.m. every night (a freshly-fried cruller and bowl of soy milk go down well after a cocktail or four on a Saturday night).