Over the past five years, the Chinese government-led campaign to close down street food vendors and small hole-in-the-wall shops has been extremely successful. But the Covid pandemic has led China’s residents to push back. When Premier Li Keqiang praised Chengdu’s “street vendor economy” for generating 100,000 jobs after the pandemic had peaked in the foodie mecca, Shanghai locals celebrated, hoping that their favorite roving street food stalls would once again find a place on the city’s streets.
While there have been more and more sightings of vendors stir-frying rice noodles in portable woks on sidewalks around the city over the past few months, the Shanghai government has made it clear that most of the new vendors will be more in the style of fancy food trucks serving Western dishes (like tacos, or even Starbucks) at regulated night markets – and thus well out of budget for most migrant workers who bring their hometown flavors to the city on wooden pushcarts.
But while we may be missing street food stalls, it has been encouraging to see new restaurants popping up left and right, especially since many restaurants closed during the initial stages of the pandemic. (China has been relatively open since April, which may account for this reversal.) In another sign of the times, the trend seems to be toward foods that evoke nostalgia and with a low price point.
One such place is the newly opened Country Food Market, founded by Patrick Lin. A serial entrepreneur, Lin left his hometown of Fuyang, a city about an hour’s south of Hangzhou with more than half a million people and almost 2,000 years of history, to study golf course design in Scotland for university. But when he returned to China, he decided to open a café in Beijing first, then a gourmet popcorn brand in 2011 with stores around the country. With flavors ranging from the traditional (caramel, cheese) to the unusual (Thai durian, seaweed), his popcorn has a cult following on Taobao (China’s version of Amazon). Now he’s focusing on the cuisine of his hometown, and serving it at prices that make it affordable to anyone in the city.
More than just a business, Country Food Market is an extension of Lin’s hometown.
More than just a business, Country Food Market is an extension of Lin’s hometown. He brings in a lot of the local specialty ingredients and raw materials from Fuyang, including a deep-fried mantou (steamed bun) made with special fermented rice (酒酿), which you can also buy as a drink in the shop – think of it as Chinese sourdough. He also gets the stinky tofu that comes stuffed between a sliced bun from a laozihao (Chinese time-honored brand) in Fuyang that has been making a mild version of the dish for decades. If you consider stinky tofu to be the blue cheese of the soybean world, this is delicate, more Gorgonzola than Roquefort, and one of the most popular dishes on the menu.
And to ensure the authenticity of the food, Lin hired a local chef from Fuyang. Now in her 60s, she owned a popular restaurant in Fuyang for years that was forced to close during the pandemic period. Lin jumped at the opportunity to hire her and bring his childhood memories to life in Shanghai.
Other dishes on the menu worth trying include 面疙瘩 (mian ge da – “noodle lumps”). Typically a peasant stew made for hard winters, the soup traditionally stretches what’s left over and usually includes plain flour lumps (think drop dumplings or spaetzle) and cabbage. At Country Food Market, it’s heartier, with a gaotang or superior stock base of pork and chicken bones that have been stewed for hours before being topped with baby bok choy. The titular “lumps” are a robust dollop of a starch that lands somewhere between unstuffed dumpling and fat, unmolded noodle – it almost looks like a chunk of white fish bobbing up and down in the broth. A splash of vinegar and a spoonful of the chef’s homemade chile sauce (which you can – and should – buy by the jar at the restaurant) brings out the flavors and drives this right to the top of the list of local winter comfort foods.
The menu will change with the seasons, just like it does back in the countryside. Mooncakes stuffed with meat are available now as Mid-Autumn Festival arrives, but chewy cakes made from pounded glutinous rice and stuffed rice cakes are just around the corner for the winter season.