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Chinese Takeout: The Last Days of Tangyuan

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Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, bi-weekly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.

For the Wu family, this year’s “tangyuan festival” is somewhat bittersweet.

China’s Lantern Festival, which falls on the fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year — this year on Tuesday, February 19 in the Gregorian calendar — is closely associated with tangyuan (汤圆), or stuffed glutinous rice balls. The dish is consumed during the traditional family reunion that marks this festival, which itself signals the end of the Chinese New Year period.

As owners of a tangyuan shop in Shanghai’s Laoximen area for almost 15 years, this would normally be the busiest time of year for the Wus. Now that adjacent stores are sealed off for redevelopment, however, it’s uncertain how many more bowls they’ll serve before the bulldozers descend.

The Place

Mr. and Mrs. Wu first arrived in Shanghai in 2005, leaving their family home in nearby Anhui province in search of a better life. “We were drawn to the hustle and bustle of Laoximen,” explains Mr. Wu. “It seemed like a good place to start business.”

handmade tangyuan shanghai

That business has depended on the numerous residents living in the vicinity of their shop. Until three years ago, many of these families lived in the traditional Shanghai-style lanehouse compound directly opposite their eatery. But once these were zoned off to make way for newer development projects, the shop not only lost a treasured community, but also a major source of income.

It’s a story that is repeating itself all over Shanghai, as the city’s historic housing makes way for high-rises and identikit shopping malls.

“Our neighbors trust the quality of our food. They keep us going,” says Mrs. Wu. That trust might not amount to any considerable profit (each tangyuan is sold at 2.5 RMB, equivalent to just 0.40 USD), but it just covers the exorbitant rent for the tiny 15 sqm of space.

The History

Laoximen was once the “Old West Gate” to Shanghai’s now almost entirely-demolished city wall (a scrap just a few meters long is all that remains today). Its intricate network of alleyways, lanehouses, temples and churches are one of the few remaining areas that bely an almost 500-year-history in the city, yet it’s an area that is rapidly shrinking.

Over the course of the last two decades, more than half of Laoximen’s buildings have been razed to the ground.

Residents like the Wus, who try to continue their lives and businesses as usual, are what keep this sliver of Laoximen’s history alive. Throughout the day locals mingle freely in this area — cooking in communal kitchens, examining each other’s grocery baskets, and exchanging tidbits of gossip at the neighborhood eateries.

The Food

The story of tangyuan is as old as Laoximen’s age-old way of life, but most glutinous rice balls these days are found inside a supermarket freezer. Artisanal shops such as Huangshan Tangyuan have become a novelty to behold.

Preparation begins at 4am sharp, starting with the glutinous rice, which after soaking overnight is milled, bagged, drained under a homemade press, and refrigerated to form a hunk of malleable dough.

The result? Sticky, chewy, and fragrant tangyuan exteriors that outshine their sandy, mass-produced counterparts.

“The locals like eating a mix of sweet and savoury tangyuan for breakfast, so we have one of each option,” says Mrs. Wu, who knows all of their orders by heart. On the sweet front, they carry the classic ground black sesame with granulated sugar.

handmade tangyuan closeup

Minced pork tangyuan at Huangshan Tangyuan

The minced pork option packs a mouthful of fatty soup, oozing subtle notes of umami. If xiaolongbao — Shanghai’s signature soup-filled dumplings — is your thing, this option does the trick.

“This batch is for tomorrow.” Mrs Wu explains, turning her eyes to the press.

But will there be a tomorrow? “We haven’t received notice to leave,” Mrs Wu says, before adding, “But when that happens, we’ll go home. We can’t afford to find another place in Shanghai.”

In the distance, office towers and expensive apartments loom, as a more homogenized landscape threatens to cast its shadow over the eatery.

Related:

Photos: Inside the Disappearing Alleyways of Shanghai’s Laoximen

But for the Wus, one thing is certain: they must keep making tangyuan for this Lantern Festival and the next. There’s no time to look up.

All photos: Mandy Tie

Mandy Tie
    Mandy Tie is a China-based writer and illustrator. After spending years in the UK, Mandy has worked as an editor at Time Out and That’s magazines in Shanghai. When not tied to a desk, she’s usually backpacking in harsher climes documenting local food and culture.

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