Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, monthly 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.
Some people cope with the hottest days of summer by heading to the beach — or more realistically in the wake of Covid-19, a socially distanced staycation. But locals in Zhoupu (周浦), a suburb of Shanghai, cope with the heat through a very different summer tradition.
As early as 4:30am, locals line up outside restaurants that serve fresh lamb and chilled beer for breakfast — believed to be an ideal remedy for peak summer heat.
By 6am on a Sunday morning, a long line has already formed for hours at one lamb eatery in this outer-lying area of Shanghai, snaking out the door past the next three storefronts.
Known locally for lamb that is exceedingly tender, family restaurant Changjiao Lamb (长脚羊肉) has withstood the test of time and competition. With diners ranging from millennials to retirees, it’s clear that this isn’t just a viral shop making noise on social media, but rather a multigenerational diner that keeps a summertime tradition as old as the suburb itself alive.
Founded by owner Tang Bojin 38 years ago, the eatery was formerly a mobile food cart attached to the back of a bike.
“One of the reasons behind our popularity is that we select the best sheep from a farm owned by our relatives,” Tang tells RADII as he takes a seat with a small dish of lamb and steaming cup of herbal tea.
Though Tang no longer works in the kitchen, he still arrives every day at around 7:30am. Before digging into his morning meal, he greets a couple of acquaintances and speaks with his two daughters, who currently run the restaurant. By 8am, the line shows no sign of shortening.
Once the wait is over, diners let the front desk butcher know what their preferred cut of lamb is: shoulder, rack, leg, or liver. For expert eaters, different parts can make a big difference in taste, so they are very particular about their needs.
Asking one of the daughters to cut you up a little bit of everything is good for starters, but regulars swear by this restaurant’s “extraordinary” lamb livers. The house-made dipping sauce also takes center stage here — a classic, tangy scallion soy sauce — and helps strengthen the meat’s taste.
This “small business” isn’t so small if you consider the outdoor seating area, where around a dozen tables and plastic stools lay sprawled across the sidewalk. Most Changjiao patrons try to grab a table outside if they are lucky, sitting out while the day is still young and before the sweltering heat starts to settle in, while enjoying the comforts of a savory breakfast and refreshing summer tipples — beer and other types of booze are just an order away.
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“People like it because lamb is very healthy,” Tang adds. Besides the common nutritional values that we might be familiar with, he is referring to lamb’s value as a “warm-natured food” in accordance with traditional Chinese medicine (or TCM) beliefs.
Traditionally, people would pair lamb with highly potent baijiu (白酒) or huangjiu (黄酒) — China’s two most famous types of liquor — as they are believed to help intensify lamb’s body warming effects. But in recent years, people more often opt for beer as a milder way to handle the searing summer heat.
Informed by thousands of years of TCM practice, there are common sayings in Chinese such as “using heat to cure heat” or “cure winter diseases in summer” — meaning that consuming foods such as lamb, chicken and ginger that are “warm” in nature during the hottest days of the year will help balance the body and ward away toxins throughout colder months. In general, TCM emphasizes taking a preventive approach to safeguarding health, and this breakfast tradition is no exception.
“It’s served all year around, but most people come here during sanfutian [三伏天, a Chinese term for the ‘dog days’ of summer] from mid-June to mid-August,” explains 42-year old taxi driver Wu Zhanqi, who shows up around 7am after a long night shift. “I have been coming to this place since I was a child,” he says, “I used to bike an hour with my friends to come all the way here.”
However, not all regular customers grew up with this breakfast tradition. 68-year old Xu Meizhen says she took a 90-minute ride to Changjiao on public transportation after seeing it featured on a TV program. Another diner sitting with her son says that this is her second day in a row eating here. “I live not far away,” she remarks while sipping on some early morning beer. “My friend brought me here yesterday and I loved it so much, so today I brought my son here.”
Though this custom may be unknown even to many local Shanghainese, it’s not hard to see the appeal. Sitting out under the early morning sun with friends, enjoying a savory breakfast and refreshments to wake them up and cool them off, these early risers know how to start the day right.
All photos: Siyuan Meng
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