Shanghai Pathways Blog

Understand ​China​ ​From the Local ​Perspect​ive


March 2012

Hunting for Congyoubing

A cong you bing or green onion pancake is a savoury, non-leavened flatbread folded with oil and minced scallions(green onions).  It is crispy and doughy, with layers of fragrant spring onion that are at once salty and sweetly caramelised. The trick to cooking this is in the creation of paper-thin layers, sprinkled with finely sliced spring onion and salt. Whilst the outside crisps and browns from its contact with the oil, the layers fill with steam and cook the bing from the inside out, giving it that perfect consistency of crunch, chew and moisture.

The Chinese Legend

There is a legend in China that pizza is an evolution of green onion pancake, brought back to Italy by Marco Polo. Here is one version of the legend:

Marco Polo missed green onion pancakes so much that when he was back in Italy, he tried to find chefs willing to make the pancake for him. One day, he managed to meet a chef from Naples at a friend’s dinner party and persuaded him to try recreating the dish. After half a day without success, Marco Polo suggested the filling be put at the top rather than inside the dough. The change, by chance, created a dish praised by everyone at the party. The chefs returned to Naples and improvised by adding cheese and other ingredients and formed today’s pizza.

Follow the Smell

At  the corner of Maoming road Nanchang road in Shanghai, there is a famous street food stall, locally known as the A Da Congyoubing. Each congyoubing cost RMB3, it is actually the most expensive bing in Shanghai, usually it only cost RMB1 or 2. I guess quality comes with a price.

A Da, the congyoubing master only makes 300 bings every day and it takes 20 minutes to make 10 each time. So you will need to learn to be patient to wait for at least 1 hour as the line is just so long.

My special hunting trip for congyoubing was really funny. Since I am so lazy and slow in the morning, I have to camp at my friend’s place nearby the market to make sure I could arrive there by 7:30am, and then I promised my mom that I will bring home 10 bings for her as she did wonder why it is so special.  Actually, I have been planning this for weeks, everyone around me has been waiting for their share of the best cong you bing.

When the finally time arrives, the funny thing happened, A Da decided to have his day off on Wed… my effort went in vain and I had to find something else for my empty stomach – bad luck!!!

C’est la vie ~ life sometimes feels like a joke.

The Rich Hunchback Guy

A Da is his nick name – in Chinese it means big brother. He is really a strange looking guy, when he was young, he hurt his back and that’s how he become a hunchback. Since he is disabled, he could not find good job and so he spent RMB20 which was a lot of money at the old time to learn how to make congyoubing. Later he has been selling congyoubing to make a living for over 30 years. Now at the age of almost 60, he has provided his son a good life and bought 3 downtown apartments in Shanghai’s French concession.

In short, he is a millionare now and does not need to work hard and make congyoubing any more. So what makes him get up everyday at 4am and finish by 2pm? A passion for his food, I guess.

At his spare time, he love to sing songs and smoke 😉 After 10 years, he said that he will retire and travel around the world. But he is worried that no body will make congyoubing like he does any more.

The Afterwards Story

After my failed attempt, I have been receiving reports from friends about their experience with the congyoubing:

Nat – the chef: I went to the cong you bing place the other day. Waited 1.5hrs! They are certainly very good, but not worth waiting so long. I bought six and can report that they heat up pretty well for breakfast the next day.

Bobbie – my friend: It is so so so good! His cash register is an honor system, self pay and make your own change system. Amazing thing to contemplate is that his stove looks like a half barrel. It looks like he has gas tanks that run into the barrel. He knows his stove perfectly – how to regulate the heat, which are the hotter and cooler parts, how long to keep each congyoubing in which part of the grill. He measures nothing, but each congyoubing is perfectly shaped with a uniform size. He puts the first ones in the middle and knows how long each side gets and how hard and how often to press them. After the ones in the middle are just right, he moves them over to the edge to finish and puts new ones in the middle. The kitchen he cooks in is his kitchen. When you go up to take his picture, he smiles and says “ni hao”… He does not like for people to buy and then resell. He only makes 10-20 at a time. Many people who wait in line buy all 20 to take to family or colleagues in the offices they work in.

Chinese Umbrella

Perhaps I was born as the kind of person to save the Chinese umbrella industry. It is embarrassing to admit that I lost at least one umbrella every year. Today I almost lost my umbrella for 2 times. 

Thanks god that these umbrellas are so cheap. Otherwise I will need to find one with GPS.

The history of Chinese Umbrellas

As early as 3500 years ago, umbrella had emerged in China. Regarding the invention of umbrella, there are many folk legends, among which the most widely spread one is the story about Luban inventing umbrella. According to the story, umbrella was invented by Luban’s wife out of care and concern about her hardworking husband. As the folklore tells, daily meals delivered by Luban’s Wife Yun were often spoilt by downpours. So Luban built pavilions along the road. Later on, as inspired by children using lotus leaves for rain shelter, he invented the first umbrella by making a flexible framework covered by a cloth.

In ancient China, the umbrella was not only a day-to-day appliance, but also with sociological significance. In late Wei Dynasty, umbrella was used in official ceremonies and rites and was called the Luo Umbrella. It is the symbol of rank and status as the official robe. For example, officials of the Han Dynasty above the third rank used Green Umbrella and emperors in Song dynasty used yellow and red umbrellas while the common people would carry blue ones. Therefore, umbrellas were used in the inspection tours of emperors or senior officials in ancient times to show protection over the people. As umbrella indicates wealth and honor, it is often used in wedding ceremonies in China. Umbrella is often used in opera, song and dance, and acrobatics art as well.

Shanghai taboo – umbrella gift

Since I lost my umbrella so often, I always wanted to have someone gift me an umbrella. However, this probably will never happen. In Chinese, the word umbrella sounds very similar to separation, so the gift of an umbrella symbolizes a desire to end a relationship.

Peace Hotel: High-Tea

The famous green roof Peace Hotel
China may be a land of contrasts, of high rise cities and rice paddies tilled by oxen, but few cities offer the varigated past of Shanghai — colonial port city with a history of war, capitulation, blockades, and stunning architecture that spans almost a 100 years of style and design. One of the icons of that past is the Peace Hotel which started life as the Cathay Hotel, built by Victor Sassoon as part of his real estate empire in Shanghai.
The Peace Hotel Lobby
The original hotel officially opened on August 1, 1929. It was widely known as the “Number One mansion in the Far East “, due to its prime location along the Bund and for its luxury, including the distinctive copper-sheathed roof 77 meters above ground, white Italian marble floors, and priceless Lalique glass artwork. It was also the tallest building in Shanghai and hosted many famous guests over the years including Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, General Marshal, Noel Coward and President Bill Clinton. It was known for its Old Jazz Bar and band, which has been resurrected and plays again today. From 1949 to 1956 it was used for government offices, but in 1956 it resumed its use as a hotel, the name being changed from the Cathay Hotel to the Peace Hotel. A major 3 year renovation was just completed in 2010 to bring it back to its 1920′s glory.
The gorgeous high tea experience
Yesterday, I ended tour at the Peace Hotel with a lovely British couple – Michael and Adrienne, they have been married for 49 years. Adrienne’s eyes lit up when she discovered that it is still the high tea time in the hotel’s Jasmine Lounge. In her words, it is the perfect way to recalling Shanghai’s ‘Paris of the Orient’ and its fame for having introduced European high tea to the city in the 1930s.
It was a lot for tea, can’t find any space for dinner afterwards
To me, I could never resist good food and it is wonderful to have British people confirming that the quality of the high tea in Shanghai is as good as what they have in London. The other thing is that you don’t really have to dress up to enjoy it 😉

From Steelmaker to Pig Farm

Pigs are HOT in China, and they are in demend…so one thing I could assure you is that Shanghai do have a lot of left over singles but we really don’t have any left over pigs, when they are ready to go, we want them. 

This week in China, one of the world’s leading steelmakers, Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation (WISCO) or (武钢集团), recently announced plans to build a 10,000-head pig farm as part of a strategy of company diversification. WISCO was China’s first supergiant iron and steel complex. Annually, the company produces ten million tons of iron and steel each. According to the plan, they will invest 39 billion yuan in pigs/chicken/veg farms in 2012. 

Is this a JOKE?

Steel is cheaper than pork. The price of steel is said to be average 4.7 yuan per kg, far less than the 26 yuan price of pork.

A common saying in the company lately is, “Making steel is not as good as selling pork.” Energy and raw materials are rising and steel prices are down. Due to the lack of iron ore resources and the increase in the costs of distribution, the company saw annual sales fall to 230 billion yuan and profits to 3 billion yuan in 2011. 

The days of relying on massive scale and waste of resources is over

The company’s chairman, Deng Qilin, says the decision to build a pig farm is part of a broader restructuring plan to diversify the company away from its focus on steel. Deng says the cost of steel production is going up while the demand for downstream products like cars is down.

The company plans to set up a modern household service company that will provide all sorts of services, from buying houses to renting cars to children’s education to changing light bulbs. They also have plans for real estate and other manufacturing. Last month they signed a joint venture agreement with Hong Kong’s China Resources Group to produce natural gas. 

Deng says Wuhan Steel’s next step is to buy several thousand mu of land to begin “ecological” production of chickens, hogs, and vegetables. They plan to sell “Wuhan Steel” brand vegetables.

Thoughts and Ideas

Nice try! Maybe it is time for me to stop guiding and go farming! But what if all of the Chinese steel companies started to build pig farms? People need to be more creative in business ideas.

The Vegetarian Tiger

In Shanghai, the vegetarian lifestyle is more popular than ever. I love organic and healthy veggie but I do eat everything that is well prepared and taste wonderful. So people like me maybe considered as “semi-vegetarians,” which usually means that they eat vegetarian most of the time but occasionally eat meat. Unfortunately, being “semi-vegetarian” is like being “semi-pregnant.” You either are or you aren’t. A more accurate term for semi-vegetarian eating habits is “flexitarian.” But if the person in the photo will cook for me, I’ll eat veggie everyday!!

You are what you eat! This ancient saying can apply so well on Lulu, who started to change her life style about 10 years ago due to many chronic diseases. She was suffering from so much pain that no doctor across the continents could help her. She met a Healer in Hong Kong who told her to stop eating meat if she wanted to be healed because by cultivating more bad karma does not help us to cure from the core, he said. She didn’t understand why but she stopped. 10 years gone by, she has not only cured her own physical sicknesses, but also helped many people around her as well. To her surprise, the impact of food indeed goes far beyond the physical body.

Learn to eat foods that bring long lasting health, beauty and happiness
Sometimes you meet people and click right away, this is what happened to me when I met this famous happy chef, who has some amazing energy around her. She is so much into the energy of the food that she has chosen to follow the ancient yogic food philosophy, which encourages people to consume mainly sattvic food (vegetables [except pungent], fruits, nuts, grains, gentle herbs and spices). By following this philosophy Lulu has developed unlimited amount of fusion cuisines, she presents me a variety of tasty food that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t eating meat, milk products and pungent food at all! By eating the sattvic food, Lulu calls it “Joyfood” because these foods can give us long lasting health, beauty and happiness if we practice hard enough. Long lasting GAIN of course comes from long lasting PAIN, most people have no endurance, this is the major problem of her pupils, Lulu said. That’s why Lulu organizes private dinner with live music, so the people can at least experience momentary long lasting health, beauty and happiness in her Yogic Food Garden, she was laughing along this sentence.

The Whole World in one kitchen:
Lulu strike me as a Vegetarian Tiger, Soft outside but tough inside – that is what she is.  She is a language freak, speaks 6 different languages plus 3 Chinese dialects. But the richest side of her I guess it comes from her multicultural background – she is a funny mixture: she looks like a Chinese doll from outside, sweet and cute, almost like a kindergarten teacher, inside her the German system runs, yet from her core you can see and feel the Spanish fire.

When I asked her why she came to Shanghai, she said it was a call. If she could choose, she rather goes to somewhere warmer. Taking as her mission to incorporate the best organic supermarket concept from Germany (Alnatura) she is now helping her friend who owns 13 organic chain stores in Shanghai Haikele (HiQuality), helping them to upgrade to the international standard, meeting the latest health trend, allowing herself to shop the whole world in one single go.

All great things start from a simple idea

All the wonderful things in Lulu’s life came from changing what she puts into her mouth. Now that she is leading a life according to the Buddhist and Yoga teaching, together with lots of art and music, all she wants to do is to pass on this simple happiness to those who are searching for it.

Wanna come with me to a “joyfood” tour? Taken at Lulu’s home: the Yogic Food Garden:

                 A nice cozy kitchen create nice food 

             Colorful salads        

The food is beyond words! Full of LOVE and ENERGY!!! This great lunch lasted 7 hours, my goodness….. danger of two creative hearts on one table.

w.e Musical Education Fund for Migrant Children:

 Ever since Lulu was a child she wanted to learn people but her parents didn’t have the money for that. She started her piano lesson at her teenage with her pocket money. Thanks for the joyfood, her musical talent sprouts, she improvises and composes songs as hobby nowadays. Therefore she wants to help other potential Lulu who might also have the same dream. Therefore she founded w.e musical education fund for migrant children shanghai. w.e has many interpretation, one of its is “wealth exchange”, it’s a “made in Germany” product, place of its birth. 10% of the Yogic Food Garden revenue goes to this fund, now they have one child learning piano. Right, Lulu has a lot of interesting ideas, this is just one of them, you got to meet her if there is a chance.

The Green Ball Dumplings

My friend Bobbie just asked me today about the strange green balls which are selling all over the Shanghai streets now 

What is it?

It is Qingtuan (Chinese: 青团, literally “green cake”) is a traditional Chinese dish. This food, which looks like a round green stone, is made of rice, red bean paste and a special plant called maiqing (麦青) (barnyard grass shoots) or aicao(艾草). The exact technique in making qingtuan is quite complicated. Barnyard grass shoots are edible only in spring, so this food is eaten for the annual Qingming Festival, which falls around April 5 in the Gregorian Calendar.

This is the look after you took a big bite, yummy~

The best green ball dumplings are made of Aicao, it is a special plant which is wildly used in China as a type of traditional herb medicine. So it is more expensive than maiqing, cost wise and people believe it is better in taste.

Step1: wash it and boiling

Step2:add glutinous rice and flour


Step4:make it into small little balls with red bean paste inside.

Step5:steaming for 20 mins, ready!



I am picky with food, have to! Sometimes the poor quality balls tastes like Chewing Gum and the green color looks like fake paint – you don’t want to risk your stomach.  The best mass production ball dumplings are sold in Wangjiashao, go there and you will see a long waiting line, which is always a good sign for decent food.


Or you could go somewhere far, i.e. chubby feng makes amazing green balls.

Dough colored with wild herbs, homemade bean paste.
Chubby Feng's Qingtuan looks really fancy too!

The Dumpling Queen

Chubby Feng
Feng Wenhua, 52 years old, also known as "Chubby Feng," she was born into a poor family in remote Cungu Village in Fengxian District, a place where the land wasn't fertile.

You don’t choose a life, you live one. – This is what I learnt from the visit to Chubby Feng. 

Usually for a poor Chinese woman from the countryside, life is about helping the family, getting marry and raising children, anything but adventure. However, it is not the Chubby Feng case, she owns four small restaurants and operate one veggie farm in Pudong Fengxian area. In her own words, it is time to enjoy the good life. 

How did it happen? 

At an young age, she is like a BOY. Brave and never afraid of competition. Once there was a contest where all of the kids in her village was competiting to throw rice bags, the one who throw the farthest, would win a pretty bamboo basket. After the boys throw their bags, she simply walked backwards from the line and RUN to throw it….

Of course, Chubby Feng won and looked so happy that you can still feel that moment with her together when she was talking about this story. 

Daughters are usually not so important in the remote areas of China, so Chubby Feng did not get much education and worked at a local factory. At that time, she makes around RMB30 per month, that’s what every worker makes. By the early 1980, China started to change under the great leader of Dong Xiaoping, business started to come back.

During the 80s, leaving the factory means give up the IRON BOWL – an iron bowl means a job that lasts for a life time. Feng decided to leave the factory and start her own street food stall. It was true that a street food seller makes a lot more money than the factory worker in the 80s.

She struggled for years. In winter she pedaled her creaky tricycle to sell pancakes and youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) near the temple in the town center; in summer she peddled ice cream at the front gates of schools and kindergartens; they were frozen in her hand-made icebox insulated by thick cotton padding.

Later on Feng became the first person from her village who decided to rent a big farm and sell veg to the city people….all of the people in her village think she is stupid and not a good wife because she did not take good care of her son and obey her husband.

For 3 years, the weather has been bad, she did not make any money and losted money. One morning as she was driving her loaded truck to the food market, she had a collision and suffered serious injury. A leg was badly broken and she hurt her voice crying for help. The village people thought she was stupid and looked down at her, her husband blamed her for starting the business. She could not even give RMB5 to her son to let him watch a movie.

I remember that at one point of the meeting, I asked Feng: WHY do you keep doing this? You don’t have to work so hard? You could remain as a factory worker, and be a normal woman.

Feng’s face was sad for a while and she took sometime to think about it, but her answer was firm and strong: Because I can’t live the rest of my life by letting people think that I am a loser. I need to have business so I can provide a better life for my family. There are so many brothers and sisters in my family and my in-laws always looked down at us because we were poor.

People says that only one out of ten business will succeed, so what do we do? TRY 10 times! 

Feng tried 4 times in her life and she finally succeed. Once you arrives at Zhuanghang Town old street, you will see the sign of Chubby Feng restaurant. Her specialty is the local dumplings, i.e. Zhongzi, Qingtuan. She currently holds the district record for making rice dumplings – 29 in 18 minutes – and she’s a master of many traditional snacks.

Ones Life Must Matter

After Feng become successful, all of the person that knows about her changed their mind. They now think that she is a great woman, brave and smart. People from the small village also felt that if Feng can run a business and change her fate, they should also be able to do it as well.

Interesting, right? Just don’t give up if you have a dream.

Globalization to One Country

It is pretty strange but everyone around me has been talking about globalization and telling me 2012 is going to be a BAD year. The house price is slowly dropping in China, living cost is going up and the min. wage in Shanghai has just raised 15%. Same as most people, I wish that I could forcast the future and know how to fix the problem.

Inside Job is such a great film to help people understand what is happening and it teaches us that Nothing Comes Without Consequences. When China joins WTO in 2001, Chinese people have little to none idea regarding what is going to happen and how much of it will effect with our day to day life. If the real estate price in Ireland raised 100% is considered as abnormal, Chinese real estate price probably is MAD. The interesting thing is that the price is regulated and hugely depending on the Chinese Gov. policy. Everyone knows there is a bubble but policy maker turned a blind eye on it and think it is okay to ignore. In the end it is the mid-class and workers to pay and endure. 

In China, certainly things here are still manageable and people’s over all mood is still quite good and positive. But in Europe, looking at what is happening with Greece is worrying. UK decided to run away from the mess and Merkel as the Chancellor of Germany is telling people to cut costs and stop borrowing and lending money. But there is no creative solutions to really solve the problem, what we have so far is just a very bad cycle – cut costs -> lay off workers -> people stop spending money -> no business -> lay off more workers. This feels like the End of the World.

The Type A Personality

Lagarde’s nomination as the first female head of the IMF is a good sign since there are just too many type A guys in the money world and they become out of control. Watching the ENRON story of the smartest guy in the room feels like reading a science fiction story, very intriguing and hard to believe that this really happened.

Let’s ask ourself why the financial engineer who is building dreams is getting paid so much more than the real engineer who is building bridges. If the bridge broken, the real engineers will be jailed, but if the dreams turn into nightmares, who is responsible?

Chinese Soy Sauce

Back to just a year ago, if someone tells me that I will have anything to do with Chinese Soy Sauce, I will probably think that he is crazy. Now, not only I am providing the only soy sauce tour in China but also working with the factory to help them marketing their products. It is to my surprise that such good products could not compete will the mass production junks and people has so little access to know or buy healthy food. Tomorrow, the very first Slow Food tour to the soy sauce factory will start and following is some info about it.

History of Traditional Chinese Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is originated in China 2,800 years ago and spread throughout Asia. Red cooking or hongshao is the word for Shanghai cuisine. For centuries, the city’s culinary culture has been stewed, simmered, sauteed and braised in soy sauce, a brownish-red condiment with a rich fragrance. Soy sauce is a condiment produced by fermenting soybeans with Aspergillus oryzae molds, along with water and salt. After the fermentation, which yields fermented soybean paste, the paste is pressed, and two substances are obtained: a liquid, which is the soy sauce, and a cake of (wheat and) soy residue, the latter being usually reused as animal feed. Most commonly, a grain is used together with the soybeans in the fermentation process, but not always. 

The Manufacturing Process: Brewing or Chemical-hydrolyzation.

In older times, the mixture was fermented naturally in giant urns and under the sun, which was believed to contribute additional flavors. Today, in industrialized factory the mixture is generally placed in a temperature and humidity controlled incubation chamber. The fermentation method takes more than six months to complete and results in a transparent, delicately colored broth with balanced flavor and aroma. The non-brewed sauces take only two days to make and are often opaque with a harsh flavor and chemical aroma. In the current market, most branded soy sauce is often made from acid hydrolyzed soy protein instead of brewed with a traditional culture. When compared to brewed soy sauces, they have a longer shelf-life and are more commonly produced for this reason. They are sometimes called Chemical Soy Sauce by those who prefer brewed sauces, but despite this name are widely used due to greater availability and lower prices. Carcinogens have been identified in relatively recent times of Asian brands of Soy sauces. Some of these carcinogens may form during the manufacture of chemical sauce. Companies are obliged to remove these contaminants.

Chinese Soy Sauce types

Light or fresh soy sauce (生抽 shēngchōu ): It is the main soy sauce used for seasoning since it is saltier, less colourfully noticeable, and also adds a distinct flavour. The light soy sauce made from the first pressing of the soybeans is called tóuchōu (simplified Chinese: 头抽), which can be loosely translated as first soy sauce or referred to as premium light soy sauce. Touchōu is sold at a premium because, like extra virgin olive oil, the flavor of the first pressing is considered superior.

Dark and old soy sauce (老抽 lǎochōu), a darker and slightly thicker soy sauce, is aged longer and contains added molasses to give it its distinctive appearance. This variety is mainly used during cooking since its flavour develops during heating. It has a richer, slightly sweeter, and less salty flavour than light soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is partly used to add color and flavour to a dish after cooking.

Another type, thick soy sauce (醬油膏 jiàngyóugāo), is a dark soy sauce that has been thickened with starch and sugar. It is occasionally flavored with MSG. This sauce is not usually used directly in cooking but more often as a dipping sauce or poured on food as a flavorful addition.

Qian Wanlong: The Best Soy Sauce

Know as a famous old brand of “handmade” naturally fermented Shanghai soy sauce, Qian Wanlong. Qian was the owner in 1880 and wanlong means booming or prosperous. In 2008, the Qian Wanlong soy sauce-making process was listed as one of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritages – the only one in the industry. It is believed to be one of the few companies in China that still make soy sauce the traditional, old-fashioned way.

  •     Only Use non-GMO Soybeans
  •         12 Procedures in Production
  •     No Additives and Preservatives
  •     No Artificial Colours, No MSG

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