The corner of Wangyun and Penglai roads in downtown Shanghai’s Huangpu District is cloaked in darkness when Zhang Yajun and her family arrive at Long Xing Food Shop. “We come here around 3am to start grinding soybeans to make dou jiang [soybean milk],” says Zhang. It’s one of the staples in the traditional Shanghainese breakfast called si da jin gang, (四大金刚) or Four Heavenly Kings.
When the food stall opens at around 5am, bright-eyed seniors emerge from the narrow alleyways – some still dressed in their pyjamas – enticed by the aroma of oil wafting from the deep-fryer. On their heels are young people trickling out of nightclubs, migrant workers heading to job sites and commuters in a hurry. All are hankering for a bite of what the Zhangs have been serving from their street-side stall since it opened in 1998: the legendary Four Heavenly Kings breakfast. The family is trying to preserve a long-standing food culture that’s gradually dying as this Chinese megacity blasts into the future.
The origins of the Four Heavenly Kings goes back hundreds of years. The dish’s name comes from the four Buddhist protector deities who guard the cardinal directions of the world. Peek inside a Chinese Buddhist temple and you’ll see statues or pictures of these powerful gods, who are said to bestow wealth, success, peace and protection on their devotees. Like those perennial protectors, the four items that make up the Four Heavenly Kings breakfast are absolutely integral to Shanghai’s people, who crowd around Long Xing seeking nourishment and fulfilment.
The pillars of Four Heavenly Kings are as follows: first is da bing (大冰), a type of chewy flatbread covered in sesame seeds. Next is ci fan tuan (粢饭), a ball of steamed glutinous rice stuffed with ingredients such as egg braised in soy sauce and ground pork. Then comes you tiao (油条), a deep-fried dough stick meant to be dipped in dou jiang (豆浆), sweet soybean milk that’s served warm, the final component of this quartet of dishes. Traditionally, all four items are served together, yet it’s common to see stalls across the city serving a hodgepodge of Shanghainese breakfast foods, or only a select few. For the city’s hungry masses, it’s the idea of Four Heavenly Kings and the taste of these treasured foods that matters most.
The history of Four Heavenly Kings is rooted in Chinese folklore. During the Southern Song dynasty, Yue Fei, a general and beloved hero, was framed for a crime and put to death. Citizens were outraged. In response, a baker twisted together two pieces of dough, representing Prime Minister Qin Hui and his wife, and boiled them in oil. The technique has endured, with people hungrily dunking you tiao into dou jiang.
These foods aren’t fancy, but they’re handmade daily, a routine Zhang’s family knows well. Together with her husband, she opened the shop with her two younger sisters when she was only 23; the youngest of the siblings was 15. “Back then we didn’t have kids. Four of us came to Shanghai from Anhui province,” she says. The three sisters and their husbands run the stall (and a noodle shop they opened in 2006), along with a chef and two helpers.
A breakfast of Four Heavenly Kings is a quick and affordable bite eaten on the go, taken away in thin plastic bags. “A lot of people don’t want to make breakfast at home,” says Zhang. “You need a traditional oven to make da bing and making homemade you tiao is a ton of work.”
Da bing is made with a basic bread dough that’s kneaded, cut into portions and rolled out flat. Each piece is then wrapped around a small ball of lard-based pastry dough that’s seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, ground white pepper and minced scallions. Then the magic happens by rolling, coiling and flattening each dough ball, which gives the bread its flaky texture. Sesame seeds are pressed on top and the da bing is baked.
You tiao takes even more effort. A yeast-based dough goes through a series of rising, fermenting and resting stages, which can take the better part of a day. The rolled-out dough is cut into rectangles, stacked into “twins” and a chopstick is pressed into each pair to create its signature shape. Finally, with the ends pressed together, each piece is stretched lengthwise, then fried in hot oil until puffy and golden.
Early morning in the neighbourhood is a lively affair. Locals chat while walking their dogs or hanging laundry out to dry. Parents coax uniformed school children along the streets, where fruit vendors arrange oranges and trim pineapples on the sidewalks as people wander to the food stall for their daily carb fix. One of Zhang’s regulars suffers from Alzheimer’s. “He always comes here, but he can’t recognise the value of money anymore. Whenever he comes, we help him pick out the money. We’re honest people.”
She says others living in the area’s high-rises won’t make the trek to street level to buy breakfast. Instead, mobs of delivery drivers riding scooters ferry even-faster food and coffee from places like McDonald’s and Starbucks to time-strapped locals.
Regardless, Long Xing is still thriving in this bustling old neighbourhood after 20 years. Making tasty food with high-quality ingredients keeps the business humming along, despite the siren sound of pneumatic drills making way for modernisation. “We don’t have any secret recipe, only the most traditional ways to bake, fry and steam,” says Zhang. “You have to buy good ingredients. Customers can always taste the difference.”