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Gutter oil, no soy sauce, and other things about Shanghainese street food

It starts at midnight.

A ladleflul of oil and the cracked egg are followed immediately by two (heaping) teaspoons of white MSG powder. The street vendor asks me if I want to add chili to my noodles (they come next, along with a smattering of salted green beans and a few scant sprigs of bok choy), and I just nod as steam fogs up my glasses. It’s past midnight and the crowds are just starting to gather around the carts of street noodles, fried rice, rotisserie goose legs, and every variation of meat on a stick that somehow finds its way onto the grills. My noodles are already in the wok and I look the other way as she adds the third spoonful of MSG.

In Shanghai, a city where most street food is devoured greedily, walking down streets hurried on our way to work, this sense of slowing down is a welcome change of pace. At 8am, the jianbing (pancakes smeared with fried egg, hoisin sauce, and chives) are eaten voraciously, almost forgetfully. But this, this feels like a ritual. She hands us the paper plates almost reluctantly, tied up inside plastic bags and held up by chopsticks, like a hobo sack, ready to be taken away and eaten. We pay for our noodles and sit down on the stools in front of a table, but at that height we may as well as squatting. The noodles have a slight metallic tinge and I see an entire fish thrown on the table next to mine, splayed open and shared between sips of lukewarm beer.


I had written this piece in order to submit it to a magazine that asked me to write about Chinese street food, but in the end, I scrapped it after two paragraphs and sent in something else, because while I liked these descriptions, I felt it lacked.. something. To be honestly, the essay seemed a little forced, like one of those pieces that you find on food blogs, or written by someone describing their ‘mysterious’ experience abroad (why am I including it here? well, it’s still my writing and it still needs a home). I try, as much as I can, to write sincerely; and the piece I ended up submitting felt slightly more personal, slightly more wry, and slightly closer to life. But who knows, if it doesn’t get picked up, I’ll probably post it here too.

This was my first time submitting anything I wrote to a publication (I’m bracing for rejection, but keeping my fingers crossed), or even running it by a friend to get a second opinion. but A said something that stood out. He told me, I write the way he knows I think and live. And honestly, in the end, maybe that’s the main thing that matters.

0 thoughts on “Gutter oil, no soy sauce, and other things about Shanghainese street food”

  • I like this article, finished or not however something really seems to be missing there. In my opinion it is something which would bring the reader closer to your own personal view/ feelings there and the situation around you. Mind you, its just my feeling after reading it now for three times and most likely I would have not even noticed it immediately without your comment there 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback! 🙂 Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt after writing these two paragraphs (they’re also not very polished, since I didn’t end up editing them too much). I had wanted to write about street food but this story was just about the descriptions of the food and I couldn’t find a connection or a moment that made it stand out.

      The one I actually ended up writing was about a date earlier this Fall during which we decided to get street food and walk through Shanghai. I don’t like writing particulars about my encounters with people (especially with guys) in general and on my blog, since I know I wouldn’t want to find something about me on the Internet, but at the end, I was much happier with that finished piece than with this one.

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