Shāo bǐng in China
The school where my husband and I work serves teachers free breakfast. We snub the cafeteria in the mornings, though. We’d rather hop off our bus, walk 30 feet to our favorite food stand, and pay four yuán each for shāo bǐng.
Our first month in Shenzhen, China, we were the poorest we had ever been. Spending three yuán, or 44 cents, on a bottle of water was controversial enough to spark a fight, even though Chinese tap water left us crouched over a toilet all night. However, even in that month of scarcity, we found a way to justify spending a total of eight yuán every morning on two huge ovals of pork-stuffed bread. Heaven forbid we cut the cost and calories by splitting a piece. Sharing is not an option.
Shāo bǐng is somewhat like naan served at Indian restaurants. Unlike naan, however, this flatbread unique to China is unleavened and usually stuffed with meat and vegetables.
A middle-aged Chinese couple manages this booth. The woman scoops pork, chives, and spices from a bowl and slaps it onto a ball of dough. She rolls it all together, then grabs her rolling pin and flattens it. When she passes the dough to her partner, he dabs water on it and sprinkles sesame seeds on top. He then places the dough in the oven as all the customers stare, anxiously awaiting the moment when he’ll remove the steaming shāo bǐng from the oven.
When it’s finally our turn, we can choose a topping of spicy chili oil, sweet hoisin sauce, or ketchup. I choose a combination of chili oil and hoisin sauce. I may be American, but that doesn’t mean I feel compelled to defile foreign dishes with ketchup.
The couple sees us coming each morning and greets us with smiles and waves, even when they are busy.
“Hello!” they chirp.
“Zǎo shāng hǎo!” we reply in unison. “Liǎng gè.”
“Two?” they clarify.
We nod, dropping change into their cash bowl. That’s all we usually say, both couples attempting the other’s language as best we can. The conversation is always bilingual, out of respect and friendliness.
The Chinese teachers see us enter the office scarfing down what’s left of the bread. Some mornings, they tease, “Chinese pizza for breakfast!” I laugh along, a bit embarrassed about reinforcing the stereotype of Americans and their unhealthy diets.
For four weeks at the end of January and beginning of February, schools are closed for the Chinese New Year. I have no excuse for making the commute to the neighborhood where my school is located and my favorite breakfast is made. Maybe I don’t need an excuse. Every once in a while, I take the bus 15 minutes just to say, “Nǐ hǎo,” and bite into that piping hot stuffed bread.