After Christmas last year, I spent a couple of days in the small town of Jiaoxie (角斜), close to Nantong (南通), three hours west of Shanghai.
Nantong is a vital river port located on the northern bank of the Yangtze River whose prosperity was catalyzed by a local industrialist, Zhang Jian (张謇), who founded Nantong’s first cotton mills in 1899. Nantong has remained an important centre for the textile industry.
南通是长江北岸的一个重要河港。它的繁荣得益于一位本地实业家张謇，他在 1899 年创办了南通的第一个纺织厂。从此，南通一直都是纺织行业的重要中心。
The main street in Jiaoxie is a hive of activity with small shops and restaurants spilling welcomingly out onto the pavements. Run by Mr Wu and his extended family, one such establishment is Wang Wang Breakfast (旺旺早点), where tasty buns, wonton noodles and flatbread are the order of the day all year round.
Work begins early for Mr Wu who starts preparing at 4 am each day, not particularly fun in the sub-zero temperatures during winter.
吴师傅每天一大清早就得开始工作。凌晨 4 点开始准备，这在气温零度以下的冬天可不是什么好玩的事儿。
Piled high on tables dripping with condensation, savoury buns cook in wooden and bamboo steamers powered by a coal-fed boiler.
Locals mill around the entrance awaiting the tasty morsels while catching up with the latest town gossip.
Everything is made by hand and, while the tools might be basic, the skills and techniques required have been honed over years of experience. Watching Mr Wu form each lump of dough into a precisely formed bun is almost hypnotic!
Flour, lye (used as a tenderiser) and minced pork are the main ingredients required.
Nian gao (年糕), a type of rice cake, is made by mixing rice with glutinous rice and then steaming to cook.
It is considered good luck to eat nian gao during Chinese New Year, because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year” (年年高升).
A wooden grid is used to form the rice powder into squares before placing it on a damp cloth to steam. Sometimes they’re filled with sweet red bean paste.
Inside a few wooden tables and stools are provided for customers. Note the jars of homemade hot chilli sauce!
The restaurant is bustling just before Chinese New Year with customers stocking up on special shoutau buns.
Translated into English, shoutau (寿桃) means “peaches of immortality”, so called due to their mystic virtue of conferring longevity on all who eat them (a common theme in Chinese art).
In the popular Chinese fantasy novel Journey to the West, the Monkey King is stationed as the Protector of the Peaches and ends up stealing one in order to prolong his own life leading to much mischief!