They say that the early bird gets the worm. On some school days, where I do manage to wake up early enough, my mom and I might decide to take our time on the way to school and work, and actually sit down for a more leisurely breakfast. On a cold winter morning, there is no better place than the stall right on the other side of the street from the woman who sells jianbing on Longhe Road; a husband-wife team there sells two things: shatang, a soup made from pork bone broth, and guotie, pork-filled potstickers.
We order the same thing every time as we walk in:
“Laoban! Liangwan shatang, erliang guotie!”
(“Boss! Two bowls of shatang, two liang of guotie!” – a liang is a measure of weight, equivalent to 50g or 1.76oz.)
We’d then sit down at those long, wooden tables, and be quickly presented with two big bowls of steaming hot soup and a small plate of 8 potstickers (for reasons I never quite understood, one liang of guotie is usually equivalent to 4 guotie, possibly because the meat used in 4 guotie weighs one liang combined?). We’d grab two little plates from the center of the wooden table, pour some Zhenjiang black vinegar for dipping the guotie, snap apart our chopsticks, and dig in.
Shatang, as I said, is a rather complex soup made from pork bone broth, typically with an array of vegetables and grains added to it both for nutrition and texture: mu’er, wood-ear mushrooms, for their crunch; yiren, barley rice, for their chewiness; huanghua cai, dried day lily, for their slipperiness; and a raw egg that is stirred into the soup to form “egg flowers”, for a silky mouthfeel. Thickened with a slurry of tapioca starch and water, seasoned with a few good shakes of ground white pepper, a drizzle of sesame oil, and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro, the soup both warmed and filled us up.
But soup can only keep you full for so long – certainly not the whole morning. For something a bit more substantial, we turn to the guotie: instead of the half-moon shape usually associated with boiled dumplings, guotie, which are pan-fried from an uncooked state (as opposed to jianjiao, dumplings that are pan-fried after boiling, so essentially cooked twice), are long, skinny, and had a triangular cross-section, with tall side edges that was kept soft and chewy, and a narrow base, crisped up in the skillet. I would dip the guotie in the vinegar and, as I bit into it, slurp up the hot, porky juices (guotie is usually filled with purely pork, flavored with shaoxing wine, ginger, scallions, and other sweet-tasting spices like anise – in accordance with the culinary tradition in my region that pork should be served with a hint of sweetness – as opposed to the regular dumplings, which are often made with a pork and vegetable filling). My favorite part? Double dipping the guotie in my vinegar dish, so some of the filling and the jus fall out and mix with the vinegar, and, once I’m done with all 4 of my guotie, drink the vinegar in one gulp, and enjoy the mix of the sweet and fattiness of the guotie in perfect balance with the refreshing tang of the vinegar. To this day, I still occasionally drink the dipping vinegar after I’m done eating dumplings or potstickers at home – a bit of an acquired taste for sure, but old habits die hard…
A meal like this would’ve cost somewhere around 7-8 yuan (around one dollar) for both my mom and I – unfortunately I no longer remember the exact prices. Compared to a quick breakfast like jianbing guozi, a shatang-guotie combo is positively luxurious. It was not an everyday meal – but one to be slowly savored.
Aside from Longhe Road, we would also go to a stall near Shuguang (“Light of Dawn”) shopping center, a 10-minute walk from my grandparents’ place, to have their shatang-guotie combo on the weekends. I remember their guotie to be slightly superior to the one from Longhe Road, though the shatang was not nearly as good.
The supposed etymology of shatang is rather interesting: there does not appear to be an agreed-upon way to write the sha character, with various legends each purporting a different way to write it. My favorite one goes something like this: Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty once visited the city of Xuzhou, where this shatang supposedly originated; he had this soup at a restaurant, and liked it so much that he asked, “Zheshi sha tang?” (“What soup is this?”, in which sha means “what”); the accompanying officials, who did not know the name either and panicked at the possibility of not providing a completely satisfactory answer to the Emperor, simply responded that “Your Royal Highness is so right, this is indeed the ‘sha’ soup!”, and the name stuck. True or not, the story certainly gave me a good laugh when I learned about it!
(Other somewhat more believable versions of the etymology of shatang state that sha is an ancient term for “meat porridge”, or sha is derived from a combination of characters for rice and ginseng [the latter of which is pronounced sheng, which may explain the pronunciation] to indicate the high regard in which the rice-based soup is held. Which story is right, you be the judge!)