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Dai Pai Dongs in China

by Rongguang Zhao

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Winter Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(4) page(s): 31

Da Pai Dang, also written Dai Pai Dong, their Mandarin and Cantonese transliterations, respectively are in China, a reasonably new way to eat Chinese food. These outdoor eateries literally mean 'restaurant with a big plate' or 'dining booth located street-side in open-air.'

Popular in Hong Kong in the past, as seen in the picture on this page, they were recognized by their green-painted stalls. However, these little shacks or outdoor food stalls are dying there as cultural eatery places. This is also true in Singapore because in both places most have moved indoors. Once recognizable as places with permits to sell food on the street, permits to operate them are becoming things of the past. Not so much in China.

There, these Chinese outdoor eateries have recently become a way of life for many working class people. They offer foods that have the reputation of being simple, inexpensive, popular, and with minimal government controls. Some specialize in serving porridge, noodles, rice dishes, snacks, and/or drinks; most actually specialize in serving just a few foods.

In China, they are beginning to be impacted by a growing number of government restrictions; and as elsewhere, a few have moved into malls, though most are still in the open-air, many in open-air markets. Some are in downtown areas, some in suburban industrial areas, a few in the countryside. They mainly serve working-class people, can be seasonal, and some are near or with others, some individual places, others so-called large or super-outdoor-markets of prepared foods individually owned and/or operated.

One very large one, in Hefei in China's Anhui Province, formally opened in September 1996. This dai pai dong or outdoor eating area is quite large, more than one thousand square meters. It serves more than four hundred different kinds of local and not-so-local snacks and dishes including some from Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan, and Guangdong. Not only is it physically large, but it sells to some two and a half thousand people a day bringing in more than forty thousand Yuan each and every day.

When asked, more than three-quarters of the patrons at this place said they were 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with their food, their prices, and their service. They said they did like that one can make selections from many available dishes, that they can purchase fresh juices and canned drinks, and that they meet requirements for different types of working class people. This eatery, and others like it, bring dynamism to the economy, employment to many people, and convenience to them all.

Of course, it does come with some negative aspects. For example, there are serious problems with environmental pollution, food and facility hygiene, safety, traffic, and its unsightly looks.

Spot-checks by health department personnel show problems such as their selling fake and/or poor quality ingredients and/or out-of-date food. Other negative issues include unclean tableware, unauthorized sales, and that some are not licensed operations. In addition, some sell foods whose ingredients are not fresh, some under or overcooked, and others made using foods from rotten ingredients, and/or from sick or dead animals. Yes, a few people do get sick eating foods purchased at these big outdoor eateries.

However, the local and national governments do realize the value of these places, and their problems. Not regulating them can mean the government can lose control. In Japan and in Singapore, these types of what once were seasonal eateries are successful when located indoors, with size maximums, and with strict health restrictions.

Chinese eateries of this type can improve traditional cuisine, make more local dishes available to more people, adapt to the local culture, and meet local demands. They can have acculturated offerings meeting the needs of many different tastes.

People hope, nay they expect, that all dai pai dong in China will have more government control, overcome their health and public hygiene issues, and fix any undesirable issues in management, and quickly. They also hope, as they mature, that they will have a bright future, continue to improve local economies, continue to offer local people employment, and continue to keep their prices reasonable. Changes can make them healthier and more affordable for all working class people and all others who want to partake of their food.
Professor Zhao Rongguang teaches various aspects of food culture at Zhejiang Gongshan University in Hangzhou, China. He researches and writes extensively about many of them.
This article has been translated from the Chinese by Ye Junshi; the pictures taken by Ye.

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