If you walk out of Hurstville station’s north exit at breakfast time, you’ll see a crowd of people huddling around a tiny hole-in-the-wall takeaway joint that smells unmistakably of fried dough. Everyone gathered around China Jiaozi is holding cups of steaming soy milk; some are snacking on Chinese meat pies; and they’re all waiting for the same thing: freshly made youtiao.
Youtiao is Chinese fried bread. It’s made with a yeasted and fermented dough that’s shaped into a long rectangle. Two pieces of the dough are layered and pressed together (usually with a chopstick), so when it’s dunked into a wok of sizzling oil, it puffs up into two long strands of golden dough joined at the hip like an X chromosome.
They are pleasurable in the most basic way – like good bread, a perfectly cooked bowl of rice or a croissant straight from the oven. Because of the textural contrast between its crust and fluffy innards, youtiao are the perfect tool for dipping into congee, soup or coffee. Or simply as a morning carb delivery system for a spread of butter or kaya (coconut jam).
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In China (and most of Southeast Asia) it’s extremely popular, particularly for breakfast. Fifteen years ago, in almost every Chinese city, you could always find a street stall selling the same breakfast: fresh soy milk, youtiao and maybe a soy-braised egg (and another regional takeaway snack).
Now in Shanghai, Beijing and even Hong Kong, those breakfast stands are becoming rarer, having been pushed out by modernism, town planning and generational change. People are still eating youtiao, but today they are more commonly made by machines in chain restaurants, rather than by street vendors. Becky Song and Cliff Ho opened China Jiaozi in Sydney to keep the old-school tradition alive. “When we were young, the taste of youtiao was very good. But now the taste is very bad. We want to make it the best. Like before,” says Ho.
That’s not how they started, though. In late 2016, Song and Ho opened China Jiaozi as a jiaozi dumpling stall. They did make youtiao, but not with the same care they do now. In 2018, Ho decided there was no point in making dumplings – Sydney has a ton of options for jiaozi, but hardly anyone does youtiao well. The couple called a friend from China who runs a chain of restaurants making Chinese breakfasts and asked them to help them make the best youtiao they could.
Ho got the recipe, but he couldn’t make it taste the way he remembered it as a kid. He mentions a Chinese saying along the lines that, the simpler the recipe, the more difficult it is to perfect. With a simple recipe like this one, every element becomes important: the fermentation time; the ratios of water to flour; whether to use milk and eggs; the weight; the length and diameter; how much it will rise; the frying time, and more. After he got the recipe from his friend, it took him a year and a half to perfect.
Today he still makes everything from scratch, and almost everything by hand. Not just the youtiao, but also the soy milk (which is made daily by blending and straining dried soy beans), the shaobing (Northern-style doughy buns that are often stuffed with pork like a meat pie), and doughnut-like puffed buns that are jammed with semi-molten brown sugar, hand-kneaded and fried (Song uses the name tian jianbing, although in most of China that name would refer to a sweet crepe that’s markedly different).
The shaobing and the sweet, puffed buns are courtesy of Song and her mum, both of whom are from inner Mongolia. “When we opened, a lot of people asked me what kind of Chinese [cuisine I was serving]? I would say south and north. They give me weird looks, and then I would I say, ‘Yes, I am from Hong Kong, and [Song] is from Mongolia’. But everywhere in China we eat breakfast like this – youtiao and soy milk. We just have different names for things,” says Ho. “We don't want to make more things. We just want to make one thing well.”
Their customers will say you can taste the difference – with all the breakfast snacks, but particularly the youtiao. These ones, they say, are the only ones that taste like Chinese youtiao.
That’s not the only reason China Jiaozi is so popular, though. Look at the prices: a single youtiao is just $2. Add a cup of soy milk and a soy-braised egg and it’s only $5.50. Even the shaobing is under $5. Where else can you get a handmade, hearty Chinese breakfast for under $10?
Mon to Fri 8am–6pm
Sat to Sun 8am–3pm
This is another edition of Broadsheet’s Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.