utside of the largest, most cosmopolitan urban centres, 24-hour dining remains a concept alien to the UK, where I grew up. Not so in China, where once-rigid restaurant opening hours (11am-2pm lunch and 5pm-8pm dinner) have loosened to accommodate economic and social transformation. While the gloriously chaotic night markets found in Taiwan and Southeast Asia have yet to establish a firm foothold on the Chinese mainland, a square meal is generally obtainable at 3am in most cities.
Historically the preserve of the working classes, gamblers, drunkards and the patrons of houses of ill-repute, midnight feasting or yexiao was once the main source of nourishment for China’s urban demi-monde. Today, white collar workers and hip young things are getting in on the action, and the range of options available is being expanded accordingly. Upmarket establishments have felt the lure of money to be made after hours, with pastry shops, hotpot chains, dim sum restaurants and sushi bars all staying open through the night to tempt sleepless snackers.
The appeal of, and need for late-night dining, particularly among urban youngsters, is easy to understand. China is globalizing alongside the rest of the world, and its population, who once had their rhythms of work and play dictated by the factory whistle or the crow of the rooster, are discovering a new, rootless way of life, and service industries are adapting accordingly. Once lambasted for an almost complete failure to acknowledge convenience culture beyond that represented by the instant noodle, China embraced 24-hour opening, home delivery and mobile payments, before storming ahead and putting the supposedly trend-setting West to shame.
Anyone who has spent any time in China will likely sonnet you sonnets about the glories of chuan’r, a contribution from Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. Hunks of marinated lamb are sprinkled with cumin and chili flakes before being grilled over hot coals and served by the skewer to midnight moochers with the munchies. Mala tang, originating in Sichuan, is a mash-up of kebabs and hotpot, served with a side of guilt. Various (sometimes unidentifiable) meats, vegetables, dumplings and tightly-knotted sheaves of rice noodles are skewered, then simmered in a piquant, spicy broth before being sold to consumers by the half-kilo.
The rise of the 24-hour eatery in China is indicative of the vast social change that has altered national consumer culture beyond recognition. What hasn’t changed is the Chinese passion for food – it’s just that, these days, the country’s endlessly rich gastronomic culture is evolving to meet the unceasing demand for instant gratification that has blossomed among the country’s millennials, as well as cater to working people who can no longer rely on regular hours and a quiet home life.
Huddled under bridges, blinking in the harsh fluorescent light, grinning through clouds of fragrant steam – China’s nighthawks represent the diversity and excitement of a nation in flux, and, as throughout the country’s history, food is the great equalizer.