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Cash-strapped urban Chinese youth salivate over cheap, filling meals

As Chinese urban professionals tighten their purse strings in the face of a slowing economy, an unassuming lunch option traditionally enjoyed by blue-collar workers in Northeastern China has become an online sensation.

For a long time, food content on lifestyle and social commerce app Xiaohongshu — often described as China’s answer to Instagram — was dominated by three types of posts: reviews of trendy restaurants, healthy recipes, and food diaries by office workers, all presented with a carefully staged and glossy-looking aesthetic popular on the platform.

It made perfect sense, as Xiaohongshu’s culture is all about promoting aspirational lifestyles — dressing up, traveling, and — of course — eating fine food.

But about a month ago, a different type of food post took Xiaohongshu by storm. Countering the app’s fundamental ethos, the new trend centers “Northeastern lunch boxes” (东北盒饭 dōngběi héfàn), the kind of meal that’s ubiquitous on the streets of northeastern China but rarely seen in metropolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

On Xiaohongshu, a search for “dongbei hefan” brings up tens of thousands of posts that collectively have millions of views. They include a string of videos by user Dà Kāchā Rìjì (@大咔嚓日记), a food influencer in Tieling, Liaoning Province, who frequently films himself visiting small food businesses and street vendors in his city. In a video posted on December 28, he shows a cafeteria-style hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a variety of food plated in steel trays. For 14 yuan ($2), the content creator bought six dishes — a mix of vegetables and meat — and two bowls of rice. “The main characteristics of dongbei hefan are huge portions and cheap prices,” he proudly states in the video.

The clip has garnered nearly 25,000 likes so far, and the comments are full of people saying they wish such food was available in their areas. “I’m drooling just by watching this video. I’m so jealous!” one person wrote.

One of Dakacha Riji’s followers is Mia Cao, an apparel sales representative in Shanghai, who described his videos as “the perfect digital appetizer” when she takes lunch breaks at her office desk. “Cheap food options are hard to come by not only in my neighborhood, but in Shanghai in general,” she told The China Project. “I’m so envious of the people in dongbei.”

What is dongbei hefan?

Dongbei hefan has long been a major staple in the diet of local people, enjoyed mostly by low- and moderate-income workers who live on a budget. Businesses providing dongbei hefan fall under two categories: restaurants in fixed locations, and mobile food vendors. The latter tend to have the cheapest deals, as they can save money on rent.

Dongbei hefan is popular mainly because of its affordability and diversity. For as low as 10 yuan ($1.49), customers can create their own meal plates with three dishes and their choice of starch. Options available often include sweet and sour pork (咕咾肉 gū lǎo ròu), stir-fried tomatoes and eggs (番茄炒蛋 fānqié chǎo dàn), and eggplant with garlic sauce (家常茄子 jiā cháng qiézǐ) — all homestyle, comfort food items that pair well with a bowl of rice.


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