Monday, January 26, 2015

Street Food Around the World

One of the fun things about writing this website and book is opening up my email account to find messages from strangers regarding street food. Not long ago I received one such email from Zara at Backpack ME asking if I wanted to contribute to a post documenting street foods around the world. I would, naturally, be representing China in that post. It sounded like fun, so I got on board. It was tough to choose a single street food to represent a country as massive and gastronomically diverse as China. There are so many great foods, some of which are currently available throughout the country and some that are really limited in geography. In the end, I settled on 煎饼 (jiān bĭng), as it seemed there was a solid argument to be made for it being the quintessential Chinese street food.


Despite it's Beijing/Tianjin origins, this greasy thrill for the taste buds is widely available in China. It also has all the hallmarks of a great Chinese street food (quick, cheap, greasy, and filling). All considered, it seemed as good a representative dish as any. So, I wrote up a paragraph or two and sent it off to Zara. Earlier today I got another email saying that the post had officially gone up. Besides my piece about China, there are entries from Mexico, Vietnam, Burma, Iran, Madagascar, Grenada, Tanzania, Slovakia, Romania, Egypt, Guatemala, and two dozen other countries. Wow! It's a terrific and remarkably mouth-watering list. What a wonderful reminder about the diversity of the human experience. I want to try all of them in one weeks-long street food binge.

Anyway, I encourage you to hop on over and check out the Street Food Around the World post. While you're there, poke around some of the other articles Zara and Ashray have posted--there's lots of good travel writing to discover. Thanks for the invitation, Backpack ME!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Peculiar Name; Great Taste

One of Tianjin’s most beloved street foods, 耳朵眼炸糕 (ĕr duŏ yăn zhá gāo) was invented around the turn of the 20th century by a man named Liu Wanchun. The hutong where he lived and sold his wares was, for some reason, named Ĕr Duŏ Yăn (“earhole”). Why? I don't know. Anyway, over time, as his sweet fried rice cakes became more and more well-loved in the city, they were identified with Mr. Liu and his earhole alley, which is how they became known as ĕr duŏ yăn zhá gāo: earhole fried rice cakes.


The non-orifice part of the name (i.e. "fried rice cake") gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into here. A blob of yellow rice and glutinous rice dough about the size of a persimmon is stuffed with a mixture of red bean paste and brown sugar and then fried. What you end up with is a ball with a thin, crispy, blistered skin and a gooey, squishy, sweet interior. It is a delightful treat for the senses, particularly if you are a normal person who likes sweet and fried foods. A food that I have used the words “earhole” and “blistered” to describe might not sound very appetizing, but you’ll have to trust me—this one is a winner.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Three Year Update

Well, another year has come and gone. It's now been three years since I left my wife in DC and jetted off to China for my culinary research trip / adventure. I've posted updates at the one-year and two-year marks, so I figured I might as well provide another annual update now. As regular readers (you know who you are) may recall, a year ago I finished writing the bulk of the book, and yet here it is 2015 and it's still not available for purchase. So what happened between then and now? Two things prevented the book from being totally finished. For one thing, my life got in the way a little bit. The list of life things that made me put a hold on book-work includes such items as buying a house (with some logistical surprises along the way), traveling during a couple of months for my other job, and visiting with family, but the biggest life event standing in the way of getting the book to market was the birth of my wife's and my first child. Since my daughter was born, especially after my wife's maternity leave ended, I have been a stay-at-home dad, acting as her primary caregiver during the workweek. Believe it or not, taking care of an infant sucks up a decent amount of one's free time. (Who knew?) So my ability to work on the book was seriously inhibited for parts of the year.


The other main reason that I don't have the book on the market yet is that I am actively hunting for publishers. I had been on the fence about self-publishing vs. traditional publishers, but last spring a friend convinced me to give the traditional model a real, honest-to-goodness try. So that's what I've been doing. Much of the time I did have to work on the book in the past year has been spent contacting publishers and waiting to hear back from them (hello to any publishers or literary agents reading this!). The waiting is killer, since you can't do anything active towards completing the book--you just sit and wait for a response to come (which it usually doesn't). So it's a bit discouraging. Nonetheless, I am going to keep heading that direction for a few more months. If nothing pans out then I will go the self-publishing route; I am determined to have the book available for purchase by this time next year.

So that's what's going on. It's not an especially satisfying update, I'm sure, so hopefully I'll have something more substantive to offer soon. Thanks for reading and for your continued interest/support!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Snail Noodle Soup

Thanks to some curious historical pigeonholing, Liuzhou is best known in China as a producer of coffins. This reputation even makes its way into a well-known Chinese saying about the key to a happy life that goes: 生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州. This translates to something like “be born in Suzhou [a city reputed to produce the most beautiful people], live in Hangzhou [which is renowned for its scenic location], eat in Guangzhou [the seat of world-famous Cantonese cuisine], and die in Liuzhou.” Although the coffin industry casts a macabre pall over the city’s history and culture, it is not the only game in town; Liuzhou is also known for its delicious snail soup, known to locals as luó sī fĕn. 


Most people who hear about this snail soup expect at least a handful of the eponymous gastropods to lie in wait, lurking squishily within the shimmering, murky broth. This assumption is actually wrong, as snail meat is not a direct ingredient of luó sī fĕn. In fact, the soup gets its name because its base is snail stock. River snails and pork bones are stewed for hours with vendor-specific combinations of spices (generally including cardamom, fennel, star anise, cloves, pepper, and other similar spices) to create the distinctive broth. In addition to the snail broth, the recipe for luó sī fĕn includes a thick tangle of skinny rice noodles, crispy fried tofu skin, peanuts, pickled vegetables (this is Guangxi, after all), fresh green vegetables, and heaps of chili oil. This is usually a very spicy bowl of noodles with some intriguing contrasts of taste (spicy, sour, and faintly musty) and texture (slippery, crunchy, and soft). You can buy luó sī fĕn in nearby cities like Nanning and Guilin, but if you want the finest bowl of snail soup money can buy, I’d recommend making a stop right in Liuzhou. If nothing else, it will give you something other than coffins to remember the city for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Interview With Chinese-Tools.com

Just a quick post today to draw your attention to this interview I recently did with Chinese-Tools.com about street food, travels, and my book. While you're over there, be sure to check out some of their great resources for learners and lovers of Chinese language and culture.  They've got dictionaries, articles, a tool that lets you write in Chinese without downloading any software, and lots more. Thanks for the interview, Chinese-Tools.com!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Heaven on Earth

In certain parts of China, they have a saying: 天上龙肉, 地上驴肉. Roughly translated, this means “In heaven there is dragon meat; on earth, there is donkey meat.” That’s right—the donkey, perhaps the humblest of all equines, is apparently the closest we have on earth to the ambrosia of the gods. If this seems unlikely to you, then you obviously haven’t eaten lú ròu huŏ shāo, a sandwich that makes a compelling argument in favor of donkeys as food.

Historical records suggest that the regional tradition of eating donkey meat goes back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). During the reign of the Yongle Emperor at the beginning of the 15th century, some starving military men in dire straits resorted to slaughtering their horses and eating the meat with bread. They were surprised to find that this was an excellent combination, and the custom soon spread to local peasants. Of course horses are not cheap, and the 15th century Chinese peasants could not afford to keep up this practice for very long. In an effort to cut costs, they switched to the more economical donkey meat with bread and found, amazingly, that it was even more delicious than the horse meat. The rest, as they say, is history.

To this day, donkey meat sandwiches are a popular repast in Baoding (as well as Hebei at large). Lú ròu huŏ shāo begins with shredded donkey meat stewed with secret, vendor-specific blends of spices and sauces, which is generously scooped onto a golden, flaky bun. The bread of the sandwich is thick and just a little bit greasy—a perfect complement to the lean, flavorful donkey meat. Sandwiches are a rare find in traditional Chinese food; after eating lú ròu huŏ shāo, you might wish that weren’t so. In no uncertain terms, I can tell you that lú ròu huŏ shāo is fantastic: buttery, juicy, carefully spiced, savory, and lots more. Donkey meat may not be dragon meat, but perhaps it’s the closest we’ve got.

Monday, August 11, 2014

City Weekend Shanghai Interview

I was fortunate recently to be interviewed by City Weekend Shanghai as one of "China's Best Food Bloggers" (thanks, City Weekend Shanghai!). You can read the entire thing here, if you're so inclined. While you're there, you might consider looking through some other articles (they did an entire week of food bloggers, for example) and maybe following them on Facebook. My favorite question of the interview was when they asked me to design my perfect day of eating in China. It was a tough call (who could choose?), but here's what I came up with: 
I think I'd start my day with a steaming bowl of Wuhan's 热干面, one of the best breakfast-time noodle dishes in the country. Assuming I still have some room left in my stomach for a sweeter, cooler dish, I might head up to Inner Mongolia for a bowl of 酸奶炒米. This one has a lower profile in the country than 热干面, but it's still a delicious start to a big day of eating. All it is, basically, is cold butter, crispy millet puffs, and sugar. Can you imagine? It's completely decadent and well worth the guilt you might feel about eating a bowl of butter and sugar. When lunchtime rolls around, I would jet over to Chengdu to have one of my favorite dishes in all of China: 甜水面. Like many dishes in Chengdu, these thick, rough-hewn, slightly stiff noodles are topped with a fantastic málà sauce. That by itself would probably be tasty enough, but to make things even better, 甜水面 comes with a generous sprinkling of fat sugar crystals on top. The mixture of flavors and sensations is divine -- sweet, spicy, numbing, hearty -- it's very nearly a perfect bowl of noodles.  
 甜水面
For a mid-afternoon snack, I would likely nibble on either Ningbo's 缙云烧饼, Kunming's 猪蹄, Xi'an's 柿子饼, Guiyang's 豆腐圆子, or Jiujiang's 油糍 (which happens to be the first Chinese street food I fell in love with). If I was feeling especially peckish, I might have two or three of those. When dinnertime rolled around, I think I would go down to Guangzhou and start with a bowl of 萝卜牛杂: cow organs and radishes in broth. It's a delightful mix of textures and flavors, especially if you like offal. Since that dish is pretty small, I imagine I'd have room for a little bit more dinner and would stop by Xi'an to get a big bowl of 羊肉泡馍. With its greasy mutton, dense steamed bread, and salty broth, this is a truly filling (and truly delicious) meal. At the end of the day, I think I'd want to finish in Harbin with a refreshing 马迭尔冰棍. This milk-flavored ice cream on a stick was brought to the city by the Russian Jewish population over one hundred years ago, and it is still as tasty as ever. I always like to end a day with something cool and sweet, and this one fits the bill to a T. That wraps up a wonderful day of eating in China. I'd go to bed happy and fat that night.
So that's my perfect day. What would yours be, reader?