Friday, February 2, 2018

Yù Lán Bĭng

As I mentioned in my last post, I expect to have some big updates on the publishing front in the near future. To celebrate, I thought I'd post a new street food review (that's really why everyone comes here, right? Let's be honest...). Today's spotlight is on Wuxi's yù lán bĭng (玉兰饼): one of my favorite Chinese street foods in the "small snacks" category. Wuxi is so close to Shanghai that it doesn't seem to get the credit it deserves as its own city, but I actually found that some of the food there gave Shanghai cuisine a major run for its money. Yù lán bĭng is a good example of such a dish. The basic description is simple: a fried, hollow ball of glutinous rice is stuffed with a sweet pork meatball. That’s all it is. And yet it is completely delicious.

Simple on the outside

Heaven on the inside 

The glutinous rice ball is fried to a crisp golden brown on the outside wall, while the interior wall is left white and sticky. The pork meatball inside is mildly sweet (some vendors' recipes include rosewater!) and succulent—very juicy. A lot of meat-in-dough foods in China end up with the stuffing clinging pretty closely to the casing, but in the case of yù lán bĭng the pork and the rice are distinct from one another. Like two nesting dolls, the meatball just sits inside of the glutinous rice ball. This unassuming little street food is oily, sweet, chewy, and meaty, just bursting with juice and flavor. Buy yourself one or two or ten—you won’t regret it.

I'm Back! (But Did I Ever Really Leave?)

Friends, it's been much too long since I've posted here. Perhaps you thought this project was dead. That I had abandoned it like yesterday's jam. Like a film you keep meaning to watch but keep putting off because you're not in the right mood and then eventually it goes off Netflix and you pretend to feel regretful for a short time (I had planned to finally watch it this weekend, I swear!) and then never think of it again. Like an old shirt lying unused and forgotten in the back of your closet, thought of now and then but never taken out and worn, until one day it is thrown out unceremoniously in a frantic moving day purge.

Well, I'm here to tell you today that this project is not dead. It is, in fact, most vibrantly alive. Why has it been so long since I last communicated with you through this humble website? Lots of reasons! Some good (e.g. fun job, new baby, old baby--all keeping me busy), some not so good (e.g. deaths in the family keeping me busy). The core of the matter, though, is that I simply had nothing to report. Things were plugging along with my publisher but I had no tangible news to share. The first piece of anything I had seen in a while was a draft of the cover that came in last fall. It wasn't ready to share publicly yet, so I held my tongue for the time being. Now it looks as though there will be some news coming through pretty soon, so I thought it was time to start things up again around here. Dust off the old writing gloves and stretch those old typing fingers. So here I am. Back again. Ready to talk about street food. Keep your eyes out in the coming weeks for more posts. I hope you're as excited as I am.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Best and Worst Meats

One of the great joys of eating street food in a country you are visiting is the opportunity to try meats you've never tried before (both new animals and new parts of familiar animals). In the course of researching this book, I added a couple of new animals to my own list (donkey and dog come to mind immediately) and loads of new organs and things, and it was always a thrill. Something about new experiences--there's nothing like it. Unfortunately, that little jolt of excitement when you try something totally new to you is not always accessible when you are at home, so we are stuck living vicariously through others. This list of the best and worst tasting animals as judged by Andrew Zimmern--a man who has tried a wider variety of animals than probably anybody on earth (and whom I've discussed previously on this website)--is the crème de la crème of vicarious living. Many readers may have tried crayfish; fewer will have tried porcupine. Take note that donkey is his second item on the list. This won't be a surprise to citizens in parts of China, as I've written before. Donkey aside, the whole list is a lot of fun. What a good reminder of how many foods there are for us to try in one short lifetime!

I'm establishing a tradition of using this photo of Andrew Zimmern.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

On the Value of Breaking Routines

Routine: we're all guilty of it. It serves it purpose, to be sure, but it also has a sinister side, for routines can often lead to ruts. That's one of the great things about travel--it gets you out of your routine and into a whole world of new experiences. Of course culinary experiences are high on that list. How much fun is it to eat something you've never eaten in a place you've never been? Lots of fun!

Even when traveling (or living abroad, in the case of expats), however, it's easy to fall into routines and opt for familiarity over expanding horizons. This list of "5 Dishes Every Expat Over-Orders" from City Weekend Shanghai is a good reminder that there is a lot out there beyond the comforts of...well, comfort food. Read it for fun or to remember the value of breaking routine. Full disclosure: when I lived in China, the only one of these I was guilty of over-ordering was the 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (stir-fried tomato and egg). What can I say? It was (and is) reliably delicious.

Mmmmmmmmmm.....

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

There You Have It: Even Obama Likes Street Food

This website rarely touches on politics, but this story was too good not to mention: When President Obama was in Vietnam this week, he made a point of sharing a meal with famous food-eater Anthony Bourdain. Not just any meal, of course--they ate bún chả at a hole-in-the-wall Hanoi noodle shop! Perhaps it isn't Chinese street food, but I think an American president stopping by a street food shop in East Asia merits a mention here on chinesestreetfood.com. Read more about the Obama-Bourdain dinner here.


Friday, April 22, 2016

"Ethnic Food" in the USA

American cities and suburbs are teeming with so-called "ethnic" restaurants: Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, etc. There are thousands of them, and they are often quite popular. But what makes a type of food "ethnic" while others aren't (take Japanese, French, or Italian, for instance, all cuisines that don't usually get ghettoized in the same fashion)?

What does that even mean?

Why are Americans willing to pay higher prices for some countries' cuisine (again, check out French, for example) but expect "ethnic food" to be cheaper, even if that means sacrificing some quality? Speaking of quality, why are some culinary traditions seen as tasty but one-dimensional while others are marveled at for their complexity and variation? Americans frequently express an interest in "authenticity," but what does that word actually mean, especially if your only familiarity with the cuisine comes from the restaurants here in the States? What does all of this say about subconscious views about inferiority and superiority of different cultures? These and other fascinating questions and issues are discussed at length in this interview published in the Washington Post with Krishnendu Ray, the chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of the new book "The Ethnic Restaurateur." I encourage you to read it and ponder the issues therein (especially if you are one of those Americans who craves "ethnic food"...time to do some self-examination, perhaps).

One particularly relevant quote from the article for me was this: "The more we know about a culture, the more we can understand about its nuance." That, in a nutshell, is one of the main reasons I wrote this book. You can't appreciate the complexity of a culture unless you get out there and dig past the surface. Of course I'm obligated to say that if you really want authentic, high-quality food, and you really want to explore the nuance of a culture, there's no better method than travel...perhaps with a guide to local food in hand...not that I have anything in particular in mind.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Chinese Food is So Addicting

Reports out of China this week indicate that 35 restaurants are suspected of illegally lacing their food with opium poppy powder. Why? Presumably because the powder might provide a mild narcotic effect, and potentially even get the patrons addicted to that restaurant's food. (Apparently it's not clear how effective it actually is, but that's the goal.) It all becomes so clear now...it always was hard to put down those persimmon cakes in Xi'an...