Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ice Cream in a Very Cold Place

By far the most famous thing about Harbin is the bitter cold in the winter. Average winter temperatures reach down towards -20° C (-4° F), with occasional days below -35° (-31° F). Every year Harbin capitalizes on this reputation by hosting a month-long Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, world famous for its enormous sculptures made of ice and snow. So why, in a city renowned for its biting winters, is ice cream on a stick one of the most popular street foods?

Locals claim it is good for warming up the body, but as far as I’m concerned the taste is enough justification for its seemingly out-of-place popularity. These days you can find a number of different flavors, but the traditional off-white ice cream is flavored very simply. Actually, it mostly just tastes like lightly sweetened milk. This strong milk flavor can be a bit surprising for people who have grown up on chocolate, vanilla, and mint ice creams. It boasts a rich, creamy texture that melts in the warmth of your mouth, spreading the flavor to every corner of your tongue. Nothing complicated here—just good, simple ice cream on a stick. For the most authentic version, head over to the Modern Hotel, where they were first sold in 1906 by the Russian Jews who owned the hotel. You will know that you have found the real deal when you see “马迭尔” imprinted in the ice cream (mă dié ĕr is meant to approximate the word “modern”). Whether it is summer or winter or in between, you won’t want to miss this creamy treat with more than a century of tradition.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Progress Update (Two Years Later)

It was in January of 2013 that I last gave the world a progress report on my book. Much has happened in my life and in the world at large in the year that has elapsed between then and now, and that includes a certain amount of writing. Today seems like a good day to give a new update on how things are coming along.

Due to certain obstacles and non-writing commitments (some of which were highlighted in the writing update from last January), there were about 8 months in 2013 in which I didn't write a single word of the book. In an effort to subdue the forces conspiring against the completion my book, I made a point of planning my end-of-the-year schedule so that those obstacles and commitments largely vanished after the beginning of October, leaving me several months to focus on writing. That planning paid off: as of yesterday, I can officially say that I have finished writing the bulk of the book!

So what does that mean? It means that I've written up short reviews for each of the hundreds of street foods I ate in China. For every single food, this entailed deciphering handwritten Chinese characters in my notebook, researching the dish to learn its history and ingredients and to be sure it actually originated where I am telling people it originated (often needing to pore through inscrutable Google translations of Chinese websites to get my information), and trying to come up with an engaging way of describing it that doesn't sound exactly the same as all the other write-ups in the book (how many ways can you say delicious, spicy, or oily?). When I was in a good writing routine, my general goal was to do this for five foods a day, a goal that fit comfortably in the middle ground between not getting enough done and not getting burnt out. This whole process was (I hope) the most time-consuming part of writing this book by far. All that remains to do now is editing, layout, a little bit of fact-checking, writing a few introductory sections, wrapping up a few other odds and ends, and publishing. I'd guess that I have less than 15% of the work remaining. I don't know how long this might take, but I am confident it won't take nearly as long as the writing I have already done. My basic estimate is about two or three solid, unhindered months of work. Unfortunately, I have some commitments coming down the pike so I don't have that kind of time available right away. Nonetheless, I hope to have this book finished and out on the market later this year.

So there you have it. That's where things stand right now. I'm pleased to have the day-to-day tedium of slogging through these write-ups behind me, and I'm looking forward to the next stage in the process. Naturally, I'll try to keep you updated as things continue to progress. Onward!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cow Organs and Radishes

If you make a Venn diagram with two circles, one for people who like radishes and the other for people who like cow organs, you might as well label the overlapping section in the middle “people who like luó bó niú zá.”

Like so.

One of Guangzhou's signature dishes, luó bó niú zá (萝卜牛杂) is nothing more than a stew made with beef hearts, livers, spleens, stomachs, intestines, and lungs, along with some large chunks of soft, white radish. They are all boiled together in a large drum of water with a shelf near the top for organs that are finished cooking.

Like so.

As the various ingredients cook, the organ juices leech into the soup, which in turn soaks into the porous radish flesh. When you order a bowl of luó bó niú zá, the vendor will reach a ladle deep inside to scoop up some radish pieces from the bottom of the barrel, chop up some of the offal off of the offal shelf, and dump both components into a bowl with a small amount of the broth.

Like so.

The dish you end up with is a real highlight of South Chinese cuisine. The organ meat can be chewy, soft, tough, sweet, salty, rich, or savory depending on which part it is. And the tender radishes have soaked up so much of the juices that they themselves are hot and juicy, retaining just enough of the piquant flavor that you look for in a fresh radish. Even the broth is tasty, having been flavored with a vendor’s particular blend of spices. Put everything together and you get a wonderful combination that I absolutely recommend trying in Guangzhou—particularly if you find yourself in that middle point on the Venn diagram.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dòu Zhī

Walk around Beijing for a few short hours and you are guaranteed to see the characters “老北京” (lăo Bĕijīng) emblazoned on a number of shop fronts. The phrase means “old Beijing,” and it is ubiquitous in the city. In most cases it is meant as a signal to tourists that you can buy traditional Beijing foods or crafts or whatever at that establishment—an enticement of authenticity. Unfortunately, however, four times out of five it’s little more than a cheap marketing ploy. It’s the Beijing equivalent of U.S. manufacturers plastering the word “artisanal” onto a wholesome looking package to attract the eyes of well-meaning consumers susceptible to sneaking advertising tactics. In a sea of pseudo-lăo Bĕijīng products, it is always a pleasant surprise to come across something that truly deserves the title. One such example is dòu zhī (豆汁), a food with a long history in the city, a large and devoted following among elderly Beijingers, and a notoriously hard-to-acquire taste.

So what is it? A sour, fermented milk made of mung beans. More specifically, it is a by-product resulting from the preparation of cellophane noodles. Frankly speaking, dòu zhī does not come across as particularly appetizing. It looks like dirty, gray dishwater and smells like eggs and fetid gym socks. The taste is a combination of the two. It is thin and starchy, sour with a subtle beany aftertaste. Many locals say it must be eaten on at least three separate occasions before you can start to enjoy the flavor—after that, it is supposedly quite addictive. It is almost always served with two side dishes that help cut the taste a little bit: pickled vegetables and crispy rings of fried dough called jiāo quān. Dòu zhī absolutely lives up to its reputation as an acquired taste—it’s not going to be for everyone. Nonetheless, dòu zhī is a must-try for street food aficionados passing through the city. It’s an indelible part of the city’s cultural heritage, providing cheap sustenance to locals for hundreds of years. Perhaps the best endorsement comes from an old Chinese saying, which goes: “没有喝过豆汁儿,不算到过北京.” That roughly translates to “you haven’t been to Beijing unless you have tasted dòu zhī.” What more needs to be said?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

China's Most Percussive Street Food

Pow! Pow! Pow! That’s the unmistakable sound of sān dà pào (literally “three big gunshots”) being prepared. It is the only street food I know that involves sound as an integral part of its identity, and for this reason it holds a special place in my heart. It is more than just a snack—it is an experience with an essential theatricality. At its core, sān dà pào is not much more than a ball of glutinous rice coated in soybean flour and topped with a sugary cola-colored sauce.

Ah, but how does the rice ball get coated in the soybean flour, I hear you asking? Good question—here’s where it gets interesting. A sān dà pào stall will usually consist of a container of pounded glutinous rice, a large red drum with dish-sized brass cymbals attached (sort of like a giant tambourine), and a wide, shallow basket of soy flour. When you order sān dà pào, the vendor will tear off a chunk of sticky rice, form it into a ball, and hurl it at the face of the drum. As it bounces off of the drum skin and into the basket of soy flour, the drum booms and the cymbals rattle in a satisfying racket. An order of sān dà pào comes with three rice balls, which the vendor will throw in rapid succession to create the namesake three gunshots (unless the vendor is feeling a bit more lethargic like the one in my video, in which case it is a more leisurely volley). Once the rice balls have rolled down the slanted basket, they are sufficiently coated in soy flour to be transferred into a bowl where they are covered with a sweet sauce and served. Here's the whole process:

The rice balls are soft, dense, and squishy, with a mild sweetness. The soy flour coating keeps them from sticking together and gives them a powdery dryness and nearly imperceptible nutty flavor. Inexplicably, the sticky red syrup on top reminded me of a combination of Dr. Pepper and barbecue sauce. Who knows why. On their own, sān dà pào are a reasonably pleasant snack; with the addition of their clamorous preparation, though, they enter into the realm of particularly memorable street foods. If you like your dinner with some din, your snack with some crack, or your chow with some pow, you won’t want to miss Chengdu’s sān dà pào.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Three Stuffed Treasures

Hong Kong, one of the most vibrant cities on the planet, is well-known for being a street food hot spot. Many a street-food-lover has made a pilgrimage to the chaotic streets of downtown Hong Kong to explore the best snacks the city has to offer. Unfortunately, like some of China's similarly cosmopolitan cities, it is sometimes tricky to find the street foods that are unique to Hong Kong's culture. You can find vendors selling foods from all sorts of cities (both Chinese and non-Chinese), and it becomes difficult to distinguish which foods originated in Hong Kong and which ones didn't. Nonetheless, careful eaters will be able to find a few terrific local dishes. Of those local Hong Kong street foods, this one, 煎酿三宝 (jiān niàng sān băo), is my personal favorite.

As is the case with many of Hong Kong’s skewered street foods, you are presented with an array of meats and vegetables from which you can choose three to five. The most traditional choices are eggplant, green pepper, sausage, and tofu, but you may find other options as well.

Whichever you choose, the vendor will skewer them up and fry them on a flat griddle, making them hot, lightly crispy on the fringes, and shiny with oil. Ordinarily, this much alone would not be enough to merit its place as my favorite street food in Hong Kong. What makes it special is that each vegetable or piece of meat is stuffed with a salty, savory paste made out of mud carp. This paste adds a lovely and surprising fish flavor to each of the components.  With this added secret, these vegetables and meat become an unusual and very pleasant taste experience. Each morsel is rich and greasy, with flavors and textures distinct from its neighbors, making it one of the finest treats available on the streets of Hong Kong.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The One That Started It All

There it is: 油糍 (Yóu Cí). Believe it or not, this humble trifle of a snack is the street food that started it all for me. Although there are regional variations of yóu cí available in a few different provinces in China, the one I'd like to focus on can be found in Jiujiang (Jiangxi Province). Not many tourists pass through Jiujiang. The ones that do are usually only stopping by on their way to Lushan, the nearby mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site. For me, though, Jiujiang is my Chinese home. It is where I lived and worked for a year, and it is the first city in China that I really fell in love with.

I had been living in Jiujiang for a few months when I stumbled across a vendor selling these fried mystery pucks. I had never seen them before, and they beckoned to me. One taste was all it took: I was hooked. I had, of course, eaten street food before, but this is the one that turned it from a general interest in the street food scene to a passion. It was bound to happen eventually—it just worked out that this little ball of flavor was the mouth-watering catalyst. So what is it? Yóu cí is made of a gooey batter consisting mainly of crushed glutinous rice, water, tofu, scallions, salt, and maybe a dash of sliced chili pepper. Globs of this batter are deep fried in a shallow cylindrical mold until they are golden brown and lightly crispy on the outside. The final product glistens with residual oil, signaling its intentions to be deliciously unhealthy. Within the oily shell, spongy glutinous rice and silky tofu compete for space, and we all win.


Biting into a yóu cí is like sinking your teeth into a greasy pillow of pure joy. Not one of those brand new fluffy feather pillows that are mostly just air, but a denser, worn-in pillow that has already conformed to the shape of your head. The flavor is just what you would expect from this sort of street snack: salty and savory. Nothing complex or fancy; just humble deliciousness. Two or three bites and it is gone. Maybe it isn’t anything special when compared with some of China’s greatest street foods, but to my mind it epitomizes the very best of the street food culture in China. It’s quick, cheap, portable, and oh-so-tasty. As I said above, not many tourists pass through Jiujiang. Those who do, though, will enjoy seeking out this hidden gem.