Sunday, January 29, 2012

Trip Update

Well, it's been 20 days since I left for China. My trip is 2/9 complete (22.22222%). The end is not in sight by any means, but a reasonably substantial portion of the trip is in the rear view mirror. These past twenty days have been exhausting. I've been to 12 cities so far: Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Hefei, Jiujiang, Wuhan, Changsha, Nanchang, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Guangzhou. That covers 9 provinces (assuming we're counting Shanghai as an independent province, though it's technically a municipality not part of any province). China is a big country and I'm hoping to hit around 50 cities, so I have to keep to this grueling travel schedule. I'm going to be slowing down a tiny bit for the next week, as my next stops (including the current one in Guangzhou) are pretty big food cities. After this, I'll be heading to Hong Kong and then Macau. Hopefully with this schedule I should have time to post here and there.

So that's the brief update. Thanks, everybody, for your support and well-wishes.

Three Cheers for Leslie!

If you, dear reader, will permit me, I'd like to take a moment to post something slightly tangential to my China trip. Today is my wife's birthday, which seems as good a time as any to highlight how great she is. I already talked about this a little bit in the FAQ section (see link at the top of the page), but it bears reiteration. Imagine for a moment that your husband (some of you will have to imagine that you have a husband) says he wants to quit his steady job that holds pretty good potential for career advancement, and rather than finding a new job with a regular paycheck he is actually going to spend money to travel through China for three months eating street food. In the end, he will write a book about the food, but there is no guarantee he will ever make any money with it. He is asking you to be the sole breadwinner for the household while he goes on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure without you. Not only will you be responsible for all of the household bills for the foreseeable future, but you will not get to see your husband for a quarter of a year. Take all of that in and then consider: what would you say if your husband said he wanted to do all of this? If you are my wife, Leslie, you will happily and graciously assent, which is why my wife is the greatest wife in the world. So, from China, let me say three cheers for Leslie on her birthday: hooray, hooray, hooray for Leslie!

That is all. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog posts.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Stinky Tofu

You can always smell it before you see it. Stinky tofu, or Chou Dou Fu (臭豆腐) in Chinese, has an incomparable and instantly recognizable smell. Several different cities in China have their own versions of stinky tofu, but they are all variations on a theme: it's tofu and it smells terrible. Changsha's version is one of the more famous and more foul smelling of the varieties. Imagine you are casually walking down the street in Changsha, checking out the local shops and doing some people watching, when out of the blue you run into a wall. You are surrounded by a mephitic fug, as if somebody were burning a pile of Satan's used gym socks that have remained unwashed since his horrendous puberty. It takes a moment to track down the source of this olfactory assault, but then you see this:

A guy on the street frying up what looks like soft charcoal briquettes. There's your stinky tofu. How does it get so stinky? So black? It has been fermented with special, secret ingredients (Wikipedia says "The traditional method for producing stinky tofu is to prepare a brine made from fermented milk, vegetables, and meat; the brine can also include dried shrimp, amaranth, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs") for several months.

Now, I'm not the first to say it and I hope I won't be the last, but here's the thing: it tastes much better than it smells. For 4 or 5 yuan, you get a couple of chunks of stinky tofu topped with some pickled vegetables and some cilantro. This being Hunan Province, there is some spicy stuff thrown in as well.

The tofu is soft and warm, with a taste like a fine cheese. The black part adds a touch of crispiness to the outside of each brick, holding the insides in just long enough to get into your mouth. When mixed with the toppings, it is a perfect representation of Hunan food: salty and spicy, and oh so delicious. So, I urge you: next time you have the chance, go against anything your nose is telling you and give the chou dou fu a try. You won't regret it.

Chinese New Year

Warning: This is post is a bit of a hodgepodge of thoughts. I don't make any claims to a cohesive narrative. Just some generally connected ideas / personal experiences.

Chinese New Year, or "Spring Festival" as it is usually called in China, is an interesting time to travel through China. On the one hand, it's a real nightmare trying to go anywhere or do anything. It's traditional for families in China to be together for the holiday, and modern China is full of migrant workers, college students, and others who live far from their families. Everybody is going home at once, which results in what is called Chunyun. Basically, several hundred million people take train trips within a span of a couple of weeks. Logistically, that is amazing. Think about that for a second. Imagine if every man, woman, and child in the United States tried to take a train ride within a two-week period. It would be insane. That's what we have here. It's the biggest annual human migration in the world. The point is, if you are a tourist and you are trying to buy tickets, you have to be prepared for the possibility that all tickets are sold out. Or, in a slightly better scenario, you can get tickets, but they are standing room only tickets.

This is the train station in Shanghai more than a week before the Spring Festival. Several days later, this place would be packed.

So travel is a pain. Additionally, most shops (especially small ones, like where you can buy street food) close down for a few days or a week right at the new year. This can be inconvenient if you were planning to do anything in China while you were here.

On the other hand, it's a pretty great holiday. It's especially great if you have Chinese friends who are willing to include you in their family events. I am fortunate enough to have a friend like that. When Leslie and I lived in China, Zoe was our best Chinese friend (she still is, in fact). Her family has always been incredibly welcoming and this time around was no exception. She included me in four days worth of events, the highlight of which was on the 24th (the second day of the dragon year) when we went to her husband's family's village in the countryside. They picked me up early for the half-hour drive to the village. The family occupied several homes in the village itself (Zoe's mother-in-law and father-in-law both came from the village, so that's a lot of family members), so we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at three separate houses. All of the homes were spartan in furnishings, with concrete walls, wood burning stoves, and no heating.

It was relatively cold out (right around 32 Fahrenheit, I suspect), so many family members and one tall foreigner gathered around a ceramic pot filled with smoldering embers. Each of the three meals was a true feast. We had pork, cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, beef, liver, eggs...all sorts of things. Not to mention, of course, the copious baijiu and cigarettes that were constantly foisted upon me by all of the male relatives.

Outside of the meals, firecrackers were lit, mahjong was played, and good company was had. I should also note that this was an important year to visit this family because a family member (one of Zoe's father-in-law's brothers) had died, so everybody had to make an extra effort to visit this year. An interesting cultural note is that most families in China hang red banners around their doors for the new year, to bring good luck on all of the inhabitants in the coming year and (theoretically) ward off evil spirits. 

These red banners are hanging on almost every door in China right now. If, however, a member of a household has died in the past year, the family signifies this with yellow banners instead. Here's the outside of the house where the deceased had lived:

As I've ridden through the countryside on trains between cities, I have seen a couple more of these. It's a thoughtful and quiet way to indicate a family's woes.

So, as I said, Chinese New Year is a mixed bag in terms of whether or not it's the right time to visit China. It's difficult to move about the country or do much of anything, but you'll have the opportunity to hear thousands of fireworks and firecrackers going off at once in every corner of the city (imagine the 4th of July, except every household is setting off their own pyrotechnics). If you are extremely lucky like me, you will have chances to see a different side of China than you normally would. In my book, the verdict goes clearly to the side of "yes, it's the right time to come." So long as you know what you're getting into, it's an incredibly special experience--one that is celebrated annually by more than a sixth of the world's population.

Re Gan Mian

If you go to Wuhan, the one must-try dish is the Re Gan Mian (热干面). This dish is a staple for residents of Wuhan, typically eaten for breakfast (but available any time of the day). The Chinese name translates literally to "hot dry noodles." It's worth noting that that "hot" refers to the temperature and not the spiciness. Re gan mian is simple, but quite tasty. The noodles are made a special way so that they do not stick to your teeth. They are long, round noodles, akin to spaghetti. They are pre-cooked the night before so that when you order them, they only need to be flash-boiled for about 30 seconds. After the boiling, the cook drops them in a bowl, tops them with sesame paste (sometimes peanut paste, but sesame is more authentic), and your choice of pickled vegetables, radishes, scallions, sour vegetables, and spicy sauce (la jiao). All that remains is to mix it up and eat.

This stuff is delicious. Most noodles in China are served in a soup of sorts, which is why re gan mian (which is not served in a soup) is called "dry." The sesame paste adds a nice grainy texture to the noodles, which are just the right amount of sticky. Re gan mian will only set you back about 3 - 5 yuan, which is a great price for a filling breakfast. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Peach Tree Jelly

Tao Jiang (桃浆), roughly translated, means "peach tree jelly." Although you might be able to find it all year in Hangzhou, it is typically eaten in the summer. When I first heard about this snack, I figured that it was something like a peach jam or jelly that you could use as a condiment. The truth is actually much more interesting. The base of the Tao Jiang is sap that comes from the peach tree. It is collected in rock-hard, irregularly shaped, crystalized clumps, about the size of a walnut.

To make a batch of the jelly, you let the crystals soak in cool water for at least half a day (usually more), and then throw them into some boiling water. At this point, you can add some extra flavoring, such as goji berries and osmanthus blossoms. After you let it cool, it's time to scoop it out into a bowl or cup and eat.

The final product is sort of like jello sitting in a thin syrup (with some berries and flowers floating on top). The sap crystals retain their basic shape, but have a texture like grainy gelatin. Because of the cooking, their orange color has oozed out of the crystals and into the water, so the jelly itself is colorless. It's a nice snack--just a bit sweet, and probably very refreshing in the summertime. Definitely worth a try if you happen to find it. Depending on the season, you can probably expect to pay 3 - 5 Y for a cup of Tao Jiang.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Beggar's Chicken

Hangzhou is well-known in China for being one of the country's most beautiful cities. The city's West Lake (Xi Hu) is a major tourist draw, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like many cities in China, it has a history of several thousand years, and it holds the distinction of being the national capital for at least a few of those years (most recently in 1279), which means there is lots of history to be found if you are into that sort of thing. I came not, though, for the sights or the history, but for the food. Hangzhou has several famous dishes that are not typically street foods, such as the candied lotus root and the dongpo pork, both of which are well worth a try. If it's street food you are after, though (and I am), you will be glad to find that Hangzhou's most famous dish--beggar's chicken (叫化鸡) (Jiao Hua Ji)--resides right on the border between restaurant food and street food. Beggar's chicken has only one ingredient: a whole chicken. The magic comes in the preparation. There are three steps to preparing beggar's chicken: 1) Wrap the chicken tightly in lotus leaves; 2) Pack clay around the lotus leaves; and 3) Bake the chicken in a special oven or over an open fire.

Here's what it looks like when it's still wrapped in clay.

It sounds simple (and it is), but the result is fantastic. After cutting open the top of the package with scissors or a knife, you can dive right in with your fingers (some vendors will provide plastic gloves for this part).


The chicken is so tightly packed that none of the juices have escaped during cooking, which results in a soft, succulent flesh that pulls right away from the bone. A bit of flavor from the lotus leaves seeps in as well, giving the chicken a slightly different taste. Beggar's chicken is a little bit more expensive than your standard street food (20 - 30 Y), but it's definitely worth it. You do, after all, get a whole chicken for that price.

If you look carefully, you'll see a chicken foot I said, this is the whole chicken.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Duck Blood Soup

Oof! It's been a busy few days since I last posted. Since I last wrote, I have been to Suzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. Today I will be heading out to Hefei, in Anhui Province. Before that, though, a review of one of Nanjing's street foods: Ya Xue Fen Si Tang (鸭血粉丝汤), or duck blood soup.

This is a local specialty in Nanjing, and quite tasty. The soup has an oily broth with a touch of spiciness to it. The bowl is densely packed with vermicelli noodles, long and slippery like the worms with which they share an etymological base. The noodles don't have much flavor themselves, but they function superbly as a base for the broth and the duck's blood. Naturally, the highlight of this dish is the duck's blood itself. Upon hearing the name, you might suspect the blood to be the liquid basis of the broth in the soup. In fact, the blood has been fermented and is served in solid blocks with the shape, texture, and consistency of tofu.

The taste, however, is quite unlike tofu. It's a bit hard to describe, actually. It doesn't have the iron-y taste you might expect from fresh blood, nor does it taste like duck. That being said, there is a very clear taste of an undefined "meat" in the blocks. Sort of like a meat-based broth--you can tell it came from an animal, but it doesn't exactly taste like beef or chicken.

You can find this dish in restaurants and on the streets around the city. Perhaps the best place to look is near Fuzimiao (the Confucius Temple). Expect to pay around 5 - 10 Y per bowl.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hitting the Ground Running

I made it! It was a long journey (almost exactly 24 hours from my house in Washington to my place in Shanghai), but here I am in China. I may write more about the travelling later. For now, though, it's finally time to get into the meat and potatoes of this blog--writing about Chinese street food!

Yesterday, I had the extreme good fortune to have a personal tour guide to the best street food in Shanghai. Fiona Reilly, who blogs at about food and life in Shanghai (be sure to check it out), was kind enough to lend me her husband's bicycle and show me around the city for five hours on Friday. It had been years since I bicycled in China; it was every bit as exhilarating as I remembered. The traffic laws on Chinese roads generally feel more like traffic suggestions. In general, the idea is to do what you like, just don't hit anybody or get hit. This means a lot of weaving in and out of traffic, turning left in front of oncoming traffic, moving into oncoming traffic to pass the car in front of you (and forcing the cars going the other direction to wait until you're done), and similar strategies. Biking in China makes me feel like I am part of some big, hulking organism. Like an individual red blood cell, chaotically coursing through an enormous body.

Anyway, Fiona generously took me to some of her favorite street food spots. Our first stop was for You Tiao (油条), which is somewhat similar to a cruller. It's composed of two attached-at-the-hip tubes of dough, about a foot long. The dough is light and flaky, sort of like a croissant, but much greasier. The process for making You Tiao is kind of neat. First, you roll out the dough into a long ribbon, about the width and length of a sash. After it's rolled out to your liking, you fold it over in two (top to bottom) and then slice it width-wise into strips about the size of a harmonica. The only thing left is to throw it into the oil and let it soak in those fatty juices for a while, and then you have your You Tiao. You Tiao is often eaten with a bowl of Dou Jiang (豆漿), or soy milk, mixed with ingredients such as pickled vegetables (for a more savory version), sugar (for a sweeter version), or small bits of You Tiao. You Tiao is a pretty common breakfast in Shanghai, so if you want to try it out, make sure you look for it (all around the city) before 10:00 or 11:00.

You Tiao with Dou Jiang

After the You Tiao, we tried several other local dishes including Ci Fan Gao (粢饭糕) (fried rice patties), Cong You Ban Mian (葱油拌面) (scallion oil mixed noodles), Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) (soup dumplings), and Cong You Bing (葱油饼) (scallion pancakes). The standouts for me were the Xiao Long Bao and the Cong You Bing. Xiao Long Bao are basically steamed dumplings filled with pork and a bit of soup. Generally you dip them in vinegar before you eat them. Each time you bite into one, the soup bursts out of the dumpling into your mouth, coating your tongue with the juices. It's really fabulous. 

So much flavor in such a small package.

Much of the appeal for me of the Cong You Bing was the character of the particular shop where we bought it. Fiona tells me that it's the best place for Cong You Bing in the city, and the line outside certainly backed up that claim. The guy running the shop is an older gentleman who was apparently born with a hunchback and--due to the prevailing cultural atmosphere at the time--was sent to live with his uncle. He has run this shop by himself for many years. He moves a little bit slowly, but he makes excellent food. Cong You Bing is made of dough (with some lard in it) that is stuffed with scallions and a little bit of pork. The dough patties are fried on a grill, flattened with an iron, crisped by a fire, and then served. The owner of the shop has a complex one-man-assembly line going; at any given moment there are probably a few of the Cong You Bing in each stage of the process.

That griddle where the Cong You Bing are frying slides out (towards the camera) on those rails so that he can access the fire in the steel drum below. Around the rim of the steel drum are some other Cong You Bing being crisped by the fire.

The final product is delicious. It's greasy, flaky, and savory. One bite tells you that it's great for your taste buds, but not so much for your heart. Nonetheless, it's so good that several people in line told us they eat them every day.
The finished product.

So that's about that for Shanghai. I'll be returning to this enormous city later on my trip (I'm flying back out of Shanghai), so there may be more to come. In the meantime, I'm in Suzhou enjoying the street food here. Hopefully I'll be posting more soon. Until then, be well and eat well.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

And I'm Off!

The time has come! In just a few short minutes, I will be on my way to the DC Metro, to DCA, to JFK, and finally to Shanghai. Am I ready? I don't know. Time will tell, I suppose. In any case, check back in the next week or so for updates! See you soon, friends.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Visa Issues Resolved

Five days before Christmas, I walked into the Chinese visa office in DC feeling good, ready to pick up my visa.  An hour later, I walked out in a fog of frustration and confusion, with a thousand whirling dervishes of thought coursing through my skull. To make a long story short, I had been granted a visa, but not the one I had requested. When I applied, I requested a multiple-entry visa with 60 days per entry. Instead, I received a single-entry visa good for 60 days. There are two main troubles here. First and foremost, if you go from mainland China to Hong Kong or Macau and then try to get back on the mainland, that counts as an additional entry. With a single-entry visa, then, you would have to apply for a whole new visa while in Hong Kong or Macau, which is both costly and time-consuming. The second issue is that my trip, as a whole, is 90 days. So, with my single-entry 60-day visa, I was left with three obvious options: 1) Leave Hong Kong and Macau out of my journey and book entirely and apply for a visa extension while in China; 2) Include Hong Kong and Macau and have to apply and pay for a new visa each time I returned to the mainland; or 3) Reapply here in the states and hope to get a multiple-entry visa this time around (at the risk of paying for a new visa and ending up right where I started). Though all of the options were pretty unappealing, Option 3 seemed the least offensive of the bunch. I contacted the China Visa Service Center, and they were able to help me reapply for a visa. I just received it yesterday, and all is well--I now have a multiple-entry visa good for 60 days per entry, just like I wanted. Whew! Just in the nick of time. Now I just need to pack before Wednesday...

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Life of a Street Food Vendor

Tricia Wang, a self-described "ethnographer, sociologist, and researcher" currently living, working, and studying in China, spent three days this past summer living and working with a migrant family in Wuhan as they pursued a street food vending opportunity. The results of her visit, engagingly written up on her website, were eye-opening. Tourists passing through a city eating the street food don't often have the opportunity to learn about the lives of the vendors they frequent. In this case, the vendors were unlicensed and new to the city. Their main customers were the workers at a construction site. All in all, this means their situation is likely to be different from the established vendors that you're more likely to come across as a tourist. Nonetheless, their experiences are worth knowing. They work a grueling schedule, make barely enough to live on (if they even make that much), live in squalid conditions, and work in constant fear of the police. Because they don't have a lot of seed money, they make do with broken-down equipment (see the picture below of the author pushing the battery-powered bicycle that didn't always work) and a non-ideal system of transporting the food to the selling site, which causes much of the food to be spilled or ruined before they even get to the construction site.

The author pushing one of the family's two electric bicycles

It's sobering to be reminded of the living and working conditions of the people who serve the food we enjoy so much (as well as the sanitary conditions of the food preparation itself). As I said above, this is not the story of all street food vendors, but the migrant culture is absolutely a part of modern China, for better or worse. The more we know about their stories, the better chance there is to improve their situations. I'd encourage anybody interested in modern China, in street food, or just in humanity in general to read Ms. Wang's account of her experiences with this family.