Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rabbit Heads

In my post last night about Dou Hua Mian, I noted that it was a good entry point for people reluctant to try the more exotic street foods (to a Western palate). This post is not for those people. Today I go to the other extreme, to a food that only the more adventurous travelers will seek out: rabbit heads.

Some street foods you need to ask around to find. They might be advertised on a sign, but if you don't read Chinese you're out of luck. This is not one of those foods. To identify a vendor selling rabbit heads, look for this:

Yes, this terrifying army of zombie-esque rabbit heads could be your lunch. For 6 yuan, you receive one rabbit head and some plastic gloves. 

The outside of a rabbit's head does not have a lot of meat. To access anything worth eating, you are required to take this head apart, piece by piece. Now, for as long as I can remember, I've been a mammal. In my time as a mammal, I've eaten many other fellow mammals with little or no compunction. But there's something about grabbing a rabbit's lower jaw in one hand and its upper jaw in your other hand and pulling them apart like a wish-jaw that doesn't sit quite right deep within my mammalian soul. Perhaps if I were a farmer or hunter I wouldn't have that same hesitation. I don't know. For me, it was a tad discomfiting. Anyway, if you are able to push on through your soul's protestations, there are some really nice flavors to be had. I had the sense ahead of time that this would fall into the category of foods (along with chicken wings) that are too much work and too much mess for too little reward. In this case, I am glad to say that my supposition was proven false. Don't get me wrong--this is a food that requires a lot of work on behalf of the diner, and in return you get messy fingers and not very much meat. What sets the rabbit's head apart from other high-energy, low-yield dishes is the variety of flavors to be had. You are expected to eat anything here that isn't bone: the jaw muscles, the tongue, the upper palate, the eyes, the brains, and any other miscellaneous flesh that you can find. Each of them has a different taste and texture, which makes the reward much greater than a mere chicken wing. I was particularly fond of the jaw meat (brown, gamy, succulent) and the tongue (chewy, mild flavored, a bit tough). 

I want to emphasize one more time that this is not an easy food to eat. After the first bit where you break open the jaws, as if opening up a stapler for reloading, you have to pull all sorts of sections of bone away. The hardest part to access is the brain--I was instructed to bite the top of the skull to crack it open like an egg. Through the whole ordeal, the rabbit tries to defend itself by having very, very sharp bones. I actually ended up with a small gash on my thumb towards the end. If you sample this delicacy, I would recommend being very careful with the bones. 

My verdict? Definitely worth a try. If you can get past the nagging awareness that you're tearing apart an innocent bunny's skull with your bare hands, an interesting mix of flavors and textures awaits.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dou Hua Mian

As much as I hate to admit it, not everybody is interested in eating delicacies like pigs' brains or stinky tofu. Perhaps you're one of them...I don't know. For people like this, travelling through China can be a daunting prospect. China is full of foods that are unusual to folks accustomed to Western food, and some of the less intrepid among us, in their hesitance to dive whole hog (in a manner of speaking) into the Chinese experience, survive in China on McDonald's and KFC. This post is for those people.

Chinese food--even Chinese street food--has some great gateway options for people who are reluctant to eat the more adventurous foods. A classic foreigner dish in restaurants, for example, is the Xihongshi Chao Dan (西红柿炒蛋), or tomatoes and eggs. It tastes great, and all of the ingredients are completely recognizable to a foreign palate. In the realm of street food, one great gateway option I recently tried is called Dou Hua Mian (豆花面), and I had the great pleasure to eat it in Zunyi. Dou hua is basically very soft tofu. Sometimes it's translated as tofu pudding. Mian just means noodles. Here's a picture of the dish as it was prepared for me in Zunyi:

The ingredients are as follows: flat, fettuccine-shaped noodles; dou hua; mint leaves; chives; pork; peanuts; a bit of spicy sauce (optional). Reader, it tasted just like an Italian noodle dish. The dou hua tasted almost identically to ricotta cheese (which, I suppose, is why vegans use tofu in their lasagnas). The taste was so familiar to my Western palate, it almost didn't seem like Chinese food. But Chinese food it was. And street food, at that.

To you, oh timid-stomached foreign tourists, I say that you needn't be afraid of Chinese street food. Judicious, yes, but afraid? Certainly not. The Dou Hua Mian in Zunyi is a perfect example of a nice gateway between Western food and Chinese street food. It can be yours for the low price of 8 yuan.

Funny Things in China Part II

Many--not all--people in China subscribe to different beliefs about safety than many--not all--people in the United States. One of the ways this manifests itself is in seat belt usage: most people forego them. Not all Chinese cars are Chinese-made, of course, and for some years now most Western car manufacturers have installed sensors in the front seats that use irritating binging noises to goad passengers into wearing their seat belts. So what is a Chinese person to do? Wear a seat belt or deal with a constant binging noise? Perhaps there is another way. As it has been said, necessity is the mother of invention. Behold the invention born of necessity:

These were in the front seat of my friend's car. Problem solved!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Funny Things in China Part I

You see a lot of funny things in China. When possible, I try to take pictures for future sharing. This is the inaugural post in a series of funny things I've seen in China. Exhibit A:

If that looks like a claw machine in an arcade that is filled with packs of cigarettes instead of stuffed animals, that's because it is. I'm not 100% sure what demographic they were trying to allure here. Children don't smoke (or, more accurately, shouldn't, smoke), and adults would probably find it easier just to go to the store and buy a pack. Unless you're really a pro with these claw machines, it's probably also cheaper to acquire cigarettes in the traditional way.

Unfortunately, I did not see anybody attempt this game.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On the Pleasures of Pigs' Feet

I think we can all be grateful that life abounds with guilty pleasures. That "I know this is terrible for my mind/body/well-being, but surely one time won't long as nobody sees me" feeling makes the secret, illicit joy of a guilty pleasure all the more enticing. Personally, I tend to shy away from bad movies, reality television, and romance novels, but I am not immune to the allure of food as a guilty pleasure. I am here today to share that pigs' feet fall squarely into this sumptuous category.

You can buy pigs' feet--usually pickled--in the USA. Those briny, pallid chunks of flesh crammed into dusty jars on long-untouched grocery store shelves always seemed a bit unappetizing to me, and I suspect most people share that assessment.

I can't imagine why.
Photo courtesy of Geoff 

So for those, like me, who have looked ungenerously upon the humble pig foot, let me tell you this: there is another way.


These pigs' feet--a specialty in Kunming--are a revelation for those of us accustomed to those other pigs' feet. Watch as these vibrantly colored hunks of meat and bone are cut down the middle, grilled, and seasoned before your very eyes and served hot, fresh, and oozing with grease. It's that last part--the grease--that turns this from a quotidian pleasure to a guilty pleasure. Here's how it looks when it is served:

I want you to take a moment to notice that generous layer of fat visible on the bottom left of this picture. While you're at it, you might as well take note of the thick skin, best seen at the far right. When this foot is staring up at you, waiting to be eaten, it's hard not to notice those features. Your arteries involuntarily clench in anticipatory revulsion, while your brain frantically replays the relevant lectures from high school health class, hoping to overrule the momentum your taste buds are trying to build. There are no two ways about it: this is not a healthy food. If you're lucky, your taste buds win the internal debate and you tear into this porcine delight with vigor. It is heavenly. The skin is rubbery and chewy, while the meat (or fat) is soft and greasy. The seasoning is mildly spicy and the meat is a bit sweet (not sugary sweet...meaty sweet...think of the sweetness of ham for a comparison). As you eat, your mouth is coated with a thin layer of grease, giving your tongue, teeth, and cheeks a sticky, waxy sensation. Before you know it, you are left with bones on your plate, contentment in your stomach, and half-regret in your brain. Not real regret though--the same regret that you have after eating a whole pint of rich ice cream. Your brain says you regret it, but your soul is richer for the experience.

Pigs' feet, as Cookie Monster might say, are a sometimes food. You would be paving the path to an early grave if you ate these every day. And that's what makes them such a delicious guilty pleasure: the internal tension between knowing they are bad for you and knowing how amazing they taste. Most of the time your brain will win out and you will opt for some spinach or something else boring and healthy. And that's how it should be. Once in a long while, though, you will take the plunge, and you will be richly rewarded. Like all guilty pleasures, the bashful guilt you feel coupled with the rarity of the experience are all part of the magnificent joy of pigs' feet. Savor those moments. Every day foods like spinach sustain life; guilty pleasures--like pigs' feet--are what make it worth sustaining.

How to Find Street Food

Let's say you are in an unfamiliar city in China and you are hoping to find some street food. Where do you go? Naturally every city is different, so there really isn't a straight answer here. That being said, there are definitely ways you can shorten your search a bit. The following are some tips I have picked up along the way. None of them should be taken as absolute rules--merely suggestions or general guidelines.

1) The bigger the street, the less likely you are to find good street food. In Chinese cities, the main thoroughfares are noisy, bustling affairs full of people, cars, bicycles, and storefronts. Unfortunately, they are usually a bit too busy for street food. You'll have better luck exploring the smaller streets and alleys near the more populated avenues. Sometimes just a block or two off the main strip can make all of the difference.

2) Check the old parts of town. As Chinese cities continue to grow at an astonshing rate, there is a marked difference in atmosphere between the newer, shinier parts of a city and the older, grimier more charming parts of a city. In my experience, you're more likely to find great street food in the more traditional sections of town.

3) It is a truth universally acknowledged that a college student in possession of a poor fortune must be in want of cheap eats. This holds true in the USA, and it holds true in China. Wander around the neighborhood near the gates of a Chinese university and you will almost certainly find some street food.

4) The entrances of bus stations and train stations are always crowded with street food vendors. Personally, I tend to avoid them because they are rarely selling the best local dishes. Usually you'll find pretty generic fare with little variation across the country. That being said, there's nothing inherently wrong with eating this food--it's a cheap and tasty way to fill up before a long train ride.

5) Look for steam. It may sound silly, but it works. If you're hungry and wandering the streets, keep an eye out down every cross street for steam. Steam is often visible from pretty far away, and it can be a good indicator that there is food to be had.

6) Watch what other people are holding. If you see somebody walking down the street with a fresh snack, there's a good chance they bought it nearby. The less they've eaten, the closer the shop is.

7) Leave yourself in the hands of chance. If all else fails, there's nothing wrong with wandering aimlessly for an hour or two until you find something that strikes your fancy. Chances are good that you'll find something interesting to eat.

I've been in a lot of unfamiliar cities lately, and these guidelines have worked resulted in a pretty good success rate. Hopefully they will work equally as well for you. Good luck out there!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Portuguese Egg Tart

Macau is often overshadowed by its glitzy, be-skyscrapered neighbor to the east, Hong Kong. Which is really too bad. Like Hong Kong, Macau was occupied by a colonial power (in their case, Portugal) for many years before being handed back over to the Chinese in the late 1990's (in fact, Macau was both the first and last European colony in China), and it now operates somewhat independently from mainland China in what is known as the "one country, two systems" policy. Because of this mixed-up history, modern-day Macau is a fascinating blend of cultures. The downtown area is loaded with historic churches and temples, street signs are written in traditional Chinese characters and in Portuguese, and the food has been influenced by Chinese and European cuisines. The most famous of Macau's street foods is the Portuguese egg tart. Travelers will find these tarts all over the city, though my sources say that the best ones are in Coloane Village (Macau is actually made up of one peninsula and two islands with a stretch of land between them that has been reclaimed from the sea...Coloane is the southernmost island).

It looks so good, I couldn't convince myself to display this picture in the normal size.

My source was right. The egg tarts in Coloane Village were magnificent. The crust was flaky and buttery, perhaps 3 - 4 mm thick (if you look carefully, you can see a couple of the flakes on the top of the tart in that picture above). The egg custard nested within the crust was rich and creamy, with a hint of sweetness. It was browned on top to provide a nice, crispy cap to the tart. The whole thing is about the diameter of a silver dollar and maybe 3/4 of an inch thick. You could eat it in two bites (one if you're blessed with a big mouth), but I don't recommend it...this is a food worth savoring.

Here you can see my fingers for a size perspective.

Egg tarts are available all throughout the city and will probably run you about 3 - 6 MOP per tart. You'd be crazy to leave Macau without giving one of these must-try items a go.


Hainan is often described to Americans as the Hawaii of China. The comparison is reasonably apt--Hainan is a tropical island with a traditional culture that is different than the mainstream culture of China (although, like Hawaii, a certain number of mainlanders have migrated there and brought their culture with them). As one might expect from an island province, there is a lot of great seafood to be had in Hainan, including seafood of the street food persuasion. One highlight in the provincial capital, Haikou, was the Ding Luo (丁螺), variously translated as whelks or oncomelania. Either way, the point is that they're marine snails and they taste great.

The whelks are cooked in an oily, peppery broth in a large pot. As they are ladled out of the pot, they make a satisfying clattering noise, like dropping pebbles into a porcelain bowl. There isn't much to the presentation other than the shells themselves.

Eating these whelks is a great pleasure for the senses. All you need to do is put your mouth over the top of the shell and suck. Before you know it, a small spiral of snail meat (and some spicy broth) has rocketed into your mouth (sometimes it takes a bit more sucking than others...I had the most trouble with the larger/longer shells, for what it's worth).

In case you were wondering, here's what the meat looks like out of the shell.

The snail meat is seafoody, chewy, and a tad gritty. The broth has bits of pepper in it and is a salty, oily, spicy accompaniment to the tiny meat. These are a lot of fun to eat, both for the unusual eating method and the unusual shape of the meat. They are available all over Haikou for around 5 yuan per bowl; definitely worth a try if you are in the area.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hua Sheng Tang

I was only in Xiamen for a few hours between train rides, but I managed to get some great eating done during that time. One of the highlights was the Hua Sheng Tang (花生汤) (peanut soup). Different shops have their own recipes, but in general you can expect exactly what the name suggests--a peanut soup.

When I ordered my hua sheng tang, the vendor cracked a raw egg into the bowl before ladling in the soup. Due to the heat of the soup, the egg was quickly cooked (mostly). The soup was full of flavor, and a mix of different textures, from the soft peanuts to the viscous soup base to the slimy, chewy drips of egg.  It was the tiniest bit sweet, and really quite delicious.  This is a must-try if you are in Xiamen.

Goopy, yet delicious.