Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wa Yu Er

When I was in college, a good friend and I had a penchant for finding free food by any means necessary, even if it involved a few white lies. One evening as we attended the reception of a choral concert (without having attended the concert itself), my friend tried an unusual looking hors d'oeuvre. I waited expectantly to hear his impression. What I got was this: "It doesn't taste like fish, but I'm expecting it to at any moment." This line has become a go-to quote for me when discussing foods that don't taste the way they look. Wa Yu Er (蛙鱼儿) (literally "frog fish son," though some online translations tell me "salmon son") is one of these foods. A specialty in Xuzhou, the largest city in northern Jiangsu Province, wa yu er looks like this.

By the looks of it, I was expecting it to taste a bit sweet, but mostly kind of bland. Like bits of potato starch suspended in a fruit syrup that is primarily just water. Thankfully, I was mistaken. The mix of flavors in this one cup was stunning. Every bite delivered a swirling mix of sweet, spicy, vinegary, and sour. As expected, the gelatinous potato starch globules were slippery and jelly-like. They provide texture and body to the wa yu er, but the taste is all in the syrup. Individual house recipes vary (apparently it also varies between winter and summer--it can be served hot or cold). Mine contained pickled vegetables, some vinegar, a healthy dose of chili sauce, and an unidentifiable sweet ingredient. Other recipes include soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, dill, mustard, and more. Apparently the gelatinized potato starch can also be replaced with mung bean or pea starch.

So the big question: do I recommend it to other street food connoisseurs? Reader, it was outstanding. Consider it recommended most highly. I could eat this stuff all day long. My host in Xuzhou was a transplant to Xuzhou from the southern part of Jiangsu and was not a fan of wa yu er, so it's not for everybody. As she pointed out, though, it is hugely popular with the locals. Everybody we asked could point us directly to their favorite purveyor of this local treat.

One other point: attentive readers will recall a) that this dish is called "frog fish son," and b) that the ingredients I cited included neither frog nor fish (nor son, for that matter). So why has it earned this name? Easy. Supposedly these little globules look like small fish or tadpoles.

This delightful concoction is available all over Xuzhou and should cost no more than 5 or 6 RMB. It may not look like much, but just like the food that didn't taste like fish though my friend expected it to at any minute, looks can be deceiving. Give this one a whirl--I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Accessing Money While Traveling: An Endorsement

Every traveler to a foreign country has to deal with the issue of money. If you're planning to spend longer than a day or two away from home, your costs are likely to be greater than the amount of cash you feel comfortable traveling with. Travel experts have suggested various solutions over the years, none of which are perfect solutions for all travelers in all situations. When preparing for my trip to China, I spent more time than I care to admit researching the options. I ended up deciding that for a three-month trip through a wide variety of cities, my best bet was to rely on ATMs to provide a steady stream of Chinese RMB. Of course that led to the next question: which bank should I put my money into if I want to pull it out in China. More research? More research. I looked on bank websites, read reviews, called customer service representatives, and did all the other due diligence things necessary until I found what I believe is far and away the best bank account for U.S. travelers abroad: a Charles Schwab High Yield Checking Account.

Here's why Charles Schwab is the best, hands-down:

1. There are no maintenance fees on a checking account. True, most banks offer this, but not all. It's a good place to start.

2. With your Charles Schwab bank card, you are entitled to pull money out of any ATM in the whole world, so long as it has a VISA logo on it. This is good--those suckers are everywhere.

3. Here's where they start to distinguish themselves. Unlike some big banks, Charles Schwab doesn't charge you any fee to pull money out of a different bank's ATM.

4. Continuing with this "no-fee" thing, Charles Schwab doesn't charge you a conversion fee. Many banks charge a percentage of the withdrawal amount as a conversion fee if you are collecting a different currency than the currency in your home country. I'm not a banker, but it seems to me that conversion fees are pretty silly. Does it cost a bank anything to calculate the conversion rate? If I can check on Google for free, I don't get the sense that a company that lives and dies by exchange rates would have any trouble with it. So why charge me anything to do it? Charles Schwab succumbs to logic and charges no conversion fee.

5. This is the real kicker. In addition to the above no-fee tactics, Charles Schwab goes one step further and offers to reimburse you if the ATM you are using charges you a fee. Think about that for a moment. How many times have you been traveling--abroad or at home--and had an ATM say that it's going to charge you $3.00 because the bank name on the ATM doesn't match the bank name on your card?  With Charles Schwab, the ATM can charge all it likes--Charles Schwab will literally pay you the money back. This is fantastic.

So it sounds good in theory, yes? How does it work in practice you say? Exactly how they said it would. I used this card at ATMs all over China (really...all over) with no hassle at all. Charles Schwab never once charged me a fee, and when the foreign banks charged me a on-site fee to use the ATM, I was reimbursed completely. I can't tell you how convenient it is to have access to your money in any city in China. I never had to carry more than 1000 yuan (about $160) on me at any given time, and I was able to pay for everything in cash.

Are there any downsides to the Charles Schwab solution, I hear you asking? Of course, I respond; but they are few and negligible. For one, Charles Schwab does not maintain very many physical offices. In order to deposit money, you need to either transfer electronically from another account or you need to mail them a check to deposit (in postage-paid envelopes that they will provide you). The electronic transfer process is easy, but it does take a few days for the money to become available to you--best not to wait until the day before your trip to do this. The only other very minor drawback to this solution that I can think of is that you are required to open a Charles Schwab investment account to be able to hold a checking account. That sounds a bit scary until you learn that you don't have to keep a minimum balance in it. You can open the account and then leave it completely empty for no charge. It's a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly no reason to overlook all of the great qualities of the checking account.

This card worked perfectly for me. I have no reason to doubt that it won't work for you as well. It truly seems like the ideal solution for a traveler going abroad. So long as you aren't spending all of your time in completely rural areas that don't have ATMs, this could very easily be the best solution for you.

Thus concludes the first official product endorsement of this website. Charles Schwab High Yield Checking Account: I salute you.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Boy Eggs

Now that I'm home again, there has been a decided shift in the questions people ask me about my project. I will probably have to set up a new FAQ page to accommodate this shift. In the meantime I can tell you that besides "how was the trip," which is open-ended enough to be nearly impossible for me to answer satisfactorily, one of the most common questions I get is "what was the weirdest thing you ate." Now I have already covered my thoughts about calling foods "weird" or "bizarre" in a previous post. In short, I don't like it--it's just too arbitrary and culture-centric. That being said, it's still easy to name the weirdest thing I ate in China. It's this:

That may look like an ordinary hard-boiled egg, and in many ways it is. There is just one key exception: this egg is cooked in the urine of young boys. Preferably under the age of ten (because urine from an eleven-year-old would just be gross). This delicacy is known by various names, the most descriptive of which is 童子尿煮鸡蛋 (tong zi sui zhu ji dan), or "boy urine cooked egg." This is often abbreviated to just 童子蛋 (tong zi dan), or "boy egg." Some of you may have already heard about these boy eggs because Reuters recently did a story about them that made the rounds on the Internet back in March and April. One thing that was missing from the Reuters story, though, was a personal taste test. That, of course, is where I come in.

Boy eggs are not easy to find in China. They are really only available in one city (Dongyang (东阳), in Zhejiang Province) and only in the springtime. I heard rumors from some seatmates on the train that boy eggs were also available in other southern Chinese cities, but I haven't found anything to substantiate this. Frankly, in my experience they weren't even easy to find in Dongyang itself, even though it's been officially listed as part of the city's "intangible cultural heritage." It took a good bit of asking around before I found a woman selling them from a wide, rusty pot.

I am nothing if not dedicated to my street food project, so I dutifully suppressed the part of my brain that was reminding me that these eggs had been cooked in urine and bought one for 1 yuan. After finding a suitable spot to sit and eat, I got down to business. On the outside, as you saw above, it looked just like a normal egg, albeit with a faint urine smell. Once shelled, however, it's a different story.

That marbleized look you see is the result of the cooking method--after boiling in the urine long enough to become solid, the eggshells are cracked a bit to allow the urine to soak into the egg itself during the remainder of the boiling. Those lines on the egg are where the cracks were in the shell. Actually, this shelled egg doesn't look terribly different from the tea eggs you can find all over China. The key difference there, of course, is that the tea eggs are cooked in tea instead of the urine of young boys. I can't emphasize that point enough--that this is an egg cooked in urine. Now, while the look of the boy egg is fairly similar to the tea egg, there are several important sensory differences. The most notable are the way it smells and feels. Have you ever changed the bed sheets for a child who wet the bed at night? If so, you may recall the way that the air is heavy with the odor of stale urine and that your fingers feel a bit slimy after touching the soiled linens. Throw in the smell of egg for good measure, and that's exactly what it is like to hold a boy egg, which, I remind you, is intended for human consumption. This slimy, rubbery ovoid that smells like stale urine and egg is meant to be eaten.

So, with the preliminary examination complete, it was time to eat the boy egg. Once again suppressing that part of my brain that was reminding me about the whole "cooked in urine" thing, I dove right in. The result? Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad. In fact, it didn't taste substantially different from other hard-boiled eggs I ate in China. That strong odor of urine didn't translate into a strong taste, oddly enough. That's not to say that it wasn't there--it was just very mild. Like most hard-boiled eggs in China, the white (if you could call it that) was salty (though perhaps the saltiness in the boy eggs came from a different source...) and rubbery(they tend to cook eggs longer in China than we do in the USA), while the yolk tasted like every other hard-boiled egg yolk I've ever eaten. The inside looked exactly like you'd imagine.

Two or three bites and it's gone. So that's that.

The foremost question in your minds, I suspect, is "why would anybody eat this?" The short answer is that it's tradition. Tradition is a powerful force in China, and in Dongyang these boy eggs traditional. The longer answer is that Chinese traditional medicine values the urine from virgin boys as a good preventative measure against joint pain and other ailments. Why it has to be boys and why they have to be virgins, I don't know. Many people in Dongyang eat these by the dozen in the springtime. That's not to say that everybody likes them, of course. Some Dongyangers find the whole idea repulsive. Also, it's worth noting that anytime I mentioned the boy eggs to a native Chinese person in any other part of China, they were pretty grossed out by the whole idea. So I caution you against thinking this is something everybody in China does. Just like eating dog or cat, it's true that some people do it, but it's not everywhere and it's considered gross by much of the population.

Another question you might be asking is "where do they get the urine?" Easy answer: local schools. As you can see from this great 2011 article from the Ministry of Tofu, vendors provide buckets to schools and encourage the boys to use those rather than the toilets.

I admit that after eating my boy egg, I couldn't help but look at every school-age boy I passed on the street and wonder whether or not he contributed to my lunch.

I also suspect many of you may be questioning how sanitary this endeavor is. Not very, to be honest. However, most doctors in Dongyang agree that these eggs won't hurt you (even if they don't believe in the therapeutic benefits). Depending how much faith you put in Chinese doctors, you can probably feel reasonably comfortable on the safety front.

So those are the boy eggs. I wouldn't label them a must-try street food in China. They are difficult to find (Dongyang isn't exactly on the tourist trail...there isn't even a train station) and aren't amazingly tasty or anything like that. They are however, extremely unique (remember: these are eggs cooked in urine), so if you're the type that likes to track down the most unusual foods you can, it might be time to plan a pilgrimage to Dongyang. For the rest of you, I suspect reading about it here was more than enough. I'm happy to oblige.


I just want to take a moment here to acknowledge a generous endorsement from TYWKIWDBI, an eclectic blog that I check out nearly every day. Back in April, TYWKIWDBI's creator, Minnesotastan, encouraged readers to share their own blogs with him, which he then shared with the broader world in this post titled "The Best Blogs of 2012." Thanks, Minnesotastan, for this endorsement and all of your fine work on your blog! If you've never checked out TYWKIWDBI, I encourage you to do so now and check back regularly--it is always full of fascinating material.

Break Over

To my faithful readers:

You may have noticed that I haven't posted too much since I returned from China three weeks ago. Please accept my apologies for this lapse. As it turns out, travelling nearly constantly for three months is exhausting. You may have seen in the Final Statistics post that I averaged less than 34 hours in each city. In each city I had to research, locate, and eat the most representative local street food, plan my itinerary for the next few stops, buy train tickets, find Couch Surfing hosts, and find time to sleep. All within those 34 hours before jumping on the train for my next city. Imagine doing that on repeat for three straight months through 53 cities without the regular restorative benefits of free weekends and evenings you would get from a standard 9 - 5 job and you will have a sense of what this was like. These are not complaints, of course. I chose this path for myself and have no regrets about my hectic schedule. That being said, it was more tiring than I expected. I had planned to give myself a week of rest before beginning to work in earnest on my book. It seems, though, my body and brain wanted a little bit more than that. With no firm deadline for book completion breathing down my neck, I decided to ease into things at whatever rate felt natural to my brain and body. So here we are three weeks later. I am feeling rested and able once again to focus on Chinese street food. I expect there will be more regular posts these coming weeks. Thanks to all for bearing with me during this resting period. I'm looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.

Your friend,