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.


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