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.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fermented Camel Milk

Urumqi is roughly 4,000 km from Shanghai. The express train to Beijing takes 34 hours. It is literally the most landlocked city in the world. So it should come as no surprise that the culture in Urumqi is fairly different from the culture in Eastern China. In fact, by most cultural yardsticks, you would say that Urumqi is less of a "Chinese" city and more of a "Central Asian" city. The major presence of state-recognized non-Han ethnic minorities in Urumqi (particularly Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Hui peoples) bear witness to this fact. Street food aficionados will be pleased to know that the Central Asian influence on Urumqi's culture extends to the city's marvelous street food. Here is one striking example.

Less of a street food and more of a street drink, tuó năi is fermented camel milk. This unusual beverage—also called chal or shubat—was popularized in Central Asia and brought to Urumqi by the Kazakh people. Fermented camel milk is made by mixing fresh milk with a smaller sample of already fermented milk. More and more fresh milk is mixed in over three to four days and allowed to sour, at which point it is ready to serve. The drink is served ice cold (perfect for a hot day, I imagine). At a glance, you can see that this milk is frothy, thick, and brilliantly white. The first sip is a bit startling, as the fermentation has created a sparkling effervescence that bites at your tongue like carbonated water. It is sour and acidic, which only adds to the bite. There is a minor alcoholic taste to the milk, as well as very mild hints of citrus. You wouldn’t know it from the sound of it, but fermented camel milk is actually quite tasty and refreshing. Also, local lore claims that it has virus fighting abilities, so you’ve got going for you as well.

...which is nice.

The bottom line? For a delicious sample of Central Asian culture in China, you can’t go wrong with tuó năi.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Jilin Specialty

Jilin City, the second-largest city in Northwest China's Jilin Province, boasts a unique street food known as 糖醋鸡骨架 (táng cù jī gŭ jià). If you know enough Chinese to be able to understand the name of this dish then you might be thinking that this evocative name is meant to be taken figuratively instead of literally. If that’s what you are thinking, you will probably be surprised to learn that you are (mostly) wrong. Because 糖醋鸡骨架 (“sweet and sour chicken skeleton” for those unable to read Chinese) is, in fact, a pretty accurate description of what this is.

I, too, was skeptical when I first heard of this dish; how could a chicken skeleton be considered food? Of course that’s where the “mostly” qualifier from earlier comes into play. This dish is only mostly a skeleton. In other words, there is just enough meat left on the bones to make this an enjoyable culinary experience. To make táng cù jī gŭ jià, you first must remove most of the substantial meat from a whole chicken. Breast meat, leg meat, thigh meat—none of it is welcome here. What you are left with are bones with some scraggly pieces of meat hanging on between ribs, around joints, and in other similar hard-to-reach spots. The skeleton with its bits of meat is broken up, coated with a sesame seed infused, honey-sweet, vinegar-tangy sauce, then blackened on a grill. You, the diner, will receive a pile of chicken pieces that you are expected to eat with your fingers. 

Because the only meat left is fairly insubstantial, you have to do a lot of digging with your teeth and fingers, a process which leaves your hands, lips, and chin greasy and sticky. It is a messy experience, not suitable for finicky eaters. The good news is that the taste more than makes up for the messy face and fingers. The sauce tastes quite similar to Western barbecue sauce (with sesame seeds), which naturally goes well with the charred flavor left by the grill. Honestly, it tastes just like the barbecued chicken you could eat in any United States backyard in July. The only difference is the ratio of sauce (read: flavor) to meat. For people who might prefer that the balance were tipped more heavily towards the sauce, táng cù jī gŭ jià might be the perfect solution. The best and most popular place in Jilin to buy a sweet and sour chicken skeleton is at Du Brothers (杜家哥俩烧). At only 8 RMB per chicken, this is a cheap and flavorful snack or meal. Just be sure to bring some napkins.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Americans visiting China for the first time might be surprised to find cornbread sold in the streets of some Northern Chinese cities. For these visitors, it's easy to forget that cornbread is not endemic to the Southern United States. And yet there's no reason why it should be so limited. The ingredients are few and widely available around the world. And China is no exception. Naturally, Chinese street vendors incorporate their own local flavors into the mix. This example from Chengde in Hebei Province is a great showcase of those local twists.

It is known locally as 棒子面窝头 (Bàng Zĭ Miàn Wō Tóu). Think of it as a hybrid between cornbread and the ubiquitous Chinese baozi. Stuffed inside of the cornbread bun you will find moist cabbage, both salty and sour. If it weren't for the radish taste thrown in as well, you might mistake the filling for sauerkraut. The cornbread itself has the traditional grainy cornbread texture and flavor. It is perhaps a bit less dry than American cornbread because it has been steamed in the Chinese fashion. This is a tasty little snack, well worth a try. Especially for any U.S. folks looking for a little taste of home.

One Year Later

As of last Friday, January 11, 2013, it has been one year since I left for China on my grueling street food expedition. It is hard to believe that a year has already passed since that gray January day when I packed my bag and walked to the Metro station, the first of countless trip segments. I was both excited and apprehensive about the daunting three months ahead of me. At that moment, my most pressing concerns were a) that I forgot something important when I packed, and b) that I already missed my wife. Three months later I came home exhausted and ready to write. It is now nine full months since then, and the question I get most often is "how is the book coming along." My standard answer to that question is "very slowly, but surely." That answer remains an accurate summation of where things stand.  Nonetheless, I thought I might use this one year anniversary to expand on that a little bit and update a wider audience on the book's progress.

The slightly longer answer to that recurring question is that the book is taking much longer than I expected to finish. Here are a few reasons for that:

  1. You may know that I've never written a book before. This is my first shot at it, and that means that I'm doing a lot of learning as I go and trial by error. Sometimes those errors result in delays, retracing my steps in order to rewrite things I've already written, and making things more complicated than they need to be.
  2. It turns out I am no good at estimating how long it will take to finish a specific section. Something that I think should take an hour or two ends up eating a whole day or two of work. For each individual entry I must decipher the handwritten Chinese characters in my book (sometimes this is easy, sometimes it takes over half an hour); look the characters up in an online dictionary; research the food to learn about its history, check on ingredients and cooking methods, and verify that it does indeed come from the city I was told; write a paragraph or two about it without sounding like all of the other paragraphs I've written (this is getting harder as time goes on...there are only so many ways to describe oily, spicy bowls of noodles with only minor regional variations). Multiply that a bunch of times for each section, and it ends up dragging the writing process out longer than I anticipated.
  3. I do have another job. It is not, thankfully, a full-time, 9-5 sort of job. The work comes in three-week blocks away from home, with a week or so at the end for wrap-up work.  I've done four of these since I returned from China, which adds up to three to four months of time during which it was difficult to get more than a trace of work done on the book.
  4. Believe it or not, when you work at home by yourself with no clear deadlines, it is incredibly easy to get distracted. Sometimes by reasonably important things (e.g. "Oh, the dishes need to be done," or "The car needs to get inspected today," or "Shoot, my quarterly self-employed taxes are due tomorrow!") and sometimes by completely inconsequential things (e.g. "I should learn how to tie a fancy tie knot," or "I haven't checked the news in the last twenty minutes...I wonder what's happening in the world," or "Hey, aren't there a couple of cookies in the kitchen that I haven't eaten yet?"). (Note: all six of those examples have happened to me.) I recently read that Don DeLillo once said "A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it." I can't speak for others, but that certainly seems to be the case with me. It has taken a long time to get into a good and consistent writing routine. I think I've got one now, which means more productive hours in a day, but it can still get thrown off fairly easily.

So there you go. Those are the things that have conspired to keep me depressingly far from the finish line. At this point I wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to when I'll be finished. All I can say is that it is progressing steadily--just very slowly. Put enough of these slow yet steady days together, though, and the book will be done. In the meantime, I'll work on getting some good blog posts up and continue to update you all on the book's progress. As always, thanks for checking in!