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!