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.


Bally Chohan said...

Because of such special food, I always love to visit this place.

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