Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hitting the Ground Running

I made it! It was a long journey (almost exactly 24 hours from my house in Washington to my place in Shanghai), but here I am in China. I may write more about the travelling later. For now, though, it's finally time to get into the meat and potatoes of this blog--writing about Chinese street food!

Yesterday, I had the extreme good fortune to have a personal tour guide to the best street food in Shanghai. Fiona Reilly, who blogs at about food and life in Shanghai (be sure to check it out), was kind enough to lend me her husband's bicycle and show me around the city for five hours on Friday. It had been years since I bicycled in China; it was every bit as exhilarating as I remembered. The traffic laws on Chinese roads generally feel more like traffic suggestions. In general, the idea is to do what you like, just don't hit anybody or get hit. This means a lot of weaving in and out of traffic, turning left in front of oncoming traffic, moving into oncoming traffic to pass the car in front of you (and forcing the cars going the other direction to wait until you're done), and similar strategies. Biking in China makes me feel like I am part of some big, hulking organism. Like an individual red blood cell, chaotically coursing through an enormous body.

Anyway, Fiona generously took me to some of her favorite street food spots. Our first stop was for You Tiao (油条), which is somewhat similar to a cruller. It's composed of two attached-at-the-hip tubes of dough, about a foot long. The dough is light and flaky, sort of like a croissant, but much greasier. The process for making You Tiao is kind of neat. First, you roll out the dough into a long ribbon, about the width and length of a sash. After it's rolled out to your liking, you fold it over in two (top to bottom) and then slice it width-wise into strips about the size of a harmonica. The only thing left is to throw it into the oil and let it soak in those fatty juices for a while, and then you have your You Tiao. You Tiao is often eaten with a bowl of Dou Jiang (豆漿), or soy milk, mixed with ingredients such as pickled vegetables (for a more savory version), sugar (for a sweeter version), or small bits of You Tiao. You Tiao is a pretty common breakfast in Shanghai, so if you want to try it out, make sure you look for it (all around the city) before 10:00 or 11:00.

You Tiao with Dou Jiang

After the You Tiao, we tried several other local dishes including Ci Fan Gao (粢饭糕) (fried rice patties), Cong You Ban Mian (葱油拌面) (scallion oil mixed noodles), Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) (soup dumplings), and Cong You Bing (葱油饼) (scallion pancakes). The standouts for me were the Xiao Long Bao and the Cong You Bing. Xiao Long Bao are basically steamed dumplings filled with pork and a bit of soup. Generally you dip them in vinegar before you eat them. Each time you bite into one, the soup bursts out of the dumpling into your mouth, coating your tongue with the juices. It's really fabulous. 

So much flavor in such a small package.

Much of the appeal for me of the Cong You Bing was the character of the particular shop where we bought it. Fiona tells me that it's the best place for Cong You Bing in the city, and the line outside certainly backed up that claim. The guy running the shop is an older gentleman who was apparently born with a hunchback and--due to the prevailing cultural atmosphere at the time--was sent to live with his uncle. He has run this shop by himself for many years. He moves a little bit slowly, but he makes excellent food. Cong You Bing is made of dough (with some lard in it) that is stuffed with scallions and a little bit of pork. The dough patties are fried on a grill, flattened with an iron, crisped by a fire, and then served. The owner of the shop has a complex one-man-assembly line going; at any given moment there are probably a few of the Cong You Bing in each stage of the process.

That griddle where the Cong You Bing are frying slides out (towards the camera) on those rails so that he can access the fire in the steel drum below. Around the rim of the steel drum are some other Cong You Bing being crisped by the fire.

The final product is delicious. It's greasy, flaky, and savory. One bite tells you that it's great for your taste buds, but not so much for your heart. Nonetheless, it's so good that several people in line told us they eat them every day.
The finished product.

So that's about that for Shanghai. I'll be returning to this enormous city later on my trip (I'm flying back out of Shanghai), so there may be more to come. In the meantime, I'm in Suzhou enjoying the street food here. Hopefully I'll be posting more soon. Until then, be well and eat well.


Unknown said...

Great to hear you enjoyed Shanghai Frank and best of luck with your onward travels!

Scott said...

Frank! FedEx me some Xiao Long Bao!

Frank Kasell said...

Scott: It's on its way!

TordyClarkinTokyo said...

This is awesome, thanks for telling us where this amazing You Tiao shop is..

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