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.