Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Heaven on a Stick

By Beth Green
Street food is a curious thing. It’s loved, it’s despised, it’s feared, it's revered.

Travelers either avoid it like the plague (well, OK, because they don’t want to get the plague) or swarm to it, hoping it will pass on more than just sustenance. Somehow, travelers hope to ingest not only food but also culture and an understanding of the population. Did I learn more about Thailand by eating stir-fried ants? Did I become somehow Moroccan by gulping down cinnamon-flavored snails? Did I gain a mystical understanding of Bali from the chicken satay sticks I ate on the beach? Well, at the time I thought I did.

Street side Barbecue
But nowhere I have traveled offers up street food more varied and interesting than in China.

The idea of snacking is deeply embraced by Chinese culture. A word for “snack,” is 小吃, xiao chi, or, literally “small eat.” Though it may seem obvious to say so, China is a huge country, and each region, province or even village may have a “small eat” that they are especially proud of.

Yang Rou Chuan
One of the most commonly seen street foods throughout China are 羊肉串, yang rou chuan, lamb meat sticks. These are a traditional snack of the Chinese Muslim population, and you can often find a migrant yang rou chuan vendor by his snow white skull cap, if he’s from Gansu or Ningxia provinces, or his octagonal green cap if he’s from the Uigyur Autonomous Region.

Yang rou chuan are thin skewers of mutton (well, possibly goat meat) that have been spiced with cumin and hot red peppers, then roasted over a shallow coal barbecue and fanned with woven palm leaves until cooked through. They’re tasty, cheap (usually you can get three to six for the equivalent of one US dollar, depending on size), and best washed down with a curbside beer.

Another famous Chinese street food is one you smell before you see. Stinky tofu (yep, that’s what they call it), or 臭豆腐, chou dou fu, are wafer-thin squares of tofu barbecued over a bowl of coals. They’re as smelly as a backpacker’s socks, but, if you can get past the odor, are a cheese-like nibble that will definitely earn you points with the locals.

Fresh Pineapple on a Stick
Visitors to Beijing have a special rite of passage to shock their friends back home—a meander to some touristy market, like the Donghuamen Night Market, after dinner finds rows of stainless steel food carts pushing bugs and other creepy crawlies on sticks. Here’s where you get to pose with a big, black scorpion by your lips; gnaw a deep fried starfish while recording it for Facebook posterity; or, crunch on a beetle, wings included. These snacks are traditionally eaten in Asia—not only China—but today you’re more likely to see modern Chinese eating KFC's popcorn chicken than chowing down on a praying mantis. 
Eating Bugs
I make a point to try new street foods when I find them (starfish tastes like oil, ditto the scorpion) and so far, my favorite Chinese street foods are found in Guizhou province. Guizhou is famous for not being famous, a southwestern province of karst hills and winding rivers. And, in China, it’s known for blisteringly spicy food. Put that on a stick, and I’m in heaven. 

The best snacks are often the simplest. During the winter, Guizhou entrepreneurs break out their biggest woks, set up a coal basket and burner on the street corner, and fry potatoes. The first time I saw it, I was unimpressed. French fries are as universal as, well, hamburgers. But then I tried them. After frying up the potatoes, the vendor slips them in a metal bowl; dashes vinegar and salt (well, okay, MSG) over them; spoons in heaps of hot dried chilies, tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper (花椒, hua jiao) and chives; covers the bowl and shakes it like a tambourine; and then gives the final, piping hot result to you in a plastic baggie. A serving usually costs about 30 cents US. The hot, numbing, spicy, tangy potatoes used to bring tears to my eyes—and only partially because of the peppers. 
Guizhou Peppers Set Out To Dry
Guizhou’s streets also offer up tiny, soft, sweet potato pancakes; barbecued octopus legs (heavily spiced); eggs baked into corn flour muffins; tiny bits of grilled spiced mutton; eggplant skewers; corn on the cob; roast sweet potatoes straight out of the field; fresh pineapple by the chunk; and egg-crepe wraps filled with cilantro, chopped meat, crunchy fried dough and hot sauce.

Guizhou Egg Muffins
When I lived in Guizhou a few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for us to walk out of work at dinnertime only to find we were entirely satiated by snacks by the time we arrived home.

Chinese snacks are also a snapshot into the culture. In cities like Beijing, which have embraced modernity, a street-side snack might be some prepackaged sweet bread or imported Japanese cuttlefish. In bar districts, where party-goers seek a little protein as filling to soothe their alcohol-laden tummies, you can find yang rou chuan sellers barbecuing their enticing treats. And, in the rural countryside of Guizhou province, you’ll see the crops from the farms, the staples of the working class, devoured by factory workers on their way home from building modern China. 
Guizhou Sweets

1 comment:

  1. I really feel as if I've been to China after reading this post.