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Asian Foodventures

EDIT: So so soo sorry to my readers' f-lists for the length of this post. I had previously put in 3 cuts, but something is wonky with the HTML and I can't figure it out, so I'm just taking them out entirely. Thanks for reading.

It’s been a while since I last updated this blog. I began it the summer I lived in New York because I was surrounded by culinary delights and adventures everywhere I went. Living right on Union Square, I only had to step one foot out of the building and I was already awash in the sights and smells of the every-other-day green market. However, this time around, I’ll be in a slightly different, yet still immense metropolis: Hong Kong. My tenure here is also longer than that of my NY time. I have at least 1 year of hardcore, HK lifestyle. All things glam and ugly, expensive and dirt-cheap, and the often erratic weather patterns both in and out of doors will be mine for the experiencing.

First things first though. I want to use the rest of this post to reflect on the loss of three people in my gastronomic life last year in China: Pancake Lady Mrs. Chen, Barby Lady, and Noodle Boy. These three kept me fed at almost all times day or night and I want to memorialize them here...and also so I can dream about it when I’m feeling hungry.

Let’s begin with Mrs. Chen. Mrs. Chen stands on the roadside (come rain, hail, sleet, or snow) from about 5am until her supplies run out anywhere from 10am until 1pm. All she has is a gerry-rigged cart/bike contraption that has a picnic umbrella attached. Loaded on her bike/cart is what is most easily described as a standalone crepe griddle. It is a large iron circular slab welded on top of a 5 gallon drum that contains the heating (rudimentary charcoal bricks). Next to the griddle are cracked bowls of fresh spring onions and various stewed veg and kimchi-like substances, a box of eggs and chicken-fish-sausages*, and a plastic shopping bag containing dozens of youtiao 油条, literally translates to “oil stick,” it is most similar to a churro that is just the fried dough. There is also a dirty tupperware box full of various coins and crumpled bills and a cardboard box of juice-boxes containing “milk” (think of reconstituted powdered milk that’s either fake chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry flavored). Hanging off the bike/cart or sitting on a nearby rock is a plastic gallon can with batter and a ladle. Now the scene is set and we’re ready for the action.

Smiling away, Mrs. Chen expertly ladles some batter onto the sizzling griddle and uses a wooden paddle-like tool in a circular motion to even it out into a large crepe-like pancake. Next, she one-handedly cracks an egg over it and also spreads that around the whole pancake along with a little squirt of oil from an ice tea bottle with a hole in its cap. As the egg is cooking, she grabs a handful of spring onions and sprinkles them all over as well. She then shakes an unknown spicy powder that I think may contain MSG, chili powder, and pork flavoring all over to add a bit of kick. Adding a bit more oil, she then takes her trusty palette knife and flips it all over to finish cooking. She usually achieves a complete flip; what can I say, the woman’s a pro. She uses the end of a broken wooden paintbrush handle to draw a few lines of flaky chili oil for the real flavor. Lastly she’ll grab a youtiao and place it in the middle, warm it up a bit, and then fold the whole pancake up around it. She puts the blazing hot deliciousness in a little plastic bag, you hand her 2 yuan, and it’s done. It took me longer to write this and for you to read this than she takes to make this. It’s practically a science for her. Other people customize their pancakes differently, and Mrs. Chen remembers how everyone likes it if you become a regular. Some people get one or both of the other vegetable add-ons, or a CFS*, or no youtiao, or without the chili oil.

The last thing that I buy from Mrs. Chen in the morning is doujiang 豆酱, fresh hot soy milk. I have NEVER been a soy milk fan...until I had it in China. Similarly with tofu: it just tastes better there. I’m still not gun ho about tofu, but I’ll voluntarily choose it in China whereas I wouldn’t at home. Anyway, this soy milk is great. It isn’t nutty or sawdusty like most packaged soy milks commercially available in the States. It is smooth and has just a hint of natural sweetness to it. All over China you can buy juicing machines to make your own corn juice or soy milk and that’s what a lot of people do. Mrs. Chen sells plastic cups with heat-sealed film lids like that of many bubble tea (boba tea) shops across the globe. You break the seal by violently punching your straw through it and enjoy until you can’t suck up anymore and the suction causes the frail plastic to collapse in on itself as if crushed by your fist. This is an extra 1 yuan, so all in all, my 3 yuan breakfast rocks. Sometimes I splurge and go for two doujiang because I drink them so quickly.

*chicken-fish-sausage (CFS)- a pre-wrapped sausage that is shorter and thinner than your average American hot dog, and while it has the usual processed consistency and color of a hot dog, it will contain chicken and yet be fish flavored. Don’t ask. I think they’re rancid. And yet, EVERYONE in China seems to love them.

Another denizen of my street is Barby Lady. We never found out her name like we did with Mrs. Chen (Ben wanted to know). She is a woman who is probably no more than 25 who stands with her own bike/cart contraption on our street from about 4:30pm until 1am everyday. However, her bike/cart is bigger and contains not only the picnic umbrella but a 4’x1’ charcoal grill and a 3’x3’ formica tabletop. On said table, she displays the various raw foodstuffs that she will grill to order on what always stuck me as steel surgical trays. The various kebabs included some BBQ familiar things: chicken wings, beef, lamb, corn on the cob, eggplant strips, green beans, Chinese spinach-like greens, steamed bun halves, mushrooms, and chili peppers...as well as some defintely Chinese items: a whole pigeon, a whole fish, a whole small squid, chicken hearts, duck tongues, mystery meatballs, chicken-fish-sausages, and niangao 年糕, a glutinous rice flour dough that is boiled and formed into a tubular shape, hard to explain. Of all of these things, I reguarly ate the steamed buns, eggplant, corn, greens, and niangao (which was my favorite of all). **sidenote: I like that I just used the word “tubular” in a blog post and didn’t even mean it in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kind of way**

When ordering from Barby Lady, you’d pick out what you wanted and handed them over to her. Simple as that. Many Chinese customers would go through thourough inspection of nearly every skewer on the table before they chose to make sure they were getting the biggest portion with the most meat. I didn’t particularly care. I grabbed the first one on top of the tray and handed it over. Barby Lady was the master multi-tasker. She could have half a dozen people’s orders cooking at one time and they all would be done perfectly no matter when they were set on the grill. She had four main additives that she used along with her three main tools. She had a basic oil that must’ve contained something like soy sauce because it was that color and consistency that was applied with a paintbrush. This was first. Everything ordered would be swabbed down. Next came a shaker of something that I suspect was MSG because it was white powder. Then back to the basic sauce. Then you had to decide: spicy or sweet. Everything on the table could be done either way, but I always chose spicy. Reasons are twofold: 1. I love spicy food. 2. The “sweet” sauce was like a sweet-ish garlic tar. After trying it once, I stuck with the lajiao辣椒 spicy option. If you chose wisely and chose spicy, another paintbrush was used to douse your food in a wonderful tongue-numbing half-powder half-goop mixture of chilies and pepper and spicy goodness. If you chose poorly and chose sweet, a wooden stick not unlike Mrs. Chen’s would slather your food in nastiness. Barby Lady also had two other tools that she used depending on the food you chose: a frickin’ huge chopping knife to debone things, and a grimy pair of scissors to cut things open to see if they are cooked and oddly enough, to “debone” the squid. I guess it was more like cartilage, but the squid all had these long white supports in them. When all of your items were cooked, they were either handed to you directly off the grill or placed into a styrofoam box to take away. Different items cost different amounts, but on the whole most things were 1-2 yuan a skewer with corn being my biggest expense at 4 yuan an ear. I would often just get a snack of 1 or 2 niangao in the afternoons or later in the evenings and so the 1 or 2 yuan wasn’t breaking my bank.

Along with Barby Lady, Noodle Boy was a staple of my evenings as Mrs. Chen was to my mornings. Noodle Boy and the older man he worked for (not his relation, just some other dude...we asked) were a constant presence on the street at night from 5pm-1am. FIrst off, they had the biggest cart. This wasn’t a contraption connected to a bike, it was an all-wooden 6’x3’ handcart with a built-in wood and tarpaulin cover like an overgrown sneeze guard on a buffet. One end of the cart had a hotplate with ceramic soup bowls on it and large industrial sized stainless soup pots next to it. This is where the older gentleman made the boiled noodle soups with various meat parts and the tiniest boiled eggs I’ve ever seen. They were about the size of Cadbury mini-eggs, so they must be pigeon or quail or something like that. Anyway, I was never concerned with that half of the cart because why have a dodgy soup when you could have fried rice or noodles? Exactly!

Noodle Boy’s half of the cart had a portable gas tank and burner on a smaller waist-high table while the plastic woven baskets of white rice, noodles, bean sprouts, and Chinese spinach-like greens (I really need to find out what they are because I love them so), were on the cart itself at mid-chest height. To order, just tell NB chaofan 炒饭, fried rice, or chaomian炒面, fried noodles. He then flicks on the gas, ignites it with his lighter, and sets to work with a generous helping of oil. Once the oil’s hot, in goes an egg to be scrambled. Next, the bean sprouts and greens. Finally, your carbohydrate of choice and seasonings. These seasonings, like those of the aforementioned ladies, are a mystery. There’s a soy sauce like sauce that’s squirted in, a orangey powder like Mrs. Chen’s scooped in and then, if you wanted the extra kick, a spoonful of dried chilis. Everything cooks up from start to finish in less than 3 minutes and the noodles or rice are transfered into another styrofoam container and some deeply seasoned chicken broth is ladled on top for that last bit of flavor to soak in. An order or rice or noodles is only 4 yuan and usually paired with one or two things from Barby Lady made for a nice, cheap, and convenient meal...but it didn’t make the climbing of the 6 six flights to my apartment any cheerier.

On my next trip to Hangzhou to retrieve the rest of my belongings from Ally’s apartment, I’ll try to photograph these wondrous people and the excellent street food they serve me. Stay tuned.


( 3 bites — Take a Bite )
Aug. 14th, 2008 05:04 pm (UTC)
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Oct. 1st, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
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Dec. 23rd, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
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( 3 bites — Take a Bite )