Before we start, a few words on myself, aka, “yalei”.
No, “yalei” is not my name. In my hometown of Hefei, China, “yalei” is the local dialect for “child”, or, more appropriately, “kiddo”. To be clear, nobody in my family, aside from my Da Mama (my name for one of my aunts), called me by that. The only person who called me “yalei” was this woman who sold jiucai bing, or garlic chive pancakes, on the streets near the house where I grew up.
It is really strange how memory works sometimes because, thinking back, I actually hated – no, despised – garlic chives in pretty much any other form as a kid. As part of the classic dumpling filling of pork-and-garlic chives, its pungency overwhelmed everything else and I could only tolerate it if drowned in chili oil, and even then, maybe only eat one dumpling per sitting. In stir-fries with tofu or egg, aside from its unpleasant stink, I found it overly stringy and tended to get stuck between my teeth. It was one of those many things that I refused to touch, and my family would often have to find something else for me to eat, like, say, cabbage-and-pork dumplings.
But I remember walking home, after school at around 6pm (even elementary school was an 8-5 business in China, though there was a 2.5 hour lunch break), and being greeted by her, every time she sees me, and she’d smile and shout out, “Yalei! Jiucai bing yao buyao (do you want garlic chive pancakes)?” at me, but more probably, at the other passers-by, who actually carried money, unlike me (I was probably only 9 or 10 at the time). If my mom were with me, as sometimes she would walk back from her work and pick me up from school on the way, she might hand over a 1-kuai (colloquial for yuan; at the time, 1 dollar was 8.3 yuan) bill and we’d be munching on the pancake walking home rest of the way. It was the only way I liked garlic chives, and it was delicious.
For me, that moment, standing at that three-way intersection next to a park and a bookstore where she’d set up her stall every day, ignoring the car horns all around me, smelling the pancakes and eggs sizzling on the flat top grill, hearing her attempt to get my business – even if it was just advertisement to others around me – that was the moment that I associated with all the street foods I had as a “yalei”. Maybe it’s simply because she was appearing to cater to me and me alone, or maybe she was actually friendlier than other vendors, or maybe it’s just the pancake itself – but, when I think of all the street foods I’ve had as a kid, I close my eyes and I transport myself to that intersection over a dozen years ago, hearing her calling out to me:
“Yalei! Jiucai bing yao buyao?”
This is a blog on the food, mostly street food but also some restaurant and home-cooked meals, that I associate with my childhood in Hefei, China. These posts will, most likely, follow no specific order, chronological or otherwise. Unfortunately I don’t have pictures – I was like nine and did not expect to be writing a blog about this twenty years later, not to mention I didn’t have a camera – but I will try to describe each dish in as much detail as I can remember, though I won’t be able to give enough details to serve as recipes. I only have memories – these are the first memories that shaped my life as a foodie, and I hope to share them with you.