Fúróng Dànjuǎn (Furong egg rolls)

There is, even to this day, a bit of a debate in China on where furong danjuan was invented; furong is the name of a flower, and is strongly associated with the western city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, known for its spicy food; however, in Hefei, furong danjuan vendors would often advertise “authentic Fuyang furong danjuan“, Fuyang being a smaller city in Anhui, same province as Hefei. Wherever it was from, it didn’t seem to pick up much traction outside of the supposed places of invention, but I believe that those who’ve never had it were missing out – because, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always considered it a favorite of mine.

When I was growing up, there was an alley near Sanxiaokou, one of the main commercial centers of Hefei at the time, called “Nüren Jie”, or, literally, “Women’s Street”. It was never clear to me whether this was an official name, or if it was just a colloquialism, but one thing is for sure: the street was lined with small, cheap boutiques and stalls selling everything under the sun and was popular with everyone, beyond what the name of the street had suggested. On the weekends, my mom and I would often come here to buy clothes, CDs and DVDs, and whatnot, and, for a light dinner, we would often stop by at a stall selling one of these “authentic Fuyang furong danjuan“.

To call it a stall is a bit of an overstatement: it was simply a hand-pulled cart with a raised metal platform, in the center of which a circle was carved out and a big pot of lu, a type of aromatic broth, was boiling away, and glass panels on three sides of the platform with a glass roof. The woman who owned the cart would ask us, what we wanted in our egg rolls? And we’d call out:

  • mianjin, wheat gluten
  • dougan, tofu strips
  • haidai, seaweed
  • lujidan, brined, hard-boiled egg
  • huotuichang, bologna sausage

(My mom would ask for extra chilis and cilantro, of course; I would never touch cilantro as a kid.)

Then she’d get to work: she would lay out four sheets of these steamed, tender soft, paper-thin, nearly transparent wrappers, each about 4 inches in diameter and perfectly white, overlapping three like a Venn diagram on the big metal platform, with the last sheet in the center; then, she’d fish out whatever we had asked for out of the boiling pot of lu, aromatic from a long braise in soy sauce, sugar, chilis, and all kinds of herbs and spices, roughly chop them up, and pile them in the center of the wrappers, with additional drizzles of the lu, chili oil, and a garlic sauce; then, magically, she’d roll up the wrappers into a large cone, with a wide, cylindrical base, and a pointy top. As a final step, before she would hand them over to us in the requisite plastic bag, she’d dip the pointy tip in the lu, so the tip was dyed red from the chili oil floating on top of the lu. The contrast of the red from the chili oil and the white of the wrappers, much like a snow-covered volcano, was edible street food art for me.

Then we’d take our first bites from the tip: the filling was a symphony of flavors – sweet and savory from the lu, spicy and garlicky from the sauces, rich and earthy from the egg; but what I loved the most about this dish was the contrasting textures: the wrappers were tender but chewy, the egg and sausage soft and smooth, the haidai slightly crunchy, and the mianjin bouncy and springy. A complex, delicious, nutritious, filling, and cheap (1.5-2 yuan for each furong danjuan, depending on the add-ons) meal – as the sun set, we’d slowly enjoy each bite, wiping away the dripping sauces, as we walked back to the bus stop and take the route 10 bus back home.

When I came to the US, I encountered “egg foo young” for the first time in Chinese restaurants; initially under the impression that this was the furong danjuan of my childhood, I was sorely disappointed to find out that this was some bizarre omelette dish that I’ve never seen or even heard of in China. I have yet to try to reproduce this dish at home, making it 15 years since the last time I had a furong danjuan, but I hope to give it a go soon!


Jiǔniàng (Sweet rice pudding)

Growing up in Hefei, I didn’t have much of a sweet tooth as far as street food was concerned. There weren’t many sweet food items sold on the streets to begin with – there was bingtang hulu, sugar-coated hawthorn fruits; tangchao lizi, chestnuts stir-fried in sugar; and that’s probably about it. I did not care for either of them. But my ears will perk up if I’m sitting in my grandparents’ living room and hear the rhythmic beating of a bolanggu, a type of pellet drum, waiting for the hoarse cry of an old man that sometimes accompanied it:

Mai jiuniang lo! Mai jiuniang lo!

(“Jiuniang for sale! Jiuniang for sale!”)

In those chilly autumnal evenings, the old man was a frequent visitor to my grandparents’ residential complex, where my mom and I often went for dinner after work and school, and before going back home. He was always seen pulling a wooden cart with a big wooden barrel covered by a damp towel set on top, spinning the bolanggu in hand, creating a plop plop sound that was associated with street vendors of various goods or, occasionally, collectors of plastic bottles and cans for recycling.

Whenever I hear the old man, I’d grab my mom or my grandma, and race downstairs to greet him and his big wooden barrel filled with a nectar fit for the gods: jiuniang, a soupy sweet rice pudding made from fermenting nuomi (sweet sticky rice) with a specific starter called jiuqu, slightly alcoholic and naturally sweet and tangy from the fermentation process. We’d ask the old man for a taste of the jiuniang to see if it is sweet enough; he’d ladle a little bit out, we’d drink it, give him a thumbs-up of approval, and buy a jin (roughly a pound) or two in a plastic bag, and take it back upstairs.

Jiuniang could be eaten in one of several ways: I loved to just eat it straight out of the bag right after we bought it, the jiuniang so cold and so sweet, with a slight aftertaste of alcohol (China’s views on alcohol for kids were pretty relaxed back then, and probably remains so today; more on that sometime later); if any was left, we would make jiuniang dajidan (jiuniang with egg), either by poaching the egg in the boiling jiuniang or swirling a beaten egg into it to make an “egg flower”, for breakfast the next day.

A real test of self-control would be to save enough jiuniang for dinner the next evening, after my grandma would’ve had some time to make some yuanxiao, tiny white balls made from glutinous rice flour that she’d shape by rubbing small pieces of dough in a circle in the palms of her hands, and make jiuniang yuanxiao (sometimes even with an egg!). The cooking process mellows the slightly bitter edge of the alcohol as it evaporates away, and, especially with the addition of a few spoonfuls of sugar, a delightfully sweet soup awaits me when I would come back from school. There were few things on earth better than coming back to my grandparents’ place and smelling the aroma of a pot of jiuniang yuanxiao bubbling away on the stove, my grandpa hurrying to take my backpack off me and my grandma asking about my day at school, and sitting down to a steaming bowl of jiuniang yuanxiao to warm up – and I’d forget about my homework for at least half an hour!

Since moving to the US, my parents and I have tried to make jiuniang countless times at home, given that Chinese supermarkets here tend to carry only expensive Taiwanese brands that taste more sour than what we were used to. The process to make jiuniang is not difficult on paper, but has a high failure rate (every utensil must be absolutely clean, even microwaved to kill off any bacteria, without a drop of water or oil, and the rice-starter mixture must be kept at specific temperatures to promote the growth of certain kinds of bacteria for the fermentation process, etc.); we’ve consulted countless recipes on a Chinese cooking forum that we frequent, all of which promise a “simple, fail-safe” process, but we’ve yet to nail it down properly and often had to throw out our experiments, as we were never quite sure if the white or black mold growing on the rice is safe to eat (different recipe writers seem to disagree on this point)! I’ve taken to just eating store-bought jiuniang with a generous helping of sugar to try to mimic the taste of my childhood, but it is just not the same…

Bìshèngkè (Pizza Hut)

I’ve talked a lot about the food memories that I share with my mom, but I haven’t mentioned much about my dad. The reason is that, for 3 years (1998 – 2001), my dad was getting his Ph.D. in Shanghai, a 6-hour bus ride east of Hefei; combined with his busy work schedule at the Anhui Medical University as a teaching professor, I didn’t get to see him much growing up. Especially in the later years, when he was studying in Shanghai, the few times when we did spend some time together were especially memorable, and the few food memories that we shared are held very closely in my heart. I will talk about one of them today, and maybe also offer a bit of an insight into the very beginning of western fast food in China.

It was the summer of 2000; my parents arranged for me to fly from Hefei to Shanghai (with one of our close family friends who was going there on a business trip) and spend a few days with my dad during my summer vacation. I don’t remember much about the short, 45-minute flight, even though it was the first time that I’ve really flown without any other family members.

The second night I was in Shanghai, my dad took me to one of the most fancy restaurants around: Bishengke, or Pizza Hut, had just opened its first (and at the time, only) location in Shanghai a couple years before in 1998 at Xujiahui, one of the most prestigious commercial centers of Shanghai. Though I’ve had Kendeji (KFC) and Maidanglao (McDonald’s) before in Hefei (they had already spread to Hefei before Pizza Hut did – more on my childhood experiences with those sometime later), Bishengke, as well as the whole concept of pizza (translated into Chinese at the time as “Italian filled pancakes”), was still very new to me.

We must have waited in line for at least a couple of hours (Bishengke, even to this day, is considered by many in China as a fine dining destination, despite its poor reputation in the US as a below-average pizza takeout chain), though I can’t claim to remember much about the overall dining experience that day. I do, though, still remember the two items we got:

  • A 9-inch supreme pizza, 56 yuan
  • A very small bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce, 27 yuan

I remember that I liked both – even though both dishes were entirely new to me, the pizza was (with hindsight knowledge) significantly altered to fit a Chinese flavor profile by removing pretty much all the cheese on top – though it did lead to my preference for supreme pizza even to this day – and the spaghetti wasn’t too different from the traditional Chinese dish xihongshi jidan mian (noodles with tomatoes and eggs), except that eggs were traded for ground beef, so both were quite easily acceptable for a young palate.

What made the meal more memorable was the price: at a total cost of 83 yuan for two, it would have fed my dad and me 20 meals elsewhere; at a time when a bowl of noodles cost no more than 2-3 yuan in most restaurants, at a time when my dad was making somewhere less than 1000 yuan per month on his Ph.D. stipend in one of the most expensive cities in China (therefore making that single meal about 10% of his monthly income), that was his way of showing how much he missed me and loved me. The Chinese are notorious for their non-verbal ways of showing affection and care for each other, with the most common way being through food, and that meal was how he expressed his feelings – in making sure that I got one of the finest and most exclusive meals in Shanghai at the time (such words have never been uttered for a Pizza Hut here in the US, I’m sure), he gave the best he had to me.

To this day, when I think back to this meal with my dad, and the subsequent trip we made all the way out on the subway (first ride ever on the subway) to Jinjiang Leyuan (Jinjiang Amusement Park) in the far suburbs, where I rode a roller coaster for the first time, I feel so grateful and loved to have shared such an eye-opening experience with my dad. It was a short trip of only a few days, but the memories of those few days will remain dear to me forever.

A few more words on Bishengke: the international pizza behemoth has since opened over 100 locations in China, including one location in Hefei, to which, on my last trip to China in March 2013 with my mom, we invited my younger cousin and her parents. It was still a 2-hour wait, and we ordered 2 pizzas and some sides for a total price of over 300 yuan (around $50 in 2013). The cost didn’t shock me this time – a meal for 5 at any half-decent restaurant would cost at least 200 yuan nowadays – and, having had plenty of pizza in the US, I could see how different Chinese pizza was from what I’ve had here (a lot less cheese, for example), and, honestly, I did not care for it. A fine dining experience it may still be for a lot of Chinese people, but for me, Bishengke is just Pizza Hut, an average pizza takeout chain, only with the notable exception of that one meal in the summer of 2000 with my dad, the symbolism of which I would never forget.

Níuròumiàn (Beef noodle soup)

It seems that any city of some culture and history would have a specific dish (or dishes!) for which the city is known. For New York, that would be pizza. Philly, the cheese steak. Boston, the clam chowder. Cincinnati (my home in the US), the Cincinnati chili. For Hefei, I would personally give that honor to niuroumian, beef noodle soup.

Like perhaps all the foods I will talk about in this blog, niuroumian is not a glorious or extravagant dish. It’s probably not even invented in Hefei – after all, versions of it have appeared all over China, with the western city of Lanzhou claiming to have invented an especially famous form of it (the Lanzhou lamian, or hand-pulled noodles, which I will talk about sometime later), and many consider it (or, rather, a form of it) the national dish of Taiwan. It is a humble, everyday kind of food, the kind that you’d walk into a small restaurant on the side of the street after a long day of work or school, order a bowl, sit down at a greasy table, have it served almost immediately because there’s always a pot filled with the beef soup base boiling away, snap apart the chopsticks, slurp it down in 5 minutes, pay the 1.5 or 2 yuan, and walk out less than 20 minutes after you entered. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it’s filling – no wonder it is ubiquitous throughout the city of Hefei.

My mother’s favorite niuroumian restaurants, 007 and Xiaoyoutian, are both downtown, and we would only go there if we were going there shopping. To be honest, I never had much of a memory of either restaurant’s niuroumian; my favorite place was near our home and didn’t even have a name, or at least, I never learned its actual name – I always called it “daqiao dixia neijia“, or, “that restaurant under the Big Bridge”, which is what I called the city’s first elevated interchange, the Wulidun Interchange, built in 1995.

It was a 10 minute walk from home, and it was where we frequented either on the way home from work and school on a weekday, or for dinner if we stayed in on a weekend. The niuroumian there was the same as what was served at pretty much every other niuroumian restaurant of the city: a big bowl of flat, thick, wide noodles, filled to the brim with a long-simmered beef broth of a glistening reddish brown hue from the dominant chilis and soy sauce, accompanied by a chorus of other seasonings and spices ranging from star anise to cinnamon to cloves to fennel to ginger to garlic, topped with 5-6 big pieces of beef of an unknown cut but meltingly tender from hours of braising, and served with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro and/or green onions (both of which I avoided as a kid). We’d sit at one of those really low tables they set up on the sidewalks, sit on these low wooden stools, and slurp down our bowls of meaty and spicy noodles as traffic roared overhead on the Wulidun Interchange and cyclists rang driiiiing-driiiiiing all around us, without a care in the world.

Thinking back, what made that specific restaurant memorable to me wasn’t the niuroumian per se – it was rather how it made me feel: smack in the middle of the newly-built interchange and all the construction that’s happening around it, in the midst of the busy evening rush hour traffic and the torrents of people on foot and bikes trying to get home, it was a sanctuary, a place where my mom and I could sit on the sidewalks, enjoy a quick, delicious, and filling meal, and disregard the hubbub all around us. Besides, the middle-aged couple who owned the place were nice – I’m pretty sure they remembered us, because, when I’m not in the mood for niuroumian, I would often get their wonton soup (more on wontons sometime later) with an additional ladle of the beef broth and a piece or two of the beef, and I did this so often that they’d add the beef without me asking later, all for no additional cost (beef was and still is quite expensive in China). It was a nice feeling to be there – amidst the chaos of late-90s China, it was a place where everything felt right.

Sadly, the Restaurant under the Bridge closed down shortly before we left China in 2002, and with it, went the last good niuroumian place in Hefei in my heart. Even my mom’s favorite places, 007 and Xiaoyoutian, no longer serve any beef noodle soup that would fulfill our desire to relive the late 90s: whenever we are back in Hefei, my mom would make a pilgrimage to both of them, only to come back bitterly disappointed that “nothing tastes the same” (she was so discouraged that, on her most recent trip to Hefei a couple of years ago, she didn’t even bother going to either place, though they are both still open). Despite the raving reviews that both places still get on various Chinese restaurant review sites, the niuroumian of my childhood will, perhaps, simply remain a mere memory of the past.

Chòudòufǔ (stinky tofu)

Perhaps one of the best known (or should I say, notorious?) Chinese street food dishes in the West – and no doubt the one that people would find most objectionable – is choudoufu, or stinky tofu. It is a well-deserved name – even in China, choudoufu, given its distinctive pungency from many days of fermentation, is a bit of an acquired taste, though many lovers of choudoufu would defend their obsession by claiming that choudoufu wen qilai chou, chi qilai xiang (smells stinky but tastes great)!” After all, doesn’t the same level of polarization apply to durian, the king of fruits, or those fine aged French bleu cheeses, both of which, coincidentally, I could barely stand at all?

I grew up loving choudoufu (an influence of my mom’s side of the family, I’m sure; my dad never cared for it). There are at least two choudoufu vendors that I can remember: one in Xiyuan, our residential complex, who would set up her fryer next to the jiucaibing vendor who called me “Yalei!”; the other near the Shangzhidu (“Capital of Commerce”) shopping center in downtown Hefei, where my mom and I would frequent on the weekends. There are countless others that I’ve forgotten, I’m sure.

There’s no need to advertise the presence of a choudoufu vendor, though many would still put up a big sign claiming “authentic Bagongshan choudoufu” (a region in Anhui Province, of which Hefei is the capital, famous for its tofu products, including choudoufu). The smell alone would do the job – it is rather hard to miss. From a long distance away, I would be able to smell the distinctive odor given off by the black, ink-like brine in which the tofu chunks are fermented; it has a hint of the gutters, maybe slightly ammoniac, and even I would find it tolerable at best. Then, I’d see one of these stalls – the setup is always the same: a gas burner, with a wok filled with boiling oil on top, and a plastic bucket filled with bite-size cubes of tofu marinating in brine on the side. I’d wait impatiently and watch as the owner would pick out 6 pieces of tofu with a pair of long chopsticks, slide them into the wok, and turn each piece as it sizzles and pops. After all the pieces are golden brown and floating on top of the oil, she would scoop them out, drain off the excess grease, and drop them into a small plastic bowl. Then, she’d add a mixture of seasoning and spices as you like: soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame paste, minced garlic, cilantro, and – most important of them all – chili oil. She would pour on whichever combination of seasoning I chose (always a ton of chili oil and go easy on the garlic and cilantro), stick a toothpick into the bowl, and hand it over for 1.5 yuan.

My patience standing in the midst of the stench and waiting for that little plastic bowl would be richly awarded: the fermentation process gives the tofu an indescribable depth of umami balanced by earthiness, well-complemented by a fireworks of the chili oil and other spices; the tofu cubes themselves, thinly coated with a crispy layer on the outside, are tender and succulent inside. The stink of the tofu is left behind with the brine – there is actually no foul smell after they’ve been deep-fried and drenched in all kinds of seasonings. Walking down the street, with my mom and I each holding a bowl of choudoufu in hand, either on the way home or browsing through the boutique stores – that was one of the most pleasurable food experiences of my childhood.

There is another dish that is also translated as “stinky tofu”: chouganzi, a darker, drier, stronger tasting version of choudoufu. They have different origins: choudoufu came from the eastern city of Nanjing and is usually served with a mix of seasonings, whereas chouganzi came from the southern city of Changsha and is usually served with a type of reddish chili-garlic paste popular in Hunan Province, of which Changsha is the capital. As much as I loved choudoufu, I never cared for chouganzi, despite its much greater versatility and reach beyond simple street food (it’s often found in stir-fries with other strong-tasting vegetables that I hated, for example).

Another somewhat similar dish, doufuru, is also made from fermented tofu. It can be stinky (in the form of chou doufuru), or savory, or even sweet, depending on the ingredients of the marinade in which bite-sized chunks of tofu sit and ferment. It is commonly eaten with porridge in small quantities as a seasoning, as its flavor is often rather overpowering. The texture of doufuru is somewhat like really ripe soft cheeses popular in France, with a similar level of pungency and earthiness, which is something I never got used to. I guess even I, who is obsessed choudoufu, would not be able to stand any of its relatives…

Ròujíamó (Chinese hamburger)

Of all the delicious foods found on the streets of Hefei, there is one specific dish that has always occupied a special place in my heart: roujiamo, or Chinese hamburgers.

Roujiamo is not native to Hefei; it was invented in Xi’an, a western city that had long served as the imperial capital of many ancient dynasties and revered by many today as one of the street food centers of China, due to the long list of popular street foods that originated there (roujiamo and liangpi, a cold noodle salad, being some of the most well-known examples). Whether or not the old man with the weathered face and withered hands, who sold roujiamo from a hand-pulled cart, on which he set up a window as a shield, behind which he chopped up hunks of pork belly, scooped out of a giant metal vat slowly simmering on top of a coal burner, on a giant round cutting board that had seen the years of action marked by the innumerable knife marks – whether or not he, as his sign advertised, was “authentic from Xi’an”, I never found out, though his accent was not local.

He set up his cart on the street near the entrance of the Shuguang (“Light of Dawn”) shopping center, near my grandparents’ place. It was a major intersection, formed by Jinzhai Road, a major thoroughfare of Hefei’s, and Jixi Road, surrounded by residential complexes and government buildings, with a university and hospital nearby (no wonder it was the chosen location for the second KFC and McDonald’s in Hefei – more on the significance of that later). He never had to worry about lack of business: every time I was there, there would be a line, and I would impatiently wait as I watched him use a metal hook to fish the mo (more formally known as a baijimo, a type of bun, made with a slightly leavened dough, with a very dense, chewy texture like a bagel, usually sliced into two halves like burger buns in this application) off the inner walls of a tandoori oven, slicing it open (though not the whole way) with a cleaver, roughly chop the great steaming hunks of pork belly long stewed in an aromatic broth called lu (seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, ginger, garlic, scallions, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and who knows what else) for hours, and, with the same cleaver, scoop up the chopped pieces and shove them into the mo. As a finishing touch, he’d ladle a little bit of the juices of the pork into the mo. If you’d like, he would also add some chopped cilantro, or green chilis, or both. Then, he’d hand it over to you inside a plastic bag, in exchange for 2 kuai (roughly 25 US cents), and repeat the ritual all over again.

It’s not hard to see how this food is so popular: a dense, chewy, slightly charred bun that soaks up the pork juices and stands up as a contrast to the meltingly tender and juicy pieces of pork belly, cut through by the crunch and heat of green chilis and the refreshing cilantro. It is a winning formula for a delicious, filling, and portable meal for the many shoppers, students, and people heading home after a long day of work, looking for a quick dinner. It called out to me as my mom and I would come out of Shuguang shopping center, about to head to my grandparents’ house for dinner, and I would beg to have one of these roujiamo instead of the boring rice porridge that is the usual dinner fare, and gobble it up before we finished the 10-minute walk home. They would tease me about eating something off the street that spoiled my appetite for the “real” dinner, but I don’t care – roujiamo wasn’t just a snack, it wasn’t just dinner; it was my perfect food, and it would soon become a life long obsession.

I did finally manage to try to make roujiamo at home here in the US a couple months ago;  the mo was more difficult than I had imagined, as the dough was very hard and required a lot of kneading and resting, though the pork belly itself wasn’t hard at all. I made my mo on a cast iron skillet on low heat to simulate the heating of the tandoori oven to get a light char on both sides, and filled it with chopped pork belly, chopped eggs hard-boiled with the pork belly, cilantro and jalapeños, and, of course, the broth in which I cooked the pork and eggs. It was a modest success, and I can’t wait to try it again.

Home-made roujiamo!


Fàntuán (Rice balls)

If memory serves me correctly, fantuan was, I believe, a bit of a late comer to the Longhe Road breakfast scene. By the time that my mom and I had become regulars at the jianbing and shatang/guotie places, a middle-aged man popped up and set up his shop, all based on a wooden pull wagon with a giant wooden barrel inside, on the sidewalks just next to the woman selling the jianbing. Inside the wooden barrel, which is usually covered with a big, wet towel, was full of freshly steamed nuomi, glutinous rice. This is the main ingredient for fantuan.

Of the quick, grab-and-go breakfast choices on Longhe Road, fantuan was, perhaps, the most substantial of them all. Made from nuomi, a much stickier, sweeter, and heavier rice variety than the normal white rice eaten in a Chinese meal and usually reserved in my area for desserts (such as babaofan, eight treasure rice), or pounded into niangao (rice cakes popular during New Year), or made into jiuniang (sweet rice wine), fantuan almost seems like a simpler but more versatile version of zongzi, both of which being made from intact grains of glutinous rice and stuffed with all kinds of goodies. And, like zongzi, they stick to your bones, too – a fist-sized fantuan would keep me full all morning.

The man sold both sweet and savory types (I generally preferred the latter). The sweet ones are much simpler and are filled with granulated white sugar and black sesame seeds – a very common combination for sweets and desserts in my area, and probably costed around 1.5 yuan. The savory ones, however, are a completely different ball-game: for 2 yuan, you could have any combination of zhacai (pickled mustard stems), xiangangdou (pickled long beans), rousong (pork floss), and – the best part – either a stick of huotuichang (a bologna-like sausage that was a childhood weakness of mine) or a stick of youtiao (deep fried dough stick), or, for half a yuan more, both – which is, of course, my natural choice.

I also loved to watch the man make them: after you told him what you wanted inside the fantuan, he would put a couple scoopful of the glutinous rice on to a hot and slightly damp towel, spread it out into a thick rectangular layer, spoon the fillings in a straight line down the center of the rice, then fold the towel onto itself with the rice inside, and squeeze and twist the towel, as it drying it, to form something akin to an elongated American football with pointed ends about the size of a fist. Then, he’d drop the fantuan into a plastic bag, dip the tip in the sugar-and-sesame mixture if you asked for a sweet one, and hand it over.

The sweet version was always, in my humble opinion, good, but boring. I’ve always much preferred the symphony of flavors and textures of the savory version: chewy rice, salty and tangy pickles, crunchy youtiao. A delicious, quick, and cheap breakfast that kept you full for the whole morning – what else could I ask for?

Shātāng & Guōtiē (“Sha” soup & potstickers)

They say that the early bird gets the worm. On some school days, where I do manage to wake up early enough, my mom and I might decide to take our time on the way to school and work, and actually sit down for a more leisurely breakfast. On a cold winter morning, there is no better place than the stall right on the other side of the street from the woman who sells jianbing on Longhe Road; a husband-wife team there sells two things: shatang, a soup made from pork bone broth, and guotie, pork-filled potstickers.

We order the same thing every time as we walk in:

Laoban! Liangwan shatang, erliang guotie!

(“Boss! Two bowls of shatang, two liang of guotie!” – a liang is a measure of weight, equivalent to 50g or 1.76oz.)

We’d then sit down at those long, wooden tables, and be quickly presented with two big bowls of steaming hot soup and a small plate of 8 potstickers (for reasons I never quite understood, one liang of guotie is usually equivalent to 4 guotie, possibly because the meat used in 4 guotie weighs one liang combined?). We’d grab two little plates from the center of the wooden table, pour some Zhenjiang black vinegar for dipping the guotie, snap apart our chopsticks, and dig in.

Shatang, as I said, is a rather complex soup made from pork bone broth, typically with an array of vegetables and grains added to it both for nutrition and texture: mu’er, wood-ear mushrooms, for their crunch; yiren, barley rice, for their chewiness; huanghua cai, dried day lily, for their slipperiness; and a raw egg that is stirred into the soup to form “egg flowers”, for a silky mouthfeel. Thickened with a slurry of tapioca starch and water, seasoned with a few good shakes of ground white pepper, a drizzle of sesame oil, and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro, the soup both warmed and filled us up.

But soup can only keep you full for so long – certainly not the whole morning. For something a bit more substantial, we turn to the guotie: instead of the half-moon shape usually associated with boiled dumplings, guotie, which are pan-fried from an uncooked state (as opposed to jianjiao, dumplings that are pan-fried after boiling, so essentially cooked twice), are long, skinny, and had a triangular cross-section, with tall side edges that was kept soft and chewy, and a narrow base, crisped up in the skillet. I would dip the guotie in the vinegar and, as I bit into it, slurp up the hot, porky juices (guotie is usually filled with purely pork, flavored with shaoxing wine, ginger, scallions, and other sweet-tasting spices like anise – in accordance with the culinary tradition in my region that pork should be served with a hint of sweetness – as opposed to the regular dumplings, which are often made with a pork and vegetable filling). My favorite part? Double dipping the guotie in my vinegar dish, so some of the filling and the jus fall out and mix with the vinegar, and, once I’m done with all 4 of my guotie, drink the vinegar in one gulp, and enjoy the mix of the sweet and fattiness of the guotie in perfect balance with the refreshing tang of the vinegar. To this day, I still occasionally drink the dipping vinegar after I’m done eating dumplings or potstickers at home – a bit of an acquired taste for sure, but old habits die hard…

A meal like this would’ve cost somewhere around 7-8 yuan (around one dollar) for both my mom and I – unfortunately I no longer remember the exact prices. Compared to a quick breakfast like jianbing guozi, a shatang-guotie combo is positively luxurious. It was not an everyday meal – but one to be slowly savored.

Aside from Longhe Road, we would also go to a stall near Shuguang (“Light of Dawn”) shopping center, a 10-minute walk from my grandparents’ place, to have their shatang-guotie combo on the weekends. I remember their guotie to be slightly superior to the one from Longhe Road, though the shatang was not nearly as good.

The supposed etymology of shatang is rather interesting: there does not appear to be an agreed-upon way to write the sha character, with various legends each purporting a different way to write it. My favorite one goes something like this: Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty once visited the city of Xuzhou, where this shatang supposedly originated; he had this soup at a restaurant, and liked it so much that he asked, “Zheshi sha tang?” (“What soup is this?”, in which sha means “what”); the accompanying officials, who did not know the name either and panicked at the possibility of not providing a completely satisfactory answer to the Emperor, simply responded that “Your Royal Highness is so right, this is indeed the ‘sha’ soup!”, and the name stuck. True or not, the story certainly gave me a good laugh when I learned about it!

(Other somewhat more believable versions of the etymology of shatang state that sha is an ancient term for “meat porridge”, or sha is derived from a combination of characters for rice and ginseng [the latter of which is pronounced sheng, which may explain the pronunciation] to indicate the high regard in which the rice-based soup is held. Which story is right, you be the judge!)


Jiānbǐng (Chinese crepes)

Breakfast was often an on-the-streets affair for my mom and me. School starts at 7:50, and we would get up around 7, head out the door around 7:10, and walk down Longhe Road, which connects our residential complex, “Xiyuan” (“West Garden”), past the gates of Anhui University, my mom’s Alma Mater, to Anhui Medical University, my dad’s Alma Mater, of which my elementary school was a subsidiary.

Longhe Road was not a main thoroughfare – a narrow two-lane road lined with street vendors who set up little stalls to sell goods of all sorts, from fruits to clothing to books to bootleg DVDs. In the morning, though, the only stalls that are open are clustered around the gates of Anhui University, not selling goods, but a wide range of breakfast items. One of the most popular, and certainly one of the most portable (an important attribute if I couldn’t get out of bed that morning), was jianbing from this one middle-aged woman who usually sets up just in front of the bookstore next to the main university gates.

Jianbing, though literally meaning “pancake”, much more closely resembles a crepe. They are made similarly, too: she would pour a ladleful of thin batter, usually made with just flour, water, and salt, onto a round flat-top grill, and, spinning a wooden crepe spreader from the center, create a perfect circle. Like the jiucai bing that I talked about in the last entry, she would crack an egg into the center, beat it lightly with the crepe spreader, and sprinkle on a small handful of chopped-up zhacai (pickled mustard stems that originated in Sichuan) and scallions. As the egg slightly solidifies, she would flip over the jianbing, and, with a brush, generously lather on a layer of sweet-and-hot sauce (a mystery sauce that I’ve had much trouble replicating later, though it was probably a combination of chili paste and hoisin sauce). Voila! A freshly cooked jianbing, all under a minute.

Here’s where you can make a choice: you could have just the jianbing, which, delicious as it is, is perhaps not filling enough, and may be texturally monotonous; more commonly, you would choose to upgrade it with youtiao, also called Chinese crullers or Chinese donuts, which are long strips of deep-fried dough. This combination of jianbing wrapped around a couple long strips of youtiao, known as jianbing guozi, apparently originated in the northern city of Tianjin and swept across the nation. It’s hard not to fall for it after the first bite: the contrast of the soft and tender jianbing with the crispy youtiao, a flavor profile balanced between the salty zhacai, the rich egg, and the sweet and spicy sauce, complemented by the lightness of the scallions – it was the perfect meal at a cost of merely one or two kuai (less than a quarter at the time), and it fueled me for countless morning school sessions. I would gobble it up the second it came off the grill and was handed to me inside the ubiquitous plastic bag, and run off to school – if I wanted to savor it, well, I can always get another one tomorrow, that is, if I can get up early enough…

Since I moved to the US over a dozen years ago, I’ve encountered a version of jianbing guozi in which deep-fried wonton wrappers called baocui (literally “thin and crispy”) are used instead of youtiao. I’ve also seen cilantro used, either with or instead of the chopped scallions. Though both are undeniably delicious in their own right, in my personal opinion, neither can hold a candle to the version I’ve had in my childhood, on those morning walks to school on Longhe Road.

As an aside, the debate between the Tianjin school of jianbing (usually with the youtiao filling) vs. the Shandong school of jianbing (usually with the baocui filling) continues to rage to this day in China. Though Shandong, a province just south of Tianjin, is supposedly the birthplace of jianbing, I think I’m pretty clear which side I’m on…

Jiǔcaì bǐng (Garlic chive pancakes)

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with jiucai, variously known in English as garlic chives, Chinese leek, Asian chives, etc., or in some Asian/Japanese stores as nira. Well, by love-hate, I meant more “10% love and 90% hate” throughout my childhood. It was pungent, stinky, stringy, squishy, chewy, and always got stuck in my teeth. You know how they say you shouldn’t kiss anyone after eating garlic? Well, the same applies to garlic chives, as you might have gathered from the name. I couldn’t stand jiucai jiaozi (garlic chive-and-pork dumplings, possibly one of the standard fillings along side napa cabbage-and-pork, which I did like immensely; more on those in a later entry), I would only eat the scrambled eggs in jiucai chao jidan, and I never quite understood the point of jiucai chao yacai (stir-fried with mung bean sprouts), either.

But one dish (more specifically, one type of dish) accounted for that 10% love: jiucai bingBing can mean anything from pancakes, to crepes, to flat breads, to even leaven baked goods similar to English muffins, often stuffed. I will talk specifically about one kind of jiucai bing today: the kind that’s most similar to crepes, made by a middle-aged woman who owned a little stall on the streets near my house, who called me “Yalei!” every time she saw me (for more on that, see the previous post).

She made jiucai bing in a way that I’ve never seen before. At home, we would make jiucai bing by making a watery batter with flour, water, salt, and maybe eggs, throw inch-long strips of garlic chives into the batter, and make big, thin, round pancakes with it – it’s like the Korean pajeon, if you’ve had that before. It was good on its own, or with congee (which I also refused to eat – yes, I know, I was a picky kid).

But what she did was different: she would make a much thinner, much bigger pancake on a flat top grill, like a big crepe, and as the batter solidifies, she would crack an egg into the middle, beat it slightly with a crepe spreader, and sprinkle inch-long strips of garlic chives all around the egg. Then, she would fold the edges of the crepe over the garlic chives, toward the center, to make a square. After a few seconds, she’d flip that over, and, as the egg and garlic chives sizzle on the grill, she’d take a jar of chili paste and brush a generous dollop on the cooked side. As the sizzling dies down, she’d fold the square bing in half, throw it into a plastic bag (everything came in plastic bags; health, safety, and environment be damned), and hand it over for one or two kuai (colloquial for yuan; at the time, 1 dollar = 8.3 yuan). Savory, crispy, balanced between the heat and spice of the chili paste, the richness of the egg, and the light, vegetal nature of garlic chives (pungency and stink offset by the chili paste, I’m grateful to note), it was all you could ask for in a quick and cheap snack.

It was a popular dinner choice (dinner is always lighter than lunch, which is the big meal of the day) for my mom and I on our walk home from work and school. We’d get two and munch away as we walked, past the dirty lake in the park on our left, past all the elderly on the public exercise machines on our right, past the little grocery store where I’d run to get bottles of black vinegar or soy sauce in a pinch, talking about our day. And then, it was homework time. But I had a jiucai bing, and it was a good day.

Speaking of garlic chive-and-mung bean sprout stir fries, there was a little ditty in my region that, if I remember correctly, went something like this:

Jiucai chao yacai,

Yaochi nawanlai,

Buchi gunguolai!

Very non-poetically translated,

Garlic chive stir-fried with mung bean sprouts,

If you want some, bring your bowl over,

If you don’t want any, get the @#%* over here!

Yeah, that one got me scratching my head, too. Rhymes well, though (at least in Chinese)!