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!