During September of this year, good buddy Wendy and I took a trip to China for a month – abandoning our respective partners temporarily to their furniture pursuits while we indulged in the highlights of China. My quest was to seek out fire related cooking practices – street food in particular from outdoor kitchens – that would reflect a sense of place through taste – as well as getting the overall flavour of China itself through other cultural pursuits.
From my own outdoor kitchen on Bruny island, Tasmania (population about 620) to finding myself in the streets of Shanghai, China (population about 23 million) was quite a culture shock for an islander shackie. But this leap of faith was a much needed diversion from the tedium of studio work (helping John with his exhibition repose), house maintenance at Mount Nelson and wrangling with local councils during the course of 2011.
Whilst the itinerary was predetermined and tight, it nevertheless covered an awful lot of ground, and provided us with an insight into China that dealt with many of the basics, including some not so savoury facts.
First night in Shanghai, and unable to sleep! But despite the lack of shuteye, was up before breakfast to check out the local street food trade. Mission Brunyfire was to seek out fire and food from a local perspective. Venturing past the little park where all the locals hang out with their caged birds and grandchildren in strollers, patting and hugging the half dozen or so trees and doing their morning exercises, Brunyfire sought what the local’s ate for breakfast. Many of the street hawkers had already set up by 6am, and were well into their routine – local Chinese have no need of kitchens in their tiny apartments when food is so abundantly and cheaply available on the street. Whilst rice is Asia’s staple, and thus rice congee a favourite breakfast food, I was surprised to learn that bread also features hugely – in many different guises. Cooked on the metal top of a clay lined tandoor style oven and fueled with coal chunks (or charcoal), the pita style breads featured above are a typical example – these are then split open once browned, and filled with a variety of chopped meats.
Also popular are the Fried Bread Stick or ‘you tiao’ 油条, that comprise of strips of yeast dough that are stretched, twisted and deep fried (the fire in this instance driven by gas) to create a crisp outer surface and soft interior. Conventionally, ‘you tiao’ are lightly salted and made so they can be torn lengthwise in two so that they can easily soak up rice congee or soy milk as a breakfast dish.
A Cautionary Tale: ‘Slop oil’, ‘gutter oil’ or ‘drainage oil’ is the name given to the product resulting from the practice of recycling cooking oil that has been recovered from sewer drains after it has been thrown out by restaurants. In many instances, this slop oil is gathered and recycled by reboiling, adding various chemicals to separate the gunk from the oil and sieved into bottles. This is then sold on as a cheaper alternative to fresh cooking oil. Many street vendors and an alarmingly growing number (one in ten) of restaurants use ‘slop oil’ to save money and keep their costs low.
At least two million tons of cooking oil are recycled illegally every year and used by restaurants in China, posing a serious health hazard to diners, according a number of reports. Recycled oil has become an increasing concern as the country tries to grapple with food safety issues. As recently as October this year, The Global Times reported on the latest government crack down on a number of illegal operators.
Jian bing on the other hand, are cooked on a hot plate with little or no oil!
Jian bing 煎餅 are crepe like pancakes, made wafer thin, onto which an egg (or two) is cracked and lightly scrambled across its surface. Chopped spring onions, coriander and scallions are then scattered on and the crepe is folded in half with a hearty smear of hossin, red bean and/or chilli sauce added. Lastly – a deepfried wanton wrapper is folded in, and the whole cut in two and served in a plastic bag. These were popular in Shanghai and Beijing.
The deep fried savoury items above, I had been unable to identify until now – thanks to Fiona Reilly, an ex-pat Aussie living in Shanghai with her family. Fiona says they are called Yóu Dūn Zì (油墩子) and describes them on her blog as follows : ‘Here, the essential item is a deep, long handled spoon, with the end shaped like a patty tin. A simple flour and water batter goes in first, followed by a big spoonful of shredded white radish mixed with chopped scallions, coriander and some salt, and then topped up with enough batter to fill the spoon to the brim’. The whole thing is held in the boiling oil for a few seconds before being turned out onto a wire mesh to cool.
Another pita style bread baked in a coal fueled, clay lined tandoor style oven in Shanghai. Just like their Indian cousins, these breads are pressed onto the oven’s sides from a cloth pad. The above were served with a brushing of hot sauce. The pita style breads, with their distinct pattern and shape, where also baked in a clay lined, coal fired tandoor (or tonnir) oven – this time in the Muslin quarter in Xi’an, and very much reflect the region from whence this particular bread originates. The hand raised edges and stamped interior (according to Fiona created with a wooden punch embedded with sharpened spikes) of these breads, known as ‘nang’ originate from Uyghur in Xinjiand, in far west China. ‘Bing’ is a generic Chinese term for flat or disk shaped, wheat flour based foods.
Cōng Yóu Bǐng 蔥油餅 (above) are crispy layered pancakes made from unleavened dough and flavoured with green onions and sometimes small cubes of salt pork. These are then fried and and kept hot. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, with warm flaky dough in the middle. Mooncakes are also bing (yue bing) – small, rich pastries, with a flaky crust and a sweet filling, usually made of lotus paste and packing 1,000 calories a time. The mid-Autumn festival occurred whilst we were in China, and the mooncake was everywhere. I was intrigued with both the taste and the form, and attempted unsuccessfully to find one of the traditional wooden moulds that many are made from. (Prior to our China trip, I had developed a series of porcelain double-walled bowls, decorated with a Bruny ochre slip as jelly moulds – just loved the shapes.)Wooden moulds also featured in the making of these rice cakes below, from the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, Shaanxi. These however, contain a separate metal grid that allows the steam to penetrate through the rice.
These rice cakes are called Jing Gao 镜糕 or Steamed Glutinous Rice Lollipops, thanks to information I gleaned later (check out Fiona’s website). The unsweetened glutinous rice is steamed in individual wooden molds, with three pieces of dried fruit in the centre. When the sweet is ready, the vendor places three skewers into its center, levers it gently out of the mold, and spreads each side with a sweet gel, for example hami melon or strawberry, then dips one side in crushed nuts, and the other in a black sesame seed and sugar mixture. Rice cakes seem to come in all shapes and sizes, and the moulds that they are made from, are intricate, and intriguing.
The ingenuity of outdoor kitchens and outdoor cooking in China was really impressive and highly imaginative.Not least of which were the outdoor kitchens on board the boats that took us up the Li River from Guilin to Yangshou. These were all serviced by vendors on their bamboo rafts who sold fresh vegetables from their riverside gardens, and snails, crabs, shrimps fossicked from the rocks at the water’s edge.