Magic happens when dough meets sizzling oil. Donuts! Funnel cake! Churros! Indian fry bread! For us Chinese, it’s youtiao, or in English, OIL STICKS. What’s not to love?
I’ve had a hankering for the foods of my Shanghai and Hong Kong childhood. Covid lockdown has made me nostalgic for, well, almost anything pre-Covid. Also, Incensed: A Taipei Night Market Novel, has re-awakened my taste buds for bygone flavors, especially street food.
Author Ed Lin, “a stand-up kinda guy,” according to the book blurb, has written a hilarious story set in present-day Taiwan about family, gangsters, post-punk music, political factions and ethnic tensions among the Taiwanese, Chinese, Hakka and recent Chinese Mainlanders.
Our hero and narrator, Jing-nan, is a young Taiwanese man who runs a thriving food stall specializing in pig and chicken intestines on skewers. (For the inquiring minds out there, no, I’ve never tried these.) It’s his appreciative description and professional assessment of the food in Taiwan that has got me thinking about childhood favorites.
Oil sticks are high on that list. As Jing-nan says, “Youtiao are foot-long deep-fried sticks of dough stuck together in pairs … They detonate with each bite, sending crumbs and flakes everywhere.” I like the tensile resistance when you tug at it with your teeth.
It’s a strange thing with street food. It is ubiquitous and cheap. Until you move to where you can’t get it. Sorta of like trying to find a hamburger abroad.
I have written about my mom’s attempts to make Chinese food with ingredients available in St. Louis in the 1950s and ‘60s. She experimented with making youtiao too! She never quite mastered the texture: too doughy or too yeasty or too cakey. What went wrong remains a mystery.
As the weather cools, I think of sugar chestnuts. You first notice them by their distinctive aroma as they are cooked on a street corner. Blocks away. Like how I don’t need to see chicken on a grill to know that someone in the neighborhood is barbequing. As a five-year-old in Shanghai, I remember Mom bringing chestnuts home wrapped in a twisted scrap of newspaper. Years later, I saw them cooking for the first time. I was surprised that the chestnuts are roasted in a huge wok in what looked like a mountain of black sand or small pebbles. A whiff of cooking chestnuts would be such a pleasure today.
Another childhood street food favorite was steamed rice-noodle rolls (zhu chang fen). After school in Hong Kong – I was, maybe, seven? – I’d stop at the noodle cart on the way home. For a couple of coins, I got a dish with two rolled up sheets of rice flour. The cart guy sprinkled toasted sesame seeds on top, pour a special sauce over the whole thing, and cut up the rolls with snips of a huge pair of scissors. Even at that young age, I wondered about the cleanliness of the scissors. When dim sum restaurants came to St. Louis in the late ‘80s, rice-noodle rolls were on the menu. But the taste was bland and the noodles were too slippery.
Not all foods would sound appealing to Westerners. When I am sick, I revert to childhood foods. For me, a Shanghai person, it’s plain rice porridge with flavorings alongside, like preserved duck eggs, aka black eggs or thousand-year-old eggs. (I do not the like the Cantonese way of putting all the goodies right into rice.) I also like to eat tofu ru, fermented tofu, with my rice. Both are available at the Chinese grocery store. It’s just that I haven’t gone since March.
These flavors have been especially on my mind recently because I’ve been suffering from a diagnostic challenge of a toothache. The endodontist doesn’t think it’s a nerve root infection. The dentist doesn’t see a cavity or crack in the tooth. I can’t pinpoint whether the pain is on the top or on the bottom. Whatever the diagnosis, rice porridge is just the ticket.
Both black eggs and tofu ru can be called acquired tastes. The eggs have a fishy, faintly sulfurous smell. The yolk is soft, bordering on runny. There’s just a hint of a metallic tang. And, of course, the colors that run between black, brown, green and yellow are off-putting. In restaurants, they are often served with pickled ginger slices, like those that come with sushi. For me, just a splash of soy sauce is perfect.
Tofu ru are little cubes of fermented tofu. They exude what food critics call “funk.” You buy them in jars, but don’t breathe too deeply when you open the lid. The pungency can knock you over. My mom always kept a jar in the back of fridge. It lasts for years because you nudge off a tiny piece with the tip of your chopstick and mix it into your porridge.
Perhaps the hardest food for Westerners to love is stinky tofu. (Yes, that is a literal translation.) I’ll let Jing-nan explain. It is a “fermented product with a foul, lingering smell not unlike that of a trash chute in a diaper-testing facility … the tofu itself tasted like a blue cheese and has the consistency of whitefish.” I am a fan.
I have my own stinky tofu story. Twenty some years ago, husband Bill, teenage son Alex and I went to China with my mom and dad. We visited relatives in Shanghai, toured the Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan) and visited Yuan-ling, the city in Hunan Province where I was born. On the road back to Shanghai, we had a lunch at the stinky tofu restaurant.
When they started cooking the tofu, even before it was brought out from the kitchen, Alex and Bill abruptly got up and left the room. I followed them out to the parking lot. Bill’s face was green. He said, “Oh, that smell is awful.” Alex chimed in, “I had to leave. I thought I would throw up.”
But don’t cry for me, dear reader! I have enjoyed this trip down my taste bud memory lane, thanks to Ed Lin’s Incensed. And I do have new favorites in my adopted homeland. Greek yogurt! Pesto! Avocado! Homegrown tomatoes for a little while yet. And cheese of every variety! When I was growing up, Chinese people didn’t eat cheese because it was too smelly.
Tell me: What was your favorite food when you were a kid?