Taking it to the streets

In both Nanjing and Zhangye (and throughout most of Asia, it seems), a lot of cooking happens out on the streets.  Not only does this enable me to display my photographic prowess, it provides color and character to streetside life.  From roasting sweet potatoes and boiling young corn on the cob to full out rocking a wok, catching these studs in action added an entertaining, educational, and often uplifting dimension to my travels.

Pounding wheat dough for noodles:

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Frying bread sticks (‘yau ja gwai’)…I eat these rarely in an effort to limit my daily intake of fried dough, but they are pure deliciousness when the craving hits.  They are most commonly eaten alongside a bowl of congee (how I’m most familiar with them) or dunked into a hot cup of soy milk.  I’ve had some pretty bad ones, but when they’re good, oh man, they rock.  Why oh why does fried bread in nearly every form taste so damn good?

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Making fried rice.  The clang of his wok against the stove was music to my ears, and as I walked away, I listened for it until I could hear it no more.  Next to him was a man doing similarly grand things with noodles.

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In her stall, this lady was efficiently but meticulously churning out savory pancakes to order.  I watched her make about ten, and each was made in precisely the same way: first, a thin layer of batter was spread over the stove to create a paper-thin pancake; then, an egg was cracked onto this base, roughly scrambled, and then spread out over the pancake; savory ground meat bits and scallions were tossed on, followed by an assortment of thick sauces and condiments; the grand finale was an oversized, deep-fried, Chinese chip (I’m sure you’ve seen these at a Chinese restaurant at one point or another) shattered onto the bed of grub below.  All were assembled into something resembling a burrito, placed into a plastic bag (the ones you see hanging on the wall), and promptly transferred for immediate consumption.  I regret not getting one.

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Preparing an unidentifiable, fiery red substance outside a hotpot restaurant.  This guy was here as we walked into the restaurant and was still going at it when we came back out after our meal.  Stuff like this brings me down to earth whenever I dare to dream of being a chef.

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A revelatory bun experience

Out and about and with time on my hands, I decided to check out some ‘street eats’ joints I’d read about in a local paper.

My first stop was a Chinese steamed bun place called Prince of Buns. My empty stomach and watchful eyes spot the shop from across the street. From afar, it looks like your run of the mill Hong Kong bakery (those people waiting in line in front are waiting for a bus, not a bun).

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I stepped inside and was greeted by lots of pretty things:

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Not quite sure where to start, I asked the salesperson, in my cringe-inducing Cantonese, which buns the shop was most famous for. She promptly pointed to the trey of sweet cream buns and the ‘steamed bbq pork buns’ (aka cha xiu bao), proudly proclaiming that they sold 1,000 pork buns a day. I was more than happy to secure one of these dimpled treats for myself:

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I also got a sweet cream bun from the steamer, which is where one should ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS get one’s buns if intending to consume them immediately after buying them.  In the minutes after purchase, the quality of the bun depreciates quickly.  After 5-7 minutes out of the steamer, I’m inclined to say that the buns should no longer be consumed at that time, and instead, reserved for a later date (when you can re-steam it yourself).

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As I was paying for my buns, I looked around and was startled to catch the amused glances of two men peering out from the back wall. I quickly realized that the wall was not a wall, but a glass window, and that behind that glass window, they were making the buns no more than 10 feet away from me. I’d never been to a Chinese bakery where I actually saw the workers prepping and stuffing the dough, so of course, documentation was a must:

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One of them got photo-shy, but this gentleman was nice enough to humor me.

As soon as I got outside, i dug in…And steaming yellow custard goo shot out when I took my first bite, scalding my tongue and reprimanding my overeager gastronomic urges.  But oh goodness, this bun was absolutely sensational.  The scalding was worth every bit, and more.  Until this moment, I was of the belief that a bun was just a bun, but this one opened my mind to the singularly delicious experience a fresh steamed custard bun can provide.  It was a no frills, just pure goodness kind of moment.  Straight out of the steam oven, it was soft and pillowly on the outside, faintly sweet and with a slightly chewy texture (which I prefer).  Each bun bite yielded a sampling of the rich, smooth, sugary custard within, a combination that created a magical sensation in my mouth.  The bun to custard ratio was damn near perfect and I thought the bun itself was just the right size — just hefty enough to fill out the palm of my hand.

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I was a hot mess on the sidewalk, attempting to hold my camera in one hand and display my bun in the other.  At some point, I gave up trying and just enjoyed what was easily one of my more memorable dining experiences. I polished off my snack while admiring the selections of plants and pet fish/sea creatures that make up the Fish Market on Tung Choi Street. Prince of Buns can rule my life any day of the week (ah, you knew some corny royalty joke was coming!).

Hong Kong: food, and lots of it

I came to Hong Kong with the mentality that the fewer expectations I had, the better. However, one expectation I was more than willing to maintain, especially at the behest of those familiar with the region, was that I’d be eating a lot of good food. Thus, the time leading up to my departure from the US was replete with daydreams of dim sum bursting with succulence and sophistication, roasted meats that would melt gloriously in my mouth, and pastries — warm, flaky shells decadently teeming with fluffy creams, silky custards, and exciting new flavors — that would stop me dead in my tracks.

While I haven’t yet tasted anything that has rocked my world, the sheer quantity of food I’ve encountered here in my first two weeks has been staggering. All sorts of treats, both savory and sweet, are readily available, and madd CHEAP by American standards. I’ve wondered how Hong Kongers function normally with so much food around them (and don’t gain weight, to boot), and I that think the answer is some combination of these things: the ability to ignore the sight of food, the ability to appreciate food without actually eating it, and tons of walking. It seems like for every one meal or item I indulge in, I’ve denied myself a hundred more. I will know I’ve reached the upper echelons of culinary asceticism when I don’t give in to ordering a baked good or some street food every time I leave my room.

So far, the majority of eats I’ve consumed here fall under the categories of street food and mall food, the product of many a foray into Tai Po’s Old Market District, as well as a number of home-shopping visits to the impressively large shopping plazas. In Hong Kong, trips to the mall seem to be even more popular than mall-ing in Jersey, which truly is something.

A shot of Old Tai Po:

Some squid sun-bathing in the middle of the sidewalk.

I have generally enjoyed spending my time in this part of Tai Po rather than the newer area, which is centered around a multi-plaza behemoth of a commercial district. Though the latter has a wet market with a nice selection of fruits, veggies, and seafood, I feel like my time is better spent, at least food-wise, in Old TP.

A fried food stand next to the dumpling and stuffed bun stand that I’ve visited at least three times already.

The stand next door that provides me with super oily, pan-fried pork dumpling goodness.

The dumplings are in the right corner of the top glass compartment. They’re a bit difficult to make out through the steam…which is a good sign to me, b/c it signifies freshness. On second thought, maybe that’s splattered oil…maybe both. More buns…


The buns with the pink blush are the cutest things ever.

I usually prefer a slightly thinner skin on my dumplings, which is why I prefer mandoo to Chinese dumplings. But when there’s that viscous sweet chili sauce bathing the dumpling skins, the more carbs the better.

I topped that off with something even healthier.

I forget the name of this pastry, but it involved blueberries and chocolate. Unfortunately, it was sorely lacking in the fresh berry department, though the crackling chocolate almost made up for it…it would have if it were dark.

Cafe de Coral is a popular fast food chain, China’s answer to burger-based fast food franchises. On a trip to the mall to pick up some things for the dorm, we decided to stop in for a quick lunch.

My floormate Laurie went with chicken curry.

Looks pretty good to me, and she gave it a thumbs-up. Alice went with the soy sauce chicken, which smelled and looked awesome.

I love how they throw in the obligatory piece of choy. A splash of color, and a nod to the oft-forgotten food group…It’s like the single slice of limp lettuce that you get with a fast food burger. I wanted to try a fast food version of a dish I’ve had a lot back home, ma po dou fu.

I loved the huge chunks of tofu, but it ended up being a little bland for my liking. I much prefer my dad’s home-cooked version, which is hardly surprising.

I am absolutely positive that I have yet to taste the best that Hong Kong has to offer, but am also glad that I’m getting a glimpse of the everyday foods here. In the mean time, I’ll keep an eye out for the meal of my dreams.