Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:36 PM CST – China

Outside In

flavor of the month

Street Eats

Not only do the Chinese love grand mealtime gatherings, they also love to snack in between. My travels have led me to two cities renowned for their snack food, Chengdu and Xi’an. As usual with Chinese cuisine, it pays to expect the unexpected. These two cities couldn’t be more different.

I was very excited to visit Chengdu and sample some of the famous spicy foods I’d heard so much about. However the snacking scene surprised me. For anyone concerned about street food hygiene, Chengdu’s well-worn snack streets are the place for you. Located in the modernized tourist areas of Jinli Ancient Street and Kuanzhai Alley, everything’s very smart and ordered, with clean work stations behind glass frontages. However, what was provided in terms of sanitation costs something in atmosphere. There was little customer-vendor interaction and the streets, though busy, were oddly quiet for a central eating place in an overcrowded metropolis. With few enticing aromas or offerings of free samples, it’s hard to get in the mood.

A little digging, however, turned up some unmissable flavors. I ordered a bowl of dandan noodles and was very confused when handed a dish that was seemingly sauce-free. A glance around showed me how it was done – I was meant to mix the sauce, lurking in the base of the bowl, into the noodles by myself. When I did, the combined flavor of ground pork, vinegar, crushed peanuts, chili flakes, soy sauce, sugar and salt was good enough to warrant another bowl! But I still craved a more down-to-earth, grimy dining experience, and I had a feeling I knew where to get one.

The area around Chengdu’s Wenshu Monastery is host to a more authentic snacking vibe, with open-air stalls and plenty of noise and smells wafting through the air to whet the appetite. The customary tourist-baiting array of insects on sticks was on display (I declined), but a nearby stall groaned beneath towers of bamboo steamers laden with homemade vegetarian dumplings. On the stall next door were large blue-and-white ceramic bowls, Sichuanese snacks spilling over the rims; crispy, deep-fried broad beans, peanuts in chili oil and chili peppers stuffed with sesame seeds, delivering the best bang for my chili buck so far.

But what about dessert? In Chengdu, the making of the sweet san dapao is as much about spectacle as snacking. These balls of sticky rice are served three at a time after being tossed in the air by a dexterous juggler-chef and coated in candied yellow bean powder. Bells are attached to the cook’s basket, mimicking the sound of a dapao, big cannon! They come with a drizzle of light molasses syrup for an additional sugar hit.

North by northwest in Xi’an, on the other hand, a different snack scene greets the globe-trotting gastronome. The main snack street bisects Xi’an’s Muslim quarter and is the belly and the heart of the old city. The bustle of people and sting of sizzling charcoal draw you into a real food experience, with noisy rhythmic chanting accompanying the pounding of sesame candy, overlaid with bad pop music and yells of “try this!” and “taste that!”

From early lunchtime until late at night, the narrow streets are crowded with performance artist cooks beset by hungry customers. It’s worth seeking out the family businesses fronted with smiles and usually packed with customers, but aimless wandering can also lead to rich rewards – this maze of delicacies is the perfect place to get lost.

Away from the street food stalls, freshly butchered lamb carcasses are hung as advertisements for the provenance of meat threaded onto the ubiquitous lamb kebabs, or chuan’r, which are cooked slowly over smoking coals and basted with layers of oil. Sumac and cumin are added in turns, forming a flavorsome, fragrant crust. The ever-popular roujiamo, deceptively and somewhat unfairly marketed to Westerners as “Chinese hamburgers,” is a soft, white grilled bread bun stuffed with strips of cumin-spiced beef or lamb and tenderized onions, served dripping with oil. Every other stall offers one or the other, so join the longest queue!

Again, those with a sweet tooth will find themselves catered to – indeed, both Chengdu’s and Xi’an’s snack streets serve as a lesson to those who believe China doesn’t do desserts.

In Xi’an, ginger-flavored, sugared rock candy is perfect for salivating over between bites. The sugar is stretched out, saltwater taffy style, across half the street before being thrown onto a hook, always a hair’s breadth from touching the ground. For those in the mood for something more sickly, try meigui jinggao. These glutinous rice cakes are individually steamed before sesame paste, cinnamon sugar or a variety of luminous sweet spreads are slathered on at the customer’s discretion.

Much of China’s indigenous snacking culture has been “cleaned up” to serve the tourist trade. When looking for a local bite, it’s worth tracking down the local buzz – Xi’an’s Muslim quarter has held on to its raucous atmosphere better than many of Chengdu’s more famous al fresco dining spots. Better sanitation is never a bad thing, but if the true, noisy essence of Chinese street food culture is lost along the way, a major aspect of the culture could also irretrievably disappear.


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