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An Appetite for Road Food on the Backroads
of Northern China

by Carla King

   Every time I stopped for more than five minutes, crowds of people would gather around. I didn't blame them. China had just opened up to "free travel" and they'd never seen a foreigner up close before, not to mention a blond American woman riding a motorcycle alone through the completely untouristed countryside. Sometimes it was fun, other times it was annoying. So what to do when I was hungry? Road food was the answer. In minutes I'd have a hot, tasty, and nutritious meal, and if I became claustrophobic I could always just pack the food and ride away. It wasn't always like that though. Here are some food highlights from the china road: journey in Spring of 1998, which, with the fresh vegetables and abundant harvest, was a great time to be sampling food from roadside stands.


     On my first day in Beijing Teresa and I were motorcycling through streets filled with what seemed like all of its 11 million inhabitants. Our destination was the Dirt Market, "the quintessential Beijing experience," she insisted. I followed, grateful for a guide through the confusing city, wondering why it was called the Dirt market? Did they sell dirt there? No, it was simply located in a dirt lot, not yet asphalted over like most of Beijing. There were lots of interesting and diverse things to look at, but first things first, I was hungry! Teresa led me to a stand where a woman poured batter onto a coal-heated iron platter. In moments I was delivered a delicious scallion pancake wrapped in newspaper. "Cleaner than a plate," said Teresa. "It's too bad most tourists are put off, but this method is more sanitary than restaurant plates."

     Having eaten this way in Africa and Europe, I know that anything cooked on the spot is "safe" food for a traveler with unacclimated bacterial defences. Teresa, who had lived in Beijing for three years, was delighted to find a willing culinary companion. In the days that followed she seemed intent upon giving me a culinary tour of Beijing street food.

     Whenever we saw a steaming stack of bamboo containers we'd exchange equivalent of a few pennies for a handful of soft, white dumplings. Inside might be a mixture of ground meat, bright green vegetables, garlic and onions. Others contained chopped vermicelli - remember, Marco Polo brought pasta from China - in a garlicky red sauce. Potstickers were common too, steamed and then pan fried. Dessert was soft crumbly almond cookies, some spread thinly with sweet red mung bean paste. It was all clean, hot, nutritious, very cheap, and incredibly fast.

     Another thing I loved was a bowl of hot freshly made noodle soup. In Beijing, the chef stood outside amongst the picnic tables frying meat and vegetables on a charcoal stove with the aplomb of a gourmet. Ladelfuls of broth were dumped into the wok and tilted toward the fire until the mixture flamed. On a wooden counter lining a shack that held used bicycle parts, a man hand-kneaded pasta dough made from flour, water and salt. When it was ready he brought it to the wok and took a large, sharp cleaver to the dough, shaving off noodle-shaped pieces into the boiling broth faster than you could see it happening.

To Heibi Province: My first day in the countryside

     The four Chinese motorcyclists that formed my sendoff party over the mountains from Beijing to Heibi province swerved off the road to a white-tiled building. I didn't realize it was a restaurant until we walked inside, and in fact I would never be able to recognize the characters for "restaurant" or "hotel" for the duration of my trip! It was quite gourmet and frequented by tourists headed to a nearby Ming village. We'd visit it too, that is, if we didn't explode first from stuffing ourselves silly. One dish was piled with slender green tree branches battered and quickly fried, like tempura. A spring specialty of the area, it was explained. (Later, in the country, I would see peasants gathering these young, tender branches.) But my favorite dish was a big bowl of peeled and steamed white potatoes served alongside a red-hot bowl of caramelized sugar, and yet another bowl of ice water. The procedure? Pick up a potato with your chopsticks, dip it into the caramelized sugar and then immediately into the bowl of cold water. The caramel crackles and cools enough to eat and it is an amazing combination and so easily prepared that just from this description you can prepare it at home!

In the Wild Wild West

     A week later I am a road food expert. I motorcycle through villages, the air fresh from a recent light rain, catching the sweet-bread smell of steaming dumplings here, the pungent pepper-soy scent of potstickers there. My nose sniffs out the possibility of food: someone is chopping onions and garlic, and down the alleyway there a tableful of fruits. I know this from the tropical smell of bananas and Asian pears. I am now fearless and have tried everything I've seen - eggs boiled in soy sauce, their shells cracked to absorb the brown liquid; nuts and raisins, candies made from cinnamon and cardamom, pastries with mung bean fillings. Suddenly, near Inner Mongolia, I find cheese, hard and white, from the sheep that roam the flatlands here.

     After settling in a hotel I go for a walk in Dongsheng at dinnertime. The city square is transformed into an impromptu food court with white clothes and many vendors are selling hot foods, including the regional specialty: huge potfuls of whole boiled sheeps heads. I choose small things from here and there (not the sheeps heads), obtain a big bottle of the regional beer (impressive!) and settle down at a table to watch life pass by: bicyclists struggling under the weight of dozens of fresh sheepskins, Muslim men from Kazakhstan hawking squewers of barbequed mutton, taxis running red lights, and children racing between the tables, screeching in some game of their own making.

In a Buddhist Monastery

     I feel very lazy because the monks won't let me lift a finger. I watch as they bring a big wok of water to a boil, add the vegetables and then the cut the noodles into it in small chunks, cover it, let it simmer and then add soy sauce and salt, always too much salt here. The three of us eat, they slurp loudly and correct the way I hold my chopsticks. They finish, light cigarettes and I continue to eat, picking at a pile of tomato and cucumber slices literally covered in cilantro and sugar. One monk goes to answer a call that came on his pager while the other two stay, rivited to a soap opera playing on an old bluish television screen with the volume turned nearly all the way up. The plot is simple, the star of this soap has been unfaithful to her husband, she tearfully reveals a huge hickey on her neck. The husband shouts and leaves, slamming the door behind him. The woman cries. The monks smoke furiously.

The Middle of Nowhere

     When it is time to prepare for dinner I am banned from both the kitchens of my hostess and of the woman next door, who is the wife of the welder in the town where I am stuck because of engine problems. Tonight I will be treated to a banquet with the whole town, population 12. Lily's two-year old girl and I make the rounds between the houses and get in the way. Finally we sit. The menu is:

     Green stuff, brown stuff, pickled stuff, fatback and more green stuff, rice and more green stuff with red peppers, cigarettes, beer, green stuff with noodles, pickled brown stuff, cigarettes, more beer, a plate of sliced tomatoes covered in sugar, a plate of julienned cucumbers covered in sugar, a plate of what might be julienned zucchini drowned in soy sauce, cigarettes, beer, a plate of frozen meat sliced paper thin, hot bowls of rice, and lots more cigarettes and Inner Mongolian beer.

     We raise our glasses to drink and I involuntarily utter "cheers." My hosts are delighted to learn the American toast, and it begins a spate of drinking with the toast "chrews," which is as close as they can come but shouted with gusto. Everyone seems raging drunk after the first glass, but I chalk it up to the festive atmosphere, and consider that this is heady stuff, this foreigner thing... the first time anybody's ever seen one. We laugh a lot about nothing, and they shout YES! and OKAY! for no reason. I yell out the only Mandarin words I know, the phrase that means "I'm lost!" and "Where's the bathroom." We laugh hysterically at one anothers' pronunciation, and by the next day, I am family. Three days later I my motorcycle is running good as new, and I am sorry it didn't take longer.

Yinchuan: City of Abundance

     This morning Yinchuan seems like the Emerald city. A beautiful clean city. Clean streets, clean air, light traffic. Heaven. I walk to the department store and then to the shopping street and eat noodles at a canvas covered food market with 50 woks all going at once under canvas roofs, pots bubbling with meats and seafoods, and squewers of quail eggs and triangles of marinated tofu. I sit in the shade and drink sugared yogurt cream from a ceramic pot, the straw is stuck through the tissue paper rubber banded over the top; then a cup of eight-treasures tea with dried dates, apples, a lump of rock sugar, and endless refills of boiling water. I have listened to the theme of "Titanic" on loudspeakers coming from every other store on the block, and I have not been crowded around even one time thanks to the diversity of races here: Han and Muslim and Tibetan. In a grassy little park where old people practice Tai Chi and children play in a splashing fountain. It looks a little like Italy, and the marketplace rivals any I've seen in Europe. Fresh seafood has been flown in to this westernmost part of China, live crabs squirm in wooden boxes, their legs wrapped in seaweed. There are snakes and frogs and fish in well-aerated aquariums. Rows of chickens ready for roasting are arranged in attractive piles, some even have purple-blue skins. Brightly colored spices are sold from large canvas bags, and vegetables are stacked neatly by size and color. After a service at the local Buddhist monastery, a monk gives me a banana and a steamed bun, freshly blessed by the icon. Two Chinese servicemen in uniform photograph me in front of the pagoda. At the hotel, I even have a glass of wine. I decide that Yinchuan is my favorite Chinese city.



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