Roaming the streets for Chinese food

peachFrank Kasell, the creator of chinesestreetfood, has set out to explore one of China’s most interesting and unknown aspects: food served in the streets, food that the Republic’s real people eat! Browsing through his work, one will understand that despite Chinese cuisine’s international fame, in reality westerners don’t have a clue about it. So sit back and savor one of the most delicious interviews ever hosted by Chinese Tools. 

How did you decide to focus on street food?

I lived in Jiujiang, Jiangxi, for a year in 2006 – 2007.  When I first arrived in China, I loved it almost immediately, but also found much of the culture to be somewhat inaccessible.  It’s easy for a first-time visitor to be overwhelmed by the monolithic Chinese culture at large, where all you can see is chaos and pagodas and Mao and Great Walls and temples and inscrutable characters and bicycles and all of that classic stuff.  It takes some effort, I found, to get past that wide-angle view of Chinese culture and dig down to the nitty-gritty details that make up the larger cultural picture.  There are lots of ways to do that, but street food very quickly became my favorite.  Since each city has local street foods that are unavailable in other cities and are indelible parts of that city’s culture, it seems a natural entry point.  In my experience, street food is a great way to look at the subtle differences in culture between, say Beijing and Chengdu, Xi’an and Harbin, Guangzhou and Kunming, or wherever.  Besides all of that, I love the vibrancy of street food, how it isn’t constrained by the walls of a restaurant or anything like that.  It’s part of the lifeblood of every Chinese city and people all over the country eat it every day; when you eat it you can’t help but feel that liveliness.  For all of those reasons, I found myself exploring street food in various Chinese cities on my own time.  A few years after I got back to the USA, I thought it might be fun to work on a travel guide to help others find these local dishes, so I quit my job and headed back to China.


Do you find that local dishes sometimes embody the character of the region they are in?

As I noted above, that’s one of the main reasons I am writing this book as a travel guide.  They are usually subtle little differences that you may not be able to put your finger on at first, but there are definitely keys to a city or region’s personality hidden in the street food.  Maybe there are more vegetarian dishes in a particular city, maybe they focus more on wheat than rice, maybe all the vegetables used in local dishes are root vegetables, maybe they think spicy food keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Tons of little differences like that abound.  All over the country you can find terrific hyperlocal specialties that tell you something about where you are.  There might be other equally valid ways to gain a nuanced understanding of the richness and diversity of Chinese culture, but I’m sure there aren’t any as delicious.


Is people’s fear of getting sick from street food in China justified?

Yes and no.  On the yes side of things, it’s certainly true that the kinds of health and hygiene standards one might be used to in some parts of the world are not always followed to the letter by local Chinese street food vendors.  There are major problems with gutter oil, mislabeled meat, leaving cooked food out too long, and other similar issues.  I’m an optimist about human nature, so I don’t think there are too many vendors who are being deliberately and dangerously unscrupulous.  There are a number, though, who semi-innocently cut corners for whatever reason.  Not all of them, of course—many are careful enough—but more than an incidental percentage.  So in a way street food is a bit of a gamble.  That being said, there are some good ways to reduce your risk and it’s entirely possible to eat mountains of street food without feeling any ill effects.  (Anecdotally I can say that I ate virtually nothing but street food for three months in every corner of the country and didn’t get sick once.  Not everybody is so lucky, but I know from experience that it’s possible.)  I wrote about this long ago in a post I called “Mitigating the Inevitable.”  The best thing I can recommend is to follow the crowds—locals won’t frequent a vendor if he or she has a reputation for making people sick.  Otherwise, you can do little things like sticking with food that has been freshly prepared (ideally right in front of you), avoiding raw fruits and vegetables, and trusting your gut if things seem iffy.  Long story short—caution is justified, but total avoidance isn’t necessary.  Think of it like pickpockets.  You know the danger is out there, but if you use a little common sense you are unlikely to run into any real trouble.  Of course even with all the precautions in the world there are no guarantees, so be prepared for the moments when things don’t go your way


Is the idiom “Don’t judge a book by its cover” true when it comes to Chinese street food? What is the strangest looking food you have come across?

Interesting question!  In general, I’d say no.  Most of the time with Chinese street food, what you see is what you get.  If it looks like a bowl of spicy, oily noodles, there probably aren’t too many surprises in store for you.  Once in a while the way a dish looks will give you no real clues as to how it tastes, so that can be a fun adventure, but I’m not sure that really counts since the “cover” didn’t give any way to judge the “book” in the first place.  That being said, a few examples do come to mind.  When blood is on the menu, whether it be pig’s blood, cow’s blood, duck’s blood, or whatever, it just looks like some sort of dark red tofu.  That can be a bit of a shock if you find out after the fact (though it doesn’t taste especially bloody).  Stinky tofu (chòu dòufu / 臭豆腐) is another good example.  There are different varieties in different cities, all of which smell like death.  My favorite version—the one available in Changsha—not only smells terrible, it is black in color.  Looking at or smelling this tofu out on the street might turn your stomach, but don’t let that dissuade you—it tastes lovely.

As for the strangest-looking food I came across in China, my first instinct is to say the rabbit heads in Chengdu.  Vendors selling these rabbit heads are unmistakable.  If you see a silver tray loaded with what look like shrunken, zombie, rodent faces, you are in the right place.  Adventurous eaters willing to look past the startling outward appearance will find that rabbit heads offer a unique culinary experience—every part, from the cheeks to the tongue to the brain, has its own flavor and texture.  They sure do look strange, though.


Tell us more about your trips and how you plan them.

For the book I’m writing, I just did one big three-month trip.  I kept my planning somewhat loose, allowing for a certain degree of flexibility if I heard about a city where I would or wouldn’t find good street food or if I decided I needed to stay longer or shorter in a city than I had intended.  When I arrived in Shanghai, my basic plan was to move west through the south of the country and then loop up north to come back east.  This plan owes much of its design to the timing—I figured it was better to do the south in January and February and the north in March and April.  Using those general guidelines as a framework, I would typically make more specific plans about five days in advance.  Any more than that and I didn’t have the flexibility I wanted, and any less than that didn’t give me enough time to get train tickets in order (especially during the Spring Festival) and arrange accommodations (I was mainly couch surfing).  My goal was to hit at least one city in every province, in order to provide the most comprehensive guide to Chinese street food possible.  In the end, I hit 32 out of the 33 provinces, missing only Tibet.  (Unfortunately, the government forbade any foreigners from entering Tibet for nearly the entire time I was in the country, which made it virtually impossible to go.)  Nonetheless, I made it to 53 cities, traveling almost entirely by train (usually in the hard seats to save money).  It was an exhausting, rigorous travel schedule that had me visiting an average of four cities a week, and I loved it.


How is your Chinese coming along? Do you ask for help when ordering, or simply use body language?

My Chinese (for now) is probably high-beginner or low-intermediate.  I know enough to get around comfortably, which to me means buying train tickets, ordering food, asking directions, etc.  I can have most of the basic conversations about where I’m from and who my family members are and all that stuff, which is useful in a tightly packed train full of curious seatmates.  Beyond all that, though, my skills are fairly limited.  My experience in a city was always better if I was able to connect—usually through couch surfing—with an English-speaking local host who was able to take some time to show me around the local street food scene.  These hosts could generally get information about which foods were really and truly local that was inaccessible to me.  Of course if I didn’t have a host, I was still comfortable finding what I needed to find, but having a local host was invaluable.  As for reading Chinese, I would say I have familiarity with a few hundred characters.  Not nearly enough to be fluent, but enough to find my way around a city, use local buses, read basic menus, and all those other things that make independent travel so rewarding.  In the long run, I’d like to improve my Chinese to near-fluency, but I’ve still got a long way to go.


Have you ever watched people cook in their homes? What was the experience like?

Some, yes.  I have done more eating in homes than watching the meals being prepared, so I’m more qualified to talk about that.  In my experience, it has always been a lovely experience.  I’ve been fortunate to have some good friends in China invite me to their homes or their relatives’ homes for everyday dinners as well as holiday meals.  Sometimes the food was simple and sometimes it was a big production.  Either way, it was always delicious and prepared with great care.  In a person’s home, you can get some fantastic local, rustic, or homegrown food that you aren’t likely to find in a restaurant.  This is probably true in any country; China is no exception.


Can you share some details about the process of writing your book with us?

I’ve never written a book before this one, so it has been a fairly novel experience (no pun intended).  The main thing that has been a surprise was how long it has taken.  Some of this was due to my own exhaustion at the end of my trip, which was followed by giving myself too much leniency when it came to sitting down and writing.  I know I am not the only writer who has had that problem, of course.  I also had some occasional work here in the USA that would monopolize my time for a month here and there, during which I was unable to work on my book.  When I had a few months to myself unencumbered by other obligations, the key was to establish a good routine.  Some writers give themselves a number of words they must write per day or devote certain hours to exclusive writing.  For me, given the nature of my book, the benchmark I ended up using was five foods per day.  Each food required a review of my notes, some time deciphering the handwritten Chinese in my notebook to determine the actual Chinese characters in the name of the food, some research to verify that the food was from where I was told it was from, and then writing.  On average, it usually took me about an hour per food to get through all of that.  Five foods per day worked out to be a pretty comfortable pace—I could keep moving along steadily without burning myself out.  As of last January, the bulk of my book is finished, leaving only a few introductory paragraphs and some editing.  Right now I am investigating options with publishers, so hopefully the final product will be out before too long.


How can people support you in this adventure?