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Shāokǎo / Chuàn’r – Barbecued Skewers/Kebabs – 烧烤 / 串儿

Easily found by the billowing smoke and strong smells that trail its coal burners, shāokǎo/chuàn’r  (Chinese: 烧烤 / 串儿) street stands corner nearly every street as soon as the sun begins setting until the early hours the next morning. Whether they’re found inside a hole-in-the-wall or pitched on a wooden tricycle, their stands are always easily spotted for the colorful array of skewers that lay side by side on display. Everything from skewered vegetables, sliced baozis, different types of tofu, chicken gizzards, whole fish or mutton pierced onto bamboo sticks sit in open air or under plastic-wrapped for customers to customize their selection. Skewers are heavily seasoned with a brush of oil and chili sauce and a sprinkle of a variety of spices such as spices like cumin, coriander, cayenne, dried chili pepper, paprika, pepper, and MSG. Locals typically pile on order of shao kao to accompany a beer while playing games of Chinese dice. Prices range per skewer, with vegetables, baozis, and tofu for 1 kuai, meats and poultry from 2-3 kuai, and seafood for up to 8 kuai.

The variety of skewers/kebabs can range from vendor to vendor. It typically includes poultry (gizzards, kidney, hearts, skins, seasoned white and dark meat, and wings), beef chunks (each varying with amount of fat chunks and tendon), pork (seasoned meat, intestine, fat chunks), fish, scallops, octopus, squid, different types of bean curd or tofu, eggplant, sliced potato, broccoli, squash, cauliflower, scallions, chives, shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, quail eggs, baozi, and korean rice cakes. The skewers are brushed with sesame oil, chili sauce, and sprinkled with a variety of spices such as spices like cumin, coriander, cayenne, dried chili pepper, paprika, pepper, and MSG.

You can usually differentiate shao kao stands to chuanr stands because the latter is usually sold alongside round flatbreads or xiànr bǐng 馅饼 that serve as a mechanism for the kebabs to rest on or placed inside. These breads are also placed onto the grill and seasoned before being served.

Cooking Method:
The skewers/kebabs are lined up over long, narrow charcoal grills, brushed with oil and chili sauce, and seasoned with a variety of spices. They are constantly churned and fanned until cooked and ready to be served.

According to the Chinese classical text, San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic), early ancestors would hunt animals by spearing them. As a means to help his people, emperor Fuxi made a net and taught civilians how to fish and hunt birds and animals. Another issue arose when people were forced to eat their game and catch raw, which not only tasted terrible but also caused people to become sick. To save the day, Fuxi stole fire from the heavens and taught people how to barbecue shaokao so that people could become healthier.

The term chuanr is derived from the Xinjiang province of China, classified as a type of kebab traditionally made from lamb meat. It is a product of the Chinese Islamic cuisine of the Chinese Muslim population, specifically Uyghurs. They are just one of the many different types of food that reflect a deviation from chinese cuisine and a closer resemblance to that of Middle Eastern cuisine, such as halal food, that migrated over to China by the arrival of Islamic heritage.

Related Cuisine:
Xinjiang cuisine

Dòu Huā – Tofu Soup – 豆花

Dòu Huā (Chinese: 豆花) is a street food commonly eaten as breakfast or a late night treat alongside a crispy youtiao. In Shanghai, it is usually served with savory flavors and garnishes such as soy sauce, salt, cilantro, chili oil, pickled mustard tuber, and sliced pieces of youtiao.

The tofu curd is made from dried soybeans, water, gypsum powder and cornflour. The dessert version adds a dark syrup infused with ginger. The salty version adds a dash of soy sauce, chili oil, and salt and garnishes with cilantro and minced pieces of pickled mustard tuber.

Cooking Method:
The soy milk is first made by soaking pulverized soybeans with water and straining it, repeating this process multiple times. Once the soy milk is made, it is left to simmer as a mixture of gypsum powder, corn flour and water are slowly added in. After the curd has set, it can be spooned into a bowl and topped with whatever sweet or salty dressings desired.

According to legends, tofu originated in China over 2,000 years ago. It is believed that its production began during the Han Dynasty when a cook decided to experiment by flavoring a batch of cooked soybeans with the compound nagari. Instead of getting flavored soybeans, he ended up with bean curd.

Possible Variations:
dòufurǔ – fermented tofu
chòudòufu – stinky tofu
dòupào – fried tofu
dòngdòufu – thousand layer tofu

Related Cuisine:
Sichuan, Hubei cuisine


Yóu Tiáo – Chinese Cruller – 油条

Yóu Tiáo (Chinese: 油条), also known as Chinese cruller, oil stick, doughnut, and breadstick, is a trip of fried dough that is typically eaten for breakfast. It usually is served as an accompaniment with rice congee, soy milk, or tofu soup where they are either served whole to be dipped into the liquid or cut into smaller pieces to be sprinkled on top. They are lightly salted and fried in pairs with the center attached so that the dough becomes puffy and crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. You tiao is best eaten immediately after it is fried because of its tendency to become tough or elastic-y if left out for too long. At breakfast, you tiao, can be stuffed inside various carbohydrates such as roasted flatbread (shaobing), rice noodle (zhaliang), or glutinous rice (cifan). Its sweet version is named tang gao, which is similar in appearance to youtiao but shorter in length.

You tiao contains flour, water, sugar, salt, baking soda and vegetable oil. Street vendors usually add alum, potassium aluminum sulfate crystals, to recipes in order to increase the puffy, crispy exterior of their bread.

Cooking Method:
All ingredients are combined to form a soft dough, which is kneaded and left to rest two to three times. The dough is brushed with oil and folded then cut into smaller pieces to be stretched out and twisted together into pairs. A wok of oil is heated before the strips of dough are deep-fried till golden.

You tiao is nicknamed you zha gui, or deep fried ghost, which stems from a story told long ago during about a public protest that took place during a rather heavy and serious part of Chinese history. The protest involved a famous and well-respected General, Yue Fei, who was appraised by the people for his loyalty towards the Song Dynasty and his Emperor during his time at war defending the kingdom from outer invasions, particularly the Jin Dynasty.

At that time, the Prime Minister, Qin Kuai, and his wife, Wang, grew jealous of him and formed a secret liaison with the invading northern tribe of the Jin Dynasty to frame Yue Fei under accusations of a crime and get him executed. Public civilians were frustrated by their inability to defend their General; so in reaction, a shao bing vendor and ci fan tuan vendor decided that they should devise a way to express their opinions. The pancake vendor decidedly sculpted two miniature people out of dough, representing Qin Kuai and Madam Wang. He then began slashing at their figures with his dough cutter. The other vendor brought his deep-fry wok, twisted the two figures together into one piece of dough with their backs to each other, and threw them into the wok full of searing oil.

While they were frying, the vendors called out for people to see. As a crowd of passer-byers formed to see the two ugly figures sizzling in the hot oil, they immediately called out, “Fried Kuai!” At the same time, Qin Kuai happened to pass this spectacle on his way from the imperial palace and was enraged with disbelief by the mutiny of his edible figure.

In the vendors’ defense, two men stepped up and scooped the fried dough out of the oil to eat it. They exclaimed how delicious and crispy it was, which further infuriated Qin Kuai. The two food vendors combined businesses to continue making the fried Kuai. Soon, their business was so busy that they had to design a simpler version of fried Kuai that was made of two strips of dough twisted together in order to represent Qin Kuai and his wife. The street food sensation quickly spread to other cities of China and eventually given the name, “you tiao.”

During the Cultural Revolution in China, educated youths used food-related propaganda as a way of symbolically addressing issues aimed at the laobaixing. A well-known street food youtiao, a deep-fried cruller that literally translates to “oily strip,” appeared as a political emblem as the cheapest and lowliest form of Shanghai street food. It came to represent the poor economic realities of students receiving government scholarships who could only afford to eat, at most, three youtiao a day. These student activists wanted to motivate the government to fund schools and provide living stipends for intellectuals.

Possible Variations:
ci fan tuan – Chinese cruller stuffed stuffed in a glutinous rice ball
shaobing youtiao – Chinese cruller inside roasted flatbread
zha liang – Chinese cruller inside rice noodle roll
tang gao – Sugar doughnut