Sunday, May 22, 2011

There is a New Man on Snack Street

First there is Battercake Man and Sandwich Girl whom I’ve always gone to for a quick meal. Oh, sure there are other culinary delicacies on Snack Street, some as overspiced as the rest of the food in Wuhan – to the point that you wonder if you are eating spices with a few noodles thrown in, instead of eating noodles that are supposed to be only mildly spicy.

And, let’s not forget that spice particular to Wuhan that tastes like dirt. That one is particularly unpleasant.

Mind you, Snack Street is a misnomer. For a few ‘kuai’ – a few Yuan, buying such a snack can constitute a quick meal, especially when rounded out by a side salad and a piece of fruit for dessert. These so-called snacks are pretty nutritious and very filling. They do fall short of a sit-down meal but they get the job done when I don’t feel like cooking.

Back to battercakes and sandwiches. At first my loyalty was divided between those two, side by side with their vendor carts and their tasty, efficient treats. They know how I like my food and I don’t have to ask them to prepare anything special. Just a battercake or a sandwich, hold the ‘lao dong’ – the super spicy hot pepper powder.

But now, there is a new man on Snack Street. He is a small, merry man who looks perpetually surprised. His smile, beaming out, welcomes customers and commentary. He likes to wander up and down Snack Street, chatting up his fellow vendors and store keepers. He always has a cigarette dangling from his mouth – a seemingly near impossible feat with that perennial smile of his.

His vendor cart is relatively new and the baskets thereon are new. Each basket, standing about 2 feet tall and 18 inches in diameter at the top, is labeled with the treat it contains. Every time I have been by his cart there are never more than a few snacks in each basket.

Of course there are plenty other new vendors on Snack Street. There is the woman who produces an exquisite breakfast sandwich consisting of a fried egg and some sort of wafer-thin sliced meat that I’ve yet to identify but that tastes suspiciously like bacon, topped off with lettuce and a savory brown sauce that taunts the plain bread she spreads it on with its richness. By the time she squeezes those two pieces of bread together and wraps the bag tightly around her creation my mouth is watering. Oh, how I love her breakfast sandwiches!

And then there is Steamed Bun Woman, busting hunger with her meat filled steamed buns. She and her vendor cart occupy its allotted space for the entire production day – 16 hours each day she can be seen creating buns and filling up her bamboo steamers. She offers buns with beef or lamb meat filling, 8 of them for 2.5Yuan. A better bargain cannot be found on Snack Street if you are looking for value for the money. Although her food is good and filling, it is rather bland.

That is why, after paying a visit to Steamed Bun Woman I always visit Fried Bread Man. He prepares what might be termed a bagel or a donut, but it is not sweet. He has a special, donut-shaped ladle that he scoops dough into and then plops it into the grease and deep fries it. I drool as I watch the plain white dough puff up into a golden ring that, while scrumptious, probably is not doing my arteries any good. The dough has some herbs in it and that is certainly a redeeming factor; I have been able to identify shallots and garlic in the flavor of his bread. After eating a few steamed buns it is really just the crispiness I’m looking for. Hence the marriage of Steamed Bun Woman with Fried Bread Man. For 4Yuan I get nearly twice the food I get from Battercake Man or Sandwich Girl, who each charge 3.5Yuan for their specialties.

But this entry is about the new man on Snack Street; he of the new, nearly empty baskets. I first made his acquaintance while buying some pineapple to make fruit salad with. He was loitering around the fruit stand at the corner of Snack Street and was completely surprised to first see a foreigner, and then to hear said foreigner speak Chinese. Of course I tower over this tiny little man, but his smile outdoes my size by a country mile. He and I soon engaged in a language exchange project, in which he would tell me the Chinese names of various foods and I would give him the English version.

I didn’t know at first that he had a cart on Snack Street. I only found that out because his cart was set up next to Breakfast Sandwich Woman’s cart. Of course, the first time I saw his cart he was chatting someone else up and was nowhere to be found, so I asked Breakfast Woman who that cart belongs to. Just then here he comes a’running, with his impossible cigarette dangling and shirttails flapping. He showed me what he had in his baskets. Oh! When he took the top off one of his baskets I thought I had died and gone to Street Food Vendor Heaven! The aroma wafting up from that basket would have been enough to make Gandhi break his hunger strike. Too bad I had already bought a breakfast sandwich; I surely would have partaken of one of his treats.

Of course, I have since visited his basket laden cart. Equally understood was the fact that Breakfast Sandwich Woman had to shout for him to come, as he was off meandering somewhere. When he saw that his customer was the tall foreigner his smile grew extra wide and he made sure he selected the very best meat filled bun he had to offer. After exchanging pleasantries I went on my way and he disappeared again, the Snack Street Social Butterfly.

The crust is light and flaky, baked to a golden brown. The filling has the ideal combination of texture, taste and temperament; the perfect complement to the crust that it nestles in. I finished it in four bites – it is not a big snack. Size wise, that is. In taste and culinary value it is at the top of my list. And now I understand why there are only a few in each basket. If they had to wait, steaming in their woven containers, they would not be as good.

Well? Are you hungry yet?

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