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Posts Tagged ‘street food’

Tea Eggs

The first tea eggs I saw were in a battered metal bowl perched on a stool on the side of a road in a small Chinese town. Submerged in frothy, brown cooking liquid, they seemed almost an afterthought—a meager offering compared to the intricate noodle dishes offered at the neighboring street food stalls. But the stream of traffic was steady, and the older woman, with cropped, graying hair, had a friendly chat with each customer.

It took a few week to try the eggs—I had heard rumors of eggs fermented in horse urine (completely untrue as I later discovered), and didn’t have the language skill to ask if these were them.

The smell of the liquid convinced me to try one. It was warm and Christmassy, like a savory mulled cider. How could that ever be scary?

I peeled my first tea egg to reveal a beautiful, batik-like pattern on the egg white. I was quickly hooked—the rich fragrant liquid permeates the egg white with hints of soy, anise and rice wine, elevating a boiled egg to a flavorful accompaniment to rice porridge or a quick snack on the go.

Tea eggs: 茶叶蛋

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Eight years ago, when I arrived back in New York City after living in China for a year, I not only missed the chaos of living in close proximity to 1.5 billion other people — well, in reality, my town was a “village” of just eight-hundred thousand — but I also craved delicious bowls of my favorite street food, lamian.

I had lived on these hand-pulled noodles, and sometimes suspected that the rumors of opium-laced broth were true, as during winter nights, there was little that could take my mind off that delicious meal.

I Googled lamian immediately on my return, assuming that surely, in New York City, there would be an abundance of options. I was thrilled at the prospect of introducing friends to the wonder of lamian.

I was, however, shocked to find that in 2002 the search “lamian+new york” returned no results, so I spent the better part of a year on obscure sites and expat forums.

About six months later I found a brief mention of a hole-in-the-wall that served hand-pulled noodles. Lamian wasn’t specified, but I was hopeful.

I trekked downtown with a hungover friend in tow. We were the only non-Chinese in the restaurant and the other patrons regarded us with a look of surprise, especially when I used my rusty Chinese to order. I requested  lamian, but was corrected by the waitress, nui rou mian (beef noodle soup). The meal was tasty, cheap, and a close approximation, but it lacked the depth of flavor I was hankering for.

About that time, another American teacher, a friend I’d meet in China, called and casually mentioned a new cookbook, The Food of China. “The food actually tastes Chinese,” she noted. I quickly ordered the book and was drawn to the recipe for cinnamon beef noodle soup. While the recipe didn’t specify lamian, the combination of flavors looked right. One test and I was proven correct — I’d found my lamian!

There are now lamian restaurants throughout New York; however, I find many of the broths weak imitations of the first lamian I fell in love with. So here’s the recipe from The Food of China that I believe captures the complexity of flavors I’ve been searching for but can’t always find.

Although about.china.com has thorough instructions on how to hand-pull noodles, my level of coordination isn’t up for the task, but with this recipe I have mastered the broth.

Lanzhou Lamian (Cinnamon Beef Noodle Soup)

Serves 6

1 teaspoon oil

10 scallions, cut into 1″ pieces

10 garlic cloves thinly sliced

6 slices of ginger smashed  with the flat side of a cleaver

1 1/2 t chile bean paste (Togan Jiang)  *****need photo

2 cinnamon  sticks (primarily use cassia in China)

2 star anise

1/2 cup light soy sauce

2 lb chuck steak, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes

thick wheat noodles

chopped scallion and cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in large saucepan. Stir-fry scallions, garlic, ginger, chile bean paste, cinnamon and star anise until fragrant (1 mintue). Add soy sauce and 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add beef.Simmer covered for 1 1/2 hours, until beef is tender. Skim foam from surface of broth to remove impurities and fat. Remove ginger and cinnamon.

Cook noodles in broth, serve topped with chopped meat, scallions, cilantro and lajiao.

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Radishes and Carrots

Radish and Carrot Street Food Vendor in Delhi

Radish and Carrot Street Food Vendor in Delhi

Piles of white radishes and garnet-colored carrots, simply adorned with typical Indian flavors, are the simplest of Indian street food and offer a refreshing antidote for a humid summer day. But these basic treats are potentially the most hazardous, as vendors sometimes clean their wears with polluted water, which can cause catastrophic stomach upsets.

Radishes and Carrots

Radishes and Carrots

Only frequent a vendor whose carrots and radishes are not yet peeled. (The vendor in these photos had already peeled her veggies but I wanted to take these photos as her sari was a majestically colored contrast to her wears and the Deli cityscape.) Use your bottled water to wash the vegetables and rinse the vendor’s knife before peeling–most vendors expect this request from foreign visitors. Then watch hungrily as the vendor slices open your root veggie of choice and sprinkles on a mixture of roasted crushed cumin and salt. A slice of lime, expertly squeezed on top, completes this snack.

White Radish with Cumin, Salt and Lime

White Radish with Cumin, Salt and Lime

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The Chilean Completo

Completo Stand at the Chilean Border

Completo Stand at the Chilean Border

We hadn’t even crossed over the Chilean border in the Andes, when a road-side street food stall and a five hour wait at customs enticed us to try Chile’s most popular street food: the Completo–the ultimate South American hot dog.

For 1000 Chilean Pesos, ($1.59) I was given a microwaved hot dog in a white bun, heartily adorned with fresh chopped tomatoes, smashed avocados and topped with a theatrical squirt of mayo–the fixings making it the Completo. To further customize your dog, two jars at the counter contained a spicy, mustard based salsa and ketchup.

The Completo

The Completo

While it wasn’t the most refined meal, and I personally would have preferred a little less mayo, the texture of the chopped fresh tomatoes provided a crisp contrast to the mashed avocado and firm ‘dog. And of course, as I’m a spice fiend, I relished the additional spicy sauces. Now, if only we can figure out how to make Chilean customs faster…

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Lamian Broth Boiling

Lamian Broth Boiling

My love affair with Chinese street food began at the lamian stall on a tree-lined alleyway, across from the school where I taught English in Danyang, a “small” town of 800,000, near Shanghai.

With the first chewy slurp of lamian (拉面)—hand-pulled noodles—served to me in a rich meat broth, I was addicted.

To create this delectable dish, wheat dough is expertly stretched with a few flicks of the wrist into long, thin noodles—a move that would be at home in a Looney ‘Toons cartoon—then dropped into a cauldron of boiling mutton, or beef, broth.

The noodles are a Hui dish from Lanzhou, a town in Gansu Province in western China. The Hui are ethnically Han but converted to Islam, different from the Uighurs, China’s other large Islamic minority, who are of Turkic descent.

After 4 minutes the cook scoops the noodles and broth into a deep bowl, which he tops with a few tender chunks of fatty, braised meat. The dish is garnished with fresh scallions and cilantro, providing a sharp contrast to the oily richness of the broth. However, a bowl of lamian is never really complete—at least for my spice-loving palate—without a generous dollop of lajiao, which is the roasted chili condiment found on nearly every Chinese restaurant table.

Hand-Cutting Daoxiaomain

Noodle Maestro at Work

During my first few weeks in China, I didn’t understand the mysteries of the simple street-side restaurant, as many resembled open-air houses rather than places of business. Toward the back of these “restaurants”—or even on the sidewalks in front—I often saw men lounging on string beds, which made the deciphering of home or restaurant all the more difficult. I feared embarrassing myself by walking into someone’s private kitchen.

But at my neighborhood lamian stall, the elder son, with his hennaed-hair and white cap, would stand at a metal table just off the street, flicking the dough and impressing those who passed. This was clearly a restaurant.

The husband and wife team were in charge of the broth, continually simmering large joints of meat and spices from early morning till their late-night closing, while their youngest son took my payment and served the food. Although I was thousands of miles from Lanzhou, the diaspora of the Hui and Uyghurs to affluent eastern China (and, thankfully, to the US) has made this dish a staple throughout this vast country.

Like all great street eats, lamain is cheap. In 2002, a large bowl of lamain sold for a mere 2 yuan (USD $0.29). Six years later the price had risen to about 5 yuan (USD $0.73), mostly due to China’s rocketing food prices. But at least for the visitor, a hearty bowl of lamian is still one of the best deals around.

It’s easy to spot a lamian stall in China. Just look for a poster of Mecca taped to the wall, the white-capped chefs, and the show-boating of the noodle pullers. Or, as I have done when craving the dish and not knowing where to look, ask any passerby, “Lamian?” while make a pulling gesture with your hands—it’s instantly understood.

Daoxiaomian

Daoxiaomian

These stalls often serve other tasty dishes like daoxiaomain—irregularly shaped, hand cut noodles originating from the Shanxi province—or chaomian, stir-fried hand-pulled or cut noodles in a meaty tomato broth…kind of like a delicious spaghetti bolognese!

I have rarely found a broth that rivals that of my local noodle haunt in Danyang, where the combination of flavors, from cassia to pepper and garlic, mitigated any need for the still-ubiquitous MSG. But though that broth was a far cry from some lesser lamian broths I’ve since slurped, each time I eat lamian I savor the chewy noodles and the artistry of the pasta-pulling.

Menu Decoder:
lamain (拉面)—hand-pulled noodles in a meat broth (5 yuan = USD $0.73)
daoxiaomian (刀削麵)—thick and chewy hand-cut noodles served either in a beef broth (6 yuan) or stir fried with tomato and cabbage (8-12 yuan = USD $1.17 – $1.75)
chaomian (炒麵)—stir-fried, hand-pulled or hand-cut noodles in a beef or tomato based sauce (8-12 yuan = USD $1.17 – $1.75)

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Coffee in Pondy

Coffee on the Rocks

When my neighbor on the train from Kolkata to Chennai finally stopped snoring–20 hours into the rain-delayed journey–I wasn’t really in the mood to chat. But within minutes he caught my attention, “The south of India is different from the north,” he said. “We drink coffee down here.”

After traveling across Russia, Mongolia and China, where people are tea drinkers and coffee is at best cheap and watery but generally ends up costing more than a hotel room (and is still watery), those words were magical.

In the US, coffee is the ultimate street food. In urban centers, during rush hour, most people seem to be clutching a coffee-to-go. That doesn’t exist over here. Chai stands (the most ubiquitous morning beverage) are served roadside in glass cups which are then rinsed and reused for the next customer. Questionably hygienic but great for the environment! The morning tea break in India is a stop on the way to work with a few moments to catch up with friends and neighbors rather than a walk-to-work accessory.

Pondicherry (now officially called Puducherry), our destination in Southern India, was a French colony until the 1950s and with locals riding on bikes and chatting in French past the elegant colonnade homes that line the waterfront, Pondicherry’s colonial history didn’t seem that far past. So we felt we were well placed to quench our coffee cravings.

The Pondicherry tourist office runs a cafe overlooking the water selling small plates of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I typically take my coffee plain, but the hot humid heat coerced me into trying the Coffee on the Rocks for 50 rupees ($1) — espresso on ice with lemon. The menu didn’t disclose the secret ingredient, the item that took this coffee from merely refreshing to sublime: cassia.

Cassia bark is thicker and coarser looking than the cinnamon we commonly get in the US, although it’s a related spice and native to parts of Asia. The flavor is sweeter than our traditional cinnamon, but a little still goes a long way.

Coffee on the Rocks

  • 2 shots of espresso
  • 1 t sugar
  • 1 inch piece of cassia bark, broken into quarters
  • 2 2-inch long strips of lemon zest
  • Ice

Brew 2 shots of espresso (or strong coffee): I like mine from my Moka pot

Pour coffee over the sugar and cassia bark. Stir to dissolve sugar and muddle cassia.

Twist the lemon zest and throw it in the coffee along with a handful of ice.

Pondicherry, India

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Beer Kiosk in Moscow

Beer Kiosk in Moscow

While street food in Russia cannot compare to the rich abundance of Singapore or China, it’s an ideal way to avoid the overpriced horrors of Russian restaurants–think $30 US for a simple salad in a cafeteria!

The street food isn’t cheap–blini (блин(ы)) thin Russian pancakes with meager filling cost about $5–but at least it does at least exist on every train platform and the street corners of each major city.  From mass-produced hot pockets (all under a dollar), to home-made pirogi (пироги) and house-dried fish, Russian street food offers travelers a means of trying traditional food at affordable prices. And, for beer drinkers, the kiosks selling beer and packages of dried fish are legitimately cheap–$0.85 for a Baltika.

Pelmeni and Flat Pierogi

Pelmeni and Flat Pirogi

From train kitchens to road-side stops, pirogi (пироги) , fried dough balls stuffed with a variety of fillings, are always a cheap bet (under $2) for lunch. And with the exception of the stale, organ-meat filled pirogi that I bought unknowingly in the Lake Baikal area, all the many pirogi we ate were at least edible, with stuffings ranging from dill and potatoes to cabbage and hot dogs. For a different meat-stuffed dough, pelmeni (пельмени), sometimes called vareniki (варе́ник[и]), Russian dumplings, were found in some street stand and were always among the cheapest things on a menu. These dumpling came topped with sour cream or accompanied by ketchup as a dipping sauce.

Kvass Stand

Kvass Stand

Through out Russia, the drinks of choice ranged from cognac and vodka to lighter alcohols like the ever-present Baltika lager. But, for those too young to drink, or those needing a break from the demanding schedule of toasts and shots of liquor, kvass (квас), a fermented bread drink filled the void.

Russian-style Hot Dog

Russian-style Hot Dog

Tasting sweet and yeasty like a Belgian triple, I found this mildly alcoholic beverage (>1% alcohol) less than thirst-quenching.  But it helps wash down the Russia-style hot dogs–boiled dogs topped with cabbage (how Russian!) and sweet, red sauce.

We relished blini (блин(ы)) for the simplicity of their fillings and the clear ability to detect exactly what we’d ordered! Little orange balls? Clearly roe (икра), though call it caviar if you want to lunch to sound posh. Melted white goo? We’d scored with cheese (сыр). Like a crepe, the fillings came in both the sweet and savory categories–our favorite being the traditionally Russian sour cream and honey.

Blini Stand

Hot Pocket Stand

At un-refrigerated stands, dry open-faced sandwiches prevailed, with a choice between salami or smoked salmon. While salmon is Russia has a great reputation, I could never bring myself to try a sun-cooked salmon sandwich…maybe that’s more of a winter sandwich choice.

Dry, Expensive Salami Sandwich

Dry, Expensive Salami Sandwich

For those of us living in the US, where smoked fish conveys an elegant brunch-like luxury, the abundance of home-smoked, as well as mass-produced, dried, fish is overwhelming. Fish as a snack to accompany beer is the Russian equivalent of buffalo wings or chips and salsa. And once you get over the strangeness of cutting into a giant smoked fish as you sip your Baltika, or learn to peel a handful of small fish before throwing them into your mouth, the salty, brininess becomes quickly addicting. Though I can safely say, even the tastiest fish needs to be thrown out after an hour of sitting in a stuffy Russian train.

Dried Fish and Beer

Dried Fish and Beer

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