These unsung heroes of Chinese street cooking have yet to displace potstickers or spring rolls on the Western stage, but once they do, nothing you know about Chinese cuisine will be the same.
Howie Southworth is co-author of Chinese Street Food: Small Bites, Classic Recipes and Harrowing Tales Across the Middle Kingdom (also available in this new shop we opened)
Chinese street foods and small eats (小吃 xiǎochī) are hot and picking up steam where burgers and the cronut left off. Delectable and juicy soup dumplings (小笼包 xiǎolóngbāo) are Instagram stars, unctuous and savory pancakes (煎饼 jiānbing) are griddled up in big cities across the U.S., and even Muslim Chinese recipes are beginning to take up a well-deserved column on traditional American-Chinese menus — hand-pulled noodles (拉面 lāmiàn), anyone?
But. The real foodie romance that you deserve still lives comfortably across the Pacific. Below is an annotated list of the best and brightest Chinese dishes poised and ready for their close-up.
Beef-Filled “Pot Helmet” Pastry (牛肉锅盔 niúròu guōkuī)
Provenance: Shaanxi Province
Imagine, if you will, a croissant, with its delicately crispy outer crust and tender, flaky, complex crumb. Now picture those immaculate layers studded with highly seasoned ground beef, punchy scallions, and pleasingly piquant chilis, intricately transformed into a pancake-like shape and shallow-fried. Drooling yet? Guokui is the meaty pastry you’ve been craving but didn’t know existed.
The magic of guokui doesn’t reside within the flavors, necessarily. The reason this snack is top-of-list for any foodie interested in the mysteries of the Chinese kitchen is in its construction. It’s a basic flour dough, portioned and rolled into thin oblong sheets, topped with a rich and smooth mixture of fatty meat and aromatics, rolled into itself like a poster, completely obscuring the filling. Then, this generously enriched dough tube is stood on one end and expertly smooshed, resulting in a perfectly round masterpiece of pastry work. It takes a deft hand. Cooking them is the easy part: all that’s needed is a scalding pond of oil.
Magnificently constructed guokui — which means “pot helmet” — were born on ancient battlefields. Say what? Yep, dig a little and you’ll find that a lot of Chinese culinary ideas come from soldiers who had to fulfill their nutritional needs with ad-hoc protein solutions and a bit of MacGyvering with implements of war. Long story short, dating back to the Ming army, improvised dinners abound after a long day of killing: Weary warriors wash a shield or 12 and toss them over the fire with rudimentary dough filled with whatever varmints hadn’t the smarts to scurry away during battle. They come away with a satisfying meal with one important requirement: These fried flatbreads had to be so thick and so big that any which went stale overnight could be used to deflect arrows the next day. Today’s treats are decidedly less protective.
Guokui comes in many forms, the beefy version the most complicated among them. Some of the best examples of the same concept is an unfilled dough, fried (naturally), cut open, and dressed with a freshly fried egg, replete with crispy edges and gooey center. Drone on all you want about sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits with avocado, but guokui is the breakfast sandwich of your dreams.
Spicy Black Pepper Soup (胡辣汤 húlàtāng)
Provenance: Henan Province
Sometimes, street foods in China can be divisive. Take, for example, stinky tofu. This odiferous ode to the twisted marriage of coagulated soy milk proteins and fermentation breaks up couples, sends travel partners to opposite ends of any given city, and has the power to bring down empires. The aroma can be detected by the average human nose from blocks away.
But whereas stinky tofu has settled into public domain thanks to the likes of Andrew Zimmern and the late great Anthony Bourdain, hulatang has yet to cause any Western conflict. We’re here to change that. You had me at mucusy. Mucusy? Call it viscous if you want, hulatang ain’t your normal soup. To be clear, it begins as not only normal, but a deep, dark, deceivingly rich beef meatball soup, accented with buttery cabbage and fragile hunks of root vegetables that hang on by a thread until they melt on the tongue. Backing up about 12 hours, the seminal stock itself is magic, as it transforms cured beef shanks, aromatics, and water into a toffee-hued bone broth elixir that would make Gwyneth Paltrow’s head explode.
This doesn’t sound divisive at all! Wait. Just when you think, “Oh my that looks and smells fantastic, here’s my bowl,” along comes a slurry of potato starch by the cupful that gets stirred into the simmering cauldron, yielding a gloopy, sticky, thick, damn-near-colloidal dish for everyone’s enjoyment. Though, maybe not everyone. Admittedly, the first few spoonfuls that stretch their way to one’s mouth may not be alluring, and whirling the goop around in one’s bowl may not immediately invite the appetite. But there’s a lot about it to enjoy.
Hulatang is a devilishly satisfying concoction. One may be scared at the door, but a little trust goes a long way, as each mouthful is a shock of delight. It becomes silky and decadent when the vegetables, a lucky meatball, and the glue holding it all together dissolve into a symphony for the newly warmed senses. Oh, and add a dollop or two of chili oil on top for extra wow.
We haven’t even hit on the namesake flavor: the hujiao, or black pepper, which came into China from India. The black pepper didn’t become a household staple everywhere it went, but it gained a foothold in Central China, and fortunately found fame in such a unique dish as hulatang.
Filled Egg Pancakes (蛋烘糕 dànhōnggāo)
Provenance: Sichuan Province
I’ll just come out and say it: Danhonggao is the Chinese answer to the Mexican street taco, only the tortilla is replaced with a flapjack and topped with everything from pickled vegetables and stewed pork to peanut butter and whipped cream… On second thought, danhonggao is beginning to sound like the best pancake dinner ever!
These wonderfully fluffy, slightly savory, and slightly sweet pancakes are truly one-of-a-kind among Chinese street snacks. Across the country, there exists an entire school of alfresco cookery that is based in pancake form. But from the yeasty, almost sourdough quality of the cake itself to the large range of fillings, danhonggao stands alone like a cool drifter. And hey, it’s the only street food that has its own specialized skillet (which, by the way, would make a killer personal-sized frittata).
The history of danhonggao is not clear, but people seem to agree that it started sliding out of the skillet sometime before 1900, presumably with a much smaller subset of fillings options. Over time, the tins of on-demand fillings grew and grew, and today you can find stands in Chengdu with a couple dozen options. Exactly how the menu widened is anyone’s guess, but the likely scenario saw a customer (or a hundred) requesting specific morsels to fold in this deliciously warm wrap, and no desire was off the table. Hey, you know what would go really nicely inside this tasty blanket? Bacon? Great, come back tomorrow! History is made.
“Bedspread” Noodles (铺盖面 pūgài miàn)
Provenance: Sichuan Province
Across China, noodles are consumed at an alarming rate. We’re not just referring to the fact that hundreds of millions of bowls are eaten on a daily basis (think about that for a moment), we’re also talking about the speed with which each bowl is slurped down. Noodles are perhaps the truest street food in the sense that they are typically a cheap way to get a very quick lunch, often rapidly enjoyed on little plastic stools on the sidewalk. Onto our subject at hand: Perhaps the one exception is pugai mian, or “bedspread noodles,” which are designed to slow you down.
As the name suggests, pugai noodles are decidedly huge. They’re also thick, chewy, and delicious. Artisan noodle makers make pugai mian by first ripping off a hunk of dough and pulling each strand to roughly 12 inches long and three inches wide before dropping them into burbling hot water.
The rest of the dish includes some form of meat, whether slow-cooked or ground, with a beef or pork-based broth, a dash of black vinegar, soy sauce, chili oil, scallions, cilantro, and maybe a leaf or three of healthy greens. But the true adventure comes when you sit and begin to explore how exactly to attack the beast. It’s rather simple, to be sure. Raise a noodle, take a bite, spoon some meat, slurp some soup, rinse and repeat. This is not a quick meal. It is a meal requiring contemplation, reflection, and meditation. OK, perhaps that’s taking it a bit too far, but pugai mian is most certainly a leisure snack instead of a stuff-your-face and get back to work treat. Your boss will understand, and just might join you.
Shandong-style Pancake Wraps (山东煎饼 Shāndōng jiānbing)
Provenance: Shandong Province
This dish has a northern cousin, the Tianjin jianbing, which most definitely has been introduced into U.S. cities, and is too often mislabeled by lazy people and Instagramming millennials as a “Chinese crêpe.” Stop it. It’s much more than the heroic and admittedly delicious French treat. If we need to ascribe a Western identity, it’s quite clearly the intersection of a burrito and an omelet. Soft, eggy, savory, warming, texturally interesting, and scrumptious. As long as we’re applying Occidental dopplegangers, the Shandong jianbing can only be described as a chimichanga. No, it’s not deep fried, and chimichangas have their own place in gluttony, but we digress. Look, who wouldn’t want to be healthier without feeling like one is eating healthier? With its delicately crispy exterior and sundry fillings, the Shandong jianbing serves as more of a wrap in the Western gastronomical sense of the term than its Tianjin kin.
While the ingredients in the Tianjin and Shandong jianbing might be similar, the method of production is strikingly different. The Tianjin jianbing is a relatively staid affair: batter is squeegeed into a circle, topped with an egg that’s spread around; it’s flipped, albeit with panache, then topped with some aromatics, a few sauces, something crunchy, and finally folded up to everyone’s delight. The Shandong version is a real show, downright acrobatic and theatrical. Upon a ripping hot three-foot round cast iron griddle whipping around at speeds well over 400 rpm, batter is poured in, starting at the center and making its way to the edges, then smoothed over with a squeegee. As the bottom begins to crisp, eggs are cracked atop the base and the same squeegee essentially and simultaneously scrambles the egg into a thin layer atop the seemingly hardened batter, only to see the two meld into one. Without the iron slab slowing, a putty knife is deftly stuck under one edge and slowly scraped toward the center under the crackly pancake, ending with the identifiable flying object flung onto a table awaiting its filling.
Similar to its northern cousin, the Shandong jianbing can have many traditional stuffings, but most frequently it includes cilantro, scallions, and sweet and spicy sauces — with sausage, chicken fillet, or dried, shredded pork as optional — and for that extra crunch, lettuce or fried wontons. This is a far cry from the millennia-old original, filled with whatever battle-weary ancient soldiers could gather after a day of killing. Perhaps some wild mushrooms? A rabbit or two? The blood of the fallen? I kid. Popular lore has jianbing originating, like many Chinese street snacks, on the battlefields of yore, where hungry soldiers would cook over an open fire using their shields as a pan…pans that were first used to feed their teams of horses. Nice, guys.
(By the way, the horses weren’t always so lucky, if the story of how cured donkey sandwiches were invented is to be believed. But that’s a story for another time.)