Noodles are ubiquitous and delicious in China. I took this 2-minute video of a chef stretching a wad of dough into soup noodles. But I couldn’t upload it while in China. Video sites like YouTube, as well as social media sites like Facebook, are blocked in the Middle Kingdom.
They weren’t bad. It helped I was drinking beer. And that I had no choice but to dig in, as I’d been invited to join a table. I’d stopped at one of the late night hole-in-the-wall eateries that tempt with meat and vegetable skewers grilled over a charcoal fire. It was busy even though 10 PM on a Tuesday. In fact late night is when these neighborhood hangs get rolling.
I sat down outside, at a low table near the grill. A funky bit of cloth served as an awning against the threat of drizzle. Inside the tiny restaurant, no door, just an opening and down a step to a room, was a lively scene, some people playing cards, a small group devouring a tray piled high with skewers, like a strange game of pick-up sticks, and a couple slurping noodles. Ratty cardboard at the entry provided a shoe wipe due to the wet weather. No décor, and a small TV playing in the back. Plenty of empty beer bottles on the tables. Clientele was young, guys in T-shirts and women in tight jeans or glittery skirts and brightly-colored shoes. You’d think the dressed-up ladies would seem out of place in this beat-up hole of an eatery, except that kind of contrast isn’t uncommon.
The proprietress was a stout Naxi ethnic minority woman with a ready smile, in constant motion around the restaurant, and her rail-thin husband attended the equally narrow long grill. He turned skewers, slathering them with oils as they cooked, and sprinkling them with salty chili powder before sending them off to their destinations. Orders came in constantly, from tables who suddenly wanted something more, from new customers, from passers-by who made requests to go. He managed the fray while fragrant smoke billowed upwards, and kept a running tab on a clipboard.
The proprietress handed me a plastic container as she bustled by. Oh, I suddenly realized, you go to the big glass-door refrigerator near the entrance and pick out what you want. So I went to the refer. I saw neat piles of skewers: chicken wings, sausages, mini hot dogs, dumplings, meat wrapped in hot peppers, sliced potatoes, mushrooms, whole eggplant (split after cooked soft to become a bowl for ground pork in sauce), tofu, brains (whole not skewered), big shrimp, tiny shrimp, small whole fish, and something that looked like cubes of spam. And plenty of things I couldn’t identify.
I put some chicken wings and squash rounds in my basket. Crispy chicken wings and grilled vegetables seemed like a good way to start. I handed my basket to the cook, and sat down again.
At the table next to me were with three Chinese men and one woman. One fellow immediately poured beer into a glass, pushed it towards me and insisted on toasting. He downed his in a gulp, so I downed mine likewise in a show of cross-cultural good faith. The woman motioned me to join them for food. They were ordinary working folks, not like the well-dressed well-heeled Chinese tourists enjoying pretty Lijiang old town just around the corner. They didn’t speak English, and we carried on one of those disjointed, simple conversations. As we waited for the food, fragrantly sizzling just a few feet away, the man kept chugging beer, shouting this and that, louder and louder. His companions gave me resigned looks, but oh well, what was there to do?
The tray arrived steaming hot, just off the grill, mahogany-colored and dusted with chili/salt powder. There was no mistaking the identity. The claw-like shape; the toes each a different length, ending in little nails; the stout ankle; the bumpy skin. The woman pushed the tray toward me. She probably never imagined that this is not a favorite treat in America, since it is so universally popular in China. For that reason I’d been thinking I had to try them. The way you eye a distant mountain and think, someday I ought to see about hiking that. Yikes, suddenly I was at the trailhead. My moment of truth had arrived. Chicken feet.
So, under cover of darkness, importuned by beer, I picked one up and nibbled. I discovered skin, fat and cartilage, with a bit of meat, wedged around many small bones. Not much to sink your teeth into. I felt like like a squirrel chiseling away to get a tidbit.
Into my mind came images of where this foot had stepped. Chicken pens are not the most sanitary places. I stamped that thought down, had a swig of beer, and continued nibbling down the chicken foot, millimeter by millimeter. I was as cautious as a teenager making moves on the couch, yet driven on toward the unknown. I couldn’t help feeling grossed out as I carefully worked my way down the footpad towards the more intimidating toe and nail (the chef had ceremoniously clipped the nails after cooking, with a scissors). The others at my table were busy chewing on the bones and cartilage like they were gum and spitting the hard stuff onto the floor. I gathered vigorous nibbling and gnawing was half the point. The woman kept pushing the plate towards me, urging me to eat more.
All I can say is, what fun! The smoky salty flavor was tasty, the texture (not surprisingly) similar to a chicken wing tip. Perhaps not an ideal meal, but relaxed and human. It reminded me of a crab feed on Chesapeake Bay, a pile of just-cooked crabs dropped onto butcher paper, everything dusted with spicy salty seasoning, everybody cracking claws, sucking out meat, picking through shells and generally making a mess while drinking beer and licking fingers.
The fellow across from me was bellowing now, leaping up to make another toast, and when he knocked over his bottle and a foamy rivulet of beer headed my way across the table I asked for my maidan, the check, paid 20 yuan, about three dollars, said xie xie and went on my way into the night.
The entire world exports chicken feet to China, where they cost more per kilogram than frozen chicken breasts. They are available in many different preparations, including vacuum-sealed and requiring no refrigeration, ready to eat. Those packaged chicken feet, flavored with rice vinegar and chili, were my language teacher’s favorite snack.
Each chicken foot has 16 small bones. But unlike many birds, no webbed toes. I can vouch for that.
Leaving Kunming tomorrow for the small towns of Dali, Lijiang and Xianggelila aka Shangri-la. After five weeks in Kunming you might think I’d be ready to move on, but no, I’ve grown quite fond of the city and language class. Even the nightime noise isn’t such a bother, and I no longer wear earplugs every night to sleep, as I did for the first two weeks.
Dali is strongly influenced by the Bai people, Lijiang by the Naxi, and Shangri-la, at 11,500 feet elevation, by Tibetans. In Shangri-la I am fortunate to catch the annual Tibetan horse racing festival. Not much religion, just people coming from hundreds of miles with their animals and finest new dress for three days of horse racing and partying.
To wrap up for Kunming, below are some slice of life photos with captions:
BMWs are the status car of choice. They are called bao ma, precious horse. That’s the actual name of the car. A more colloquial expression is Bie Mo Wo, don’t touch me.
Badminton is very popular. I played a few times, it is aerobic and fun. People take lessons. I was quite amused to see birdies piling up like snow around the feet of a student practicing her backhand, fed to her by the facility’s badminton pro.
When the sun comes out so do the sun umbrellas. Women want to keep their fair complexions. High heeled shoes are the fashion now.
Every apartment building has solar heating for hot water. Kunming is fairly sunny. Forever spring, they say.
This fish was turned inside out, and all the bones removed, before frying and turning crispy. It was called something like fish squirrel-stye, referring to the appearance.
Some of discount cards belonging to my teacher, for bread, dumplings and the like. Some people have so many cards they carry them in special bags. Typically you buy the card, say for 100 RMB, and receive 110 or 115 RMB worth of merchandise,
English language signs are sometimes pretty funny.
Walmart in China offers lots of unfamiliar things, but at a very good price. Live frogs and turtles for food consumption, dried Yunnan mushrooms, clothing, cosmetics, handbags and shoes are some of the merchandise. There are at least three multi-story Walmarts in Kunming.
Yunnan is a tea growing region, and there are innumerable small tea leaf sellers. Go into any shop and they will make pots of tea for you to try. I greatly enjoyed the ritualized brewing and presentation. Some tea places are just for drinking tea, though, and friends while away hours enjoying different brews and talking. Besides green and black tea, in endless varieties, Yunnan produces pu’er tea, a unique but not especially well known tea made through special processes.
I was walking with my teacher in Cui Hui park, in the center of Kunming. We were strolling around the emerald-colored lake, among the old willow trees and colorful pagodas. We saw several large ornamental carp. “Hmmm, big fish,” she said. “Big enough to cook.”
How a nation as obsessed with food and noodles, breads and snacks stays so skinny is beyond me.
When hunger strikes, whether in the park or anywhere in Kunming, here are seven popular snacks readily available:
1. Yumi bing, fragrant corn cakes, here at a small market. Only 1 RMB apiece, about 15 cents.
2. Er kuai, a grilled bread made from rice flour, a little spongy and tangy. Comes slathered with your choice of sauces, either salty or sweet, including ground peanuts, and folded. Also can be ordered folded around a fried dough cylinder: a doughnut sandwich. 2.5 RMB.
3. Dou Jiang, described to me as bean juice. Hmmmm. Amazing how important names can be. I tried it anyway. It was simply sweet soy milk. I thought it tasty and on weekends drink a cup with a baozi, for breakfast. Can be had warm or chilled. One dou jiang and one baozi, together 3 RMB.
BTW, I couldn’t get the straw to puncture the top, and made a spectacle of myself jabbing the plastic lid over and over. Finally a passerby showed me the trick. Oh, aim for the edge.
4. Rice noodles, mixian, are a favorite Kunming dish, served hot, cold, with sauce and in broth, in dozens of variations, by innumerable storefronts spilling onto the street. The noodles are uniformly delicious. One bowl, liang mixian, 8-12 RMB.
5. Grilled meats, tofu in several flavors and vegetables make a yummy snack, or order as an extra with your noodles.
6. Chicken feet are indeed very popular, but I haven’t worked up to munching them yet. All in good time. You can also buy them in the store packaged and ready to eat.
7. Fruit is a tasty and healthy snack, and street carts are loaded with bananas, watermelon, durian, lychees, Asian pears and mangoes, from tropical and semi-tropical regions just a little south of Kunming. You buy by the kilo, although in Kunming ordering a kilo gets you a half kilo. If you order a half kilo you get [and pay for] a quarter kilo. It’s just the local way.
I’m heading to China in a few weeks, to study and then do some work at the Mogao Caves, the World Heritage Site at Dunhuang. I’m worried about ordering food. I hope I don’t come back thin as a rail. I can order order dumpling and beer [ yi pan jiao zi, yi ping pi jiu] but it’s sketchy after that. How long can you survive on dumplings and beer? Well, I guess there’s always point and indicating, I want that.
My Chinese friend tell me some restaurants ask for pay before they serve you food. Some places are so crowded, she says, diners can just disappear. Chinese version of dine and dash, I guess. I’m glad she told me, I’m sure I’d be confused if the restaurant proprietor was demanding money when the meal hadn’t been eaten. That’s not everywhere, of course, just some places. And she says be sure to order bing pi jiu: cold beer. And don’t be surprised if cold beer costs more than warm. “Electricity is expensive. You pay a little something extra for the refrigeration.”