The Cackle and Pop of Street Food

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Over the din of chattering crowds and honking cars, the roar of fired up woks was accompanied by the sweet and savoury smells of winter snacks wafting seductively through the cold, night air.

Along the narrow street on North Haining Lu (北海宁路) near Wusong Lu (吴淞路), business at Hongkou’s best snack stores were in full swing.

Roasted chestnuts (or li zi 栗子) were especially popular. Two such shops bookended the street and enjoyed long lines of hungry customers. In the front, shopkeepers deftly scooped lovely shelled morsels into small paper bags, while workers in the back roasted the chestnuts in a sea of charcoal bits that tumbled in a gentle washing machine-like cycle.

I watched a middle-aged man dive into his bag of roasted chestnuts, peeling the shell to reveal a piping hot golden nugget. He bit gingerly into it, and blissfully took in the rich and sweet texture.

A few paces away, my senses were assulted by the piercing scent and crackling sound of caramelizing sugar. Through the billowing steam, I saw a large crowd amassed around a shop selling candied rice puffs (chao mi tang 炒米糖) from Shandong.

Two men poured voluminous rice puffs, white sugar, nuts and sesame into a giant wok at high heat, stirring vigorously to produce a swirling sea of pale brown, studded with red and black with the ocassional silver twinkle of sugar.

Speed was an equally important ingrediant. As the mixture coagulated into a colorful and sticky mess, it was hefted into a wooden frame and smoothed quickly with a paddle as it cooled. The blocks of pale brown, red and black were then swiftly sliced and separated, revealing pockets of air between crunch.

That is the thing about street food. It can be entirely classless if tasty. That night, customers ranging from the well-dressed to the casual in pyjamas, continued to throng North Haining Lu for a quick but satisfying jolt before dinner.

December 2011

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7 Comments

  • Reply December 12, 2011

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Hi Sue,

    Just what I wanted to look at during this rapidly-approaching late hour here in Toronto…delicious. Can you describe perhaps what it tastes like? Those cakes? Really reach or a combination of sweet/savory?

    –ADM

    • Reply December 14, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Adam: I’ve had these before. They’re sweet and very crunchy, with my favorite mix of sesame, peanuts and sugar. Try the Asian supermarkets in Toronto, you may be able to find some prepacked ones, though not as fresh as these.

  • Reply December 14, 2011

    Alex

    Ed Ou personal journey is somewhat out-of-the ordinary, don’t you think ?
    Dominic Nahr flew to RDC while in his early twenties.
    Benedicte Kurzen took a one way ticket to Amman, then Baghdad in 2003, she wasn’t much older.
    Agnes Dherbeys started her career in the aftermath of the tsunami, in 2004. Just about the same age.
    Carolyn Drake – such great pictures – started somewhat later, but clearly compensated by an uncompromising abnegation.

    Do women have a different approach to photography – you seemed to put it as an open question – I’d say probably not. War photographers – a special case – are fundamentally different human beings, different from us. Not the same fabric. Female war photographers do not have access to the same material as their male companions though. Stephanie Sinclair’s work in Afghanistan couldn’t have been accomplished by a man. Hence this brand new view point. And the false impression of radical differences.

    “.. different yet similar human dynamics”. Only the dynamic matters, the purpose is alien to us.

    Like the smell of roasted chestnuts, the hustle-bustle of a noisy street, the tone of foreign voices, and cold biting the cheeks. Dynamics creates substance, and for an instant, resonates.

    You’ve accumulated an impressive material over the course of 2 years or so. It’s too much work to be just a hobby, and too much restraint to look like a bread-and-butter thing. How do you connect the dots ? (if I dare asking ?)

    • Reply December 15, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Alex, appreciate your detailed comments on a smattering of posts, most efficient and thoughtful of you.

      Re: female war photographers, I do think that we work with what we have, our advantages (or disadvantages) that come with our gender and personalities. The way females come across to their subjects and the access they have.

      On youth in general, it’s a precious thing. “In youth we learn; in age we understand.” – not my quote, but rings true doesn’t it?

      Cheers for kind compliment. The blog has certainly come a long way in terms of material. I sometimes think the writing overshadows the photos, which wasn’t the main intention. It’s a labor of love, and helps me connect to the city which would otherwise drive me batty. There is no map that guides you to connect the dots, just find a place and walk, and talk to people. They kind of all come together. Perhaps I will write a post one day talking about this.

  • Reply December 14, 2011

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Do they stick to the teeth very badly?

    • Reply December 15, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Undoubtedly, Adam.

  • Reply December 15, 2011

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    That last graph rocked, Sue. Encapsulates so much thought…

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