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.