Armed with both a camera and an adventurous appetite, Fiona Reilly is fearless and passionate about street food. She writes LifeonNanchangLu.com which exhaustively details all the street food she has tried across China by ingredient, smell and taste, accompanied by photos that nearly have you licking your computer screen. Did I mention she is also an Emergency Doctor back in Australia? So you can be assured she knows what she’s doing. Fiona’s enthusiasm to understand and sometimes recreate her favorite Chinese street foods at home is infectious as it is admirable.
SA: I love your passion in eating your way through the best of what Shanghai’s streets have to offer, and dissect what they are all about. Can you share with us how LifeonNanchangLu started as well as your curiosity about Shanghai street food?
FR: Not long after I arrived in Shanghai in 2009, Life on Nanchang Lu began as a way to motivate myself to get out on the streets and take photos, no matter how good or bad the photos were (and they were all pretty awful to begin with). When I left Australia all I knew was that I desperately wanted to rekindle the love of photography I had as a teenager, when I shot and developed all my own film in the school darkroom while skipping math class.
The street life here is extraordinarily vibrant, with outdoor spaces really just an extension of indoor spaces where people sleep, eat, play, and cook. The more time I spent on the streets, the more my photography gravitated towards one of my life’s other passions – food. Street food here is so diverse and colorful, and I began an online series documenting Shanghai’s street foods. As I began to travel more widely in China I tried to capture the foods, and just as importantly, the people behind the food, everywhere I went.
SA: Take us through a regular shoot on the streets, how you scope out your subject (or specific food) and set up your shots.
FR: If I’m planning on photographing street food in a small shop or stall I go mid-morning when the breakfast rush is over and the light is good. The vendor is usually less busy then so we can chat. I love to get a shot of the process of cooking, and the vendor, then some luscious food close-ups. Occasionally, if the light is particularly bad or the street food comes in an ugly plastic bag and might need a bit of prettying-up, I’ll take it home and photograph it there.
Frequently though, I’m searching for a particular food made by mobile vendors with portable carts. You never know where or when you’ll come across them so my camera goes everywhere I go, ready to snatch an opportunity when it presents itself!
SA: What has been the most memorable food or experience you have had since you started shooting street food in Shanghai?
FT: Introducing someone who might otherwise not be brave enough to try street food is a great joy. I remember eating my first fried turnip cake, crisp and sizzling, the filling soft and savory, topped with chili and hoisin sauce, perched on a tiny wooden stool down a narrow lane in the old city with a friend. She’d never eaten street food before, and loved it. Before long we had fifteen interested locals all watching us enjoy Shanghai street food. Food was our common language.
Winning a third prize in an international food photography competition was pretty memorable too – I was thrilled to be included amongst such food photography greats in London a few months ago.
SA: I imagine that food photography is harder than it looks, no matter how enticing the food looks or bustling the scene is, you’re juggling framing, shooting and interviewing. Do you ever feel challenged by the process?
FR: Shooting food on the street can be a huge challenge – crowds of people, steam and splatters of oil on the lens, poor lighting, limited space, then losing the perfect shot when someone shoves in front of you to buy their breakfast. And then how do you make something that comes served in a styrofoam tray or paper bucket look mouth-wateringly delicious? A tight shot usually does the trick.
As my Chinese has improved interviewing street food vendors has become easier and a really enjoyable part of the process. Food is our great common language, and when people can see that you love their food it breaks down so many barriers.
SA: I have loved reading about your adventures preparing for your upcoming epic drive-across-China. For readers who are less familiar, can you elaborate?
FR: There are parts of China, remote, wild and lovely parts, accessible only by road. We’ve decided to spend the next six months traveling around China’s back roads in a campervan with our two children to see a side of China we haven’t seen before. Beginning with the Naadam horse and archery festival in Inner Mongolia in July we’ll slowly work our way around the country.
It will be an enormous and slightly scary adventure, and in a way I feel a little like we’re pioneering a kind of family travel that’s pretty new to China. But along the way there will be loads of spectacular local foods and incredible photographic opportunities, and hopefully, the chance to relax and write a book!
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