THERE’S A DAMP heaviness to the morning air as the sun struggles to pierce the haze over Soviet-era buildings. A wheezing flatbed truck stops periodically along Old Bridge Street, a soot-covered husband and wife alternately haul stacks of coal cylinders to the front of each restaurant. Wizened ladies carrying bags of produce shuffle past, and parents drag their howling children down the road toward school.
Without claiming to be anything other than simple nourishment, these street-food dishes demonstrate how Chinese peasants have made the most of what the land has to offer.
I watch from a low vantage, seated on a rickety stool, chopsticks ready. The boss, a young Sichuanese woman whose smile betrays a gap between her front teeth, lifts the lid of her gigantic pot and the storefront suddenly is bathed in white steam. For 80 cents, she offers a generous bowl of flat rice noodles in pork bone broth, with bright red chili oil and chunks of pig drifting around the noodles. (A less dangerous way to start the day is her specialty dao xiao mian, wheat noodles shaved off a large, doughy block and allowed to fall from the knife directly into boiling water. The thick ribbons are spooned into a hearty broth with shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and peppercorns, then passed to the customer in a matter of seconds.)
Each diner chooses condiments from a collection on the table: pickled green beans, finely chopped scallions, chili flakes in oil, minced garlic. There are two unlabeled bottles. The smaller is a light gold sesame oil; the larger black bottle is not what one would expect. There is no soy sauce here to cut the heat; most customers opt for a splash of extra-concentrated black vinegar (the thick fermentation of brown rice has circulatory and digestive health benefits). Unlike the average American Chinese restaurant (which is mainly Cantonese, originating from Guangdong Province), it is exceptionally rare to see soy sauce added to Hunanese dishes, over the wok or at the table.
Chinese cuisine is as varied as its people and geography, with different flavors associated with each province and ethnic group. A common Cantonese saying is: “We eat anything with four legs except a table, anything that flies except an airplane.” (A less pleasant version that was told to me in Hunan is, unfortunately, not appropriate here.)
Even the most basic forms of Chinese street food offer individual variation within a limited set of humble ingredients grown around the city and purchased from markets and street vendors. The cheapest and most common dishes are simple stir-fries, in which customers choose one or two key ingredients from a shelf and the Uncle or Auntie decides how they should be cooked. Popular combinations include egg and tomato; smoked tofu with red onions; water spinach and garlic; or minced pork and mushrooms. Served with a bottomless bowl of rice, these dishes are made for family-style eating. Sharing six dishes among three people guarantees constant conversation about the food, chopsticks stretching across the table.
There are eight major regional cuisines officially recognized in China, each with its own set of spices, flavors, techniques and specialties. This doesn’t take into account additional outlying influences such as Mongolian, Xinjiang (Muslim) and Tibetan cooking. Guangdong dishes are sweeter than other regional Chinese dishes; they rely heavily on sauces—soy, hoisin, oyster, plum—and with punchy spices such as star anise or five-spice. Sichuanese food, featuring tongue-numbing peppercorns in dishes such as mapo (“spicy grandma”) tofu, balances sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty flavors.
Hunan lays claim to Xiang cuisine, developed by generations of farmers living in one of the most fertile regions of the south. With access to rivers and lakes, there is an abundance of rice and produce. The food is renowned for being inexpensive, using fresh ingredients and of course, the ubiquitous presence of chili peppers. These dried peppers can be tossed into cooking oil; sliced fresh peppers can be added while stir-frying; pepper flakes can be ladled over food; or pickled peppers can be eaten alongside a dish. The “dry heat” of these peppers is part of a healthy balance between sweet, bitter and sour flavors. Pickled beans and roots add an extra kick of pungent flavor. Bitter melons complement peppers and garlic (and they strengthen the immune system in the winter).
Hunan boasts provincial specialties such as Mao’s hometown favorite, chou doufu, or stinky tofu (a fermented dish justifiably absent on the average takeout menu). My personal favorite is bao zai fan, in which toppings such as flash-fried eggplant with long beans are deposited onto a thick iron bowl of rice, the outermost layer cooked to crispy perfection and served with a salted duck egg.
Other dishes come from ethnic groups such as the Miao (relatives of the H’mong) and Tujia (literally “Earth Family”). One popular Tujia specialty is a thin egg pancake wrapped around long, crunchy slivers of potato and tofu cubes.
Without claiming to be anything other than simple nourishment, these street-food dishes demonstrate how Chinese peasants have made the most of what the land has to offer. Although the food can be strictly regional, it is by no means limited. Noodle Lady’s breakfast fare, for example, included influences from many different regions. In a single roadside noodle stall, about the size of an average American bathroom, one can taste three regions of China. The dao xiao mian originated in the wheat-dependent north; the numbing peppercorns are from the boss’s native Sichuan—yet the overall balance of flavors is very much Hunanese.
Elderly women squat on the curb hawking baskets of gnarled tubers; street vendors stir woks full of spicy homefried cubes; restaurants serve up plates of thinly julienned and stir-fried slivers; and spuds are pounded into a paste and stretched into thick, chewy noodles. These are just a few forms in which a visitor to Hunan might encounter a potato. The so-called “earth bean,” originally from South America, made its way to seventeenth-century China on board Portuguese trading ships. While Ming officials regarded it as an exotic delicacy, it eventually spread across the country.
In 1960s Hunan, disastrous famines forced the Communist government to rethink farming policy and shift from communal organization to small-scale family plots. While farmers harvested large brown potatoes in river valleys like Jishou, Miao tribesmen successfully adapted fingerlings for terraced mountain plots. Today, China is the largest grower of potatoes worldwide.
The following recipe is an adaptation of the versatile tu dou si—spicy shredded potatoes. Much of the pleasure of Chinese peasant cooking is its adaptability. Unlike the Hunan version, my recipe uses a lid to partially steam the potatoes, thereby reducing the amount of oil. The chef is encouraged to make further changes according to individual preferences and availability of ingredients.
Eliot Gee recently returned to the Hudson Valley after two years teaching in rural China and Thailand.