March 21, 2011

Stomach of Iron

When I moved to China, I expected to have Pepto snacks and Immodium for dessert. And I thought my body would be almost instantly transformed into a tiny little figure that weighed less than the 16-year old version of me.. After all, everyone I knew who had been to China shed pounds without even trying.

However, I'm nearly six months in and have yet to bow down to the porcelain throne, even after enjoying copious amounts of street food. And much to my dismay, I have not gained or lost a single pound.

China is famous for selling anything and everything to eat. It's not uncommon to see live chickens purchased in markets or to see ducks plucked clean hanging by their necks out of an apartment window. Street vendors pedal around on their reconfigured bicycles that double as a food stand and set up shop on whichever corner they decide is most lucrative.

Most commonly during the daytime, people sell roasted sweet potatoes. Steel barrels, that once may or may not have contained industrial waste, double as ovens that char the potatoes to a black, crusty oblivion. Once their black shell is flaked off, the inside of the potato is sweet, creamy deliciousness... or so I've heard.

"Those give you cancer," one of my students told me when I was eying one at lunch one of my first weeks here. I got scared and haven't tried one...yet.

Modified barrel ovens are also used to make a baked flat bread that comes in either sweet or spicy. Both varieties are seasoned with a mysterious flaky black substance that resembles burned green onions (which they might well be) and other smallish chunks of awesomeness. The dough is rolled out into a 6-inch circle and then it is plastered to the inside of the barrel. Defying gravity, the bread sticks to the wall until it is baked to an airy, crispy perfection.

One round sells for about a quarter, and I usually treat myself to one after my language lessons. The woman I buy my bread from works out of her impossibly small one-room home on a street corner. Her husband operates a bicycle repair shop on the sidewalk that they've adopted as their front patio. She is middle-age and plump, and her teeth splay out of her mouth as if a grenade exploded and the shock prompted each tooth to bend forward out of her mouth. Regardless, she always greets me with a big smile.

I'm partial to the street side noodles. Vendors rock the wok and offer two or three varieties of rice noodles, meats, green leafy vegetables, tofu and eggs. I point to what I want (usually bok choy, tofu, cabbage, and pepper) and in five minutes or less, they hand me a paper bowl wrapped in a sensationally flimsy plastic bag and I have dinner -- usually for less than US $1.

After drinks on a Friday night, street squid on a stick or a bowl of dumplings are my go-tos. Meats on sticks are widely available here at any time of day. Instead of a cookie after school, kids rush to get some lamb, beef, or unidentifiable meat on a stick for an after school snack. While I don't eat many of the four-legged critter sticks, I really dig the street squid. I get it yidianr lao de (a little bit spicy) and they grill it right in front of me. It's a rare treat though, I'm a little weirded out by how fresh (or not fresh) the squid might be.

And you can never go wrong with Chinese dumplings. Salty and flavorful mystery meat wrapped up in a steamed bread product with a little bit of vinegar is heavenly. Though I admit that description makes them sound awful and does not do them justice.

Street snacks and restaurant food doesn't come without its risks though. Part of the reason for my weight neutrality is the unrequited love of corn oil. People use corn oil here more excessively than a Greek or Italian uses olive oil. Almost every restaurant dish comes with a hearty oil slick, including my favorite garlicky eggplant entree.

In a lot of Chinese restaurants oil is reused or recycled, making it carcinogenic. In more expensive restaurants the oil is fresh, but a lot of cheap restaurants and many street vendors use recycled oil. I opt out of thinking about that as I'm enjoying delicious food.

I've also seen rats in restaurants, dirty produce lying on the floor, dead chickens with their feathers still intact... I'm unfazed, and so far I haven't gotten sick.

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