23 October 2004 2004 nian 10 yue 23 hao

Culture: Snack Food

If all the different kinds of snack food from all the different parts of China were put together under one roof, I think the country would finally have a monument that is genuinely visible from space.

But since this has not yet happened, you will need to retrain your tastebuds every time you arrive in a new city, since tastes vary and so do locally available ingredients. For example, in coastal Dalian you can buy little conical seashells, and I watched in fascination the first time I saw these being eaten by a woman on a bus. She would take a shell and break off the tip, then into the other end insert an ingenious homemade device (a bent pin) and extract the tiny animal from inside. Afterwards, she would toss the shell out the window of the bus.

Some snacks are seasonal. Of course this is especially true of fresh fruit, which is a very popular snack in China and not too expensive if you buy it in high season. I've eaten numerous fruits that I've never seen in Australia, like jujubes, durian, flat peaches, huolongguo ("fire dragon fruit"), and about a hundred pear varieties. I will note as an aside that most people are very conscious about washing fruit before they eat it, if there are facilities at hand. If facilities are not at hand then instead you will probably hear the saying "bu gan bu jing chi le mei bing", which implies that if you tolerate a bit of dirt then in the long run you will have greater resistance to illness. One seasonal snack that does not need washing is tart little red hawthorn fruit that are threaded onto a stick and coated in toffee, available throughout the Winter, and in Spring there is pineapple which is expertly peeled before your eyes, sliced into segments, and sold on a stick (a disposable chopstick actually) for 1 yuan per piece. At the right time of the year, hot corn on the cob can also be bought from street vendors. But if you have a hankering for corn when it's out of season, don't despair: corn-shaped, corn-flavoured sweets are available, hard ones as well as chewy. Delicious baked yams are available during the colder months, presumably because they don't sell well in the summer. You eat the pale yellow flesh inside, not the thick skin. In bitterly cold Heilongjiang Province, they have an interesting way of preserving pears and persimmons during the winter: they leave them outside to freeze. You can take these home, let them thaw partially, and eat them.

Yam Oven
Yams are roasted inside a modified drum.

Walnut season began not long ago, and Western China seems to be the place for walnuts. For the first week, we were eating walnuts every day. Having just hit the market, most of them hadn't yet dried properly, meaning that not only was it difficult to get the nut out of the shell, but it was best to peel the bitter skin off the nut itself before eating it. However, this deters nobody. It has often been commented that Chinese like foods which demand some effort. This is true of Qinghai walnuts and Dalian seashells, and of course in every corner of the land you will find people cracking sunflower seeds between their teeth to extract the tiny grey nut inside. Many people have a little (but not tiny) V-shaped indent on one or two of their front teeth, evidence of a sunflower seed habit.

It's also the sound of a sunflower seed cracking between your teeth that a lot of people like, although this can become quite noisy when you have, for example, a whole cinema full of people eating sunflower seeds while they watch a movie. Luckily, the western custom of eating popcorn at the flicks is now catching on. That's not to say that popcorn itself is new to China, though. In some places you can still find people popping corn in the "traditional" way, as in the photo below. Actually, this device produces a delicious kind of popcorn that is crunchier than the popcorn from modern machines. I've also heard of a device for popping rice. Apparently, it builds up a lot of pressure, and when the door is opened the hot air and popped rice rushes out with a loud bang into a heavy bag. Making snack food seems to be a very specialised industry, and street vendors make their living by selling just a single kind of food day in and day out. Pity those who sell the famous "stinky tofu"!

Device for Popping Popcorn
After a lot of cranking, this machine produces a single bag of popcorn.

While confined to campus on account of SARS last year, one of my friends had a craving for dried meat and asked me to buy some for her. Chinese dried meat is comparable to beef jerky, but doesn't need as much chewing. In Dalian the meat was beef, but here on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau it is usually yak. Sausages made from pink, processed meat are also eaten as a snack. I don't know why, but I was a bit startled the first time I walked into a class and saw one of the girls munching on a big fat sausage.

A few weeks ago, a researcher from America visited us, bringing her husband and young daughter with her. After having dinner with them, I was very amused to hear the daughter ask "What's for desert?" It's a question that I myself uttered many a time in Australia, but here it has no currency. There is no desert in China, apart from the occasional fruit platter, and in a big meal the definitive final course will probably be a bowl of noodles.

There are exceptions to every rule of course, for example my Taiwanese friends often serve a sweet soup as a light supper in the evening, but the near-universal "sweet tooth" of my culture is far from universal in China. Sugary snacks can certainly be found, but if you offer them around then you will discover that a lot of people refuse them, saying that they don't like sweet food. As well as imported ideas such as lollies, chewing gum, and certain biscuit varieties, China has its own sweet specialties, like melt-in-the-mouth biscuits made from powdered green bean, seasame seed, etc, jellies which are sucked through a straw, and all sorts of treats made from fruit: seasoned dried plums taste nothing like western prunes, and Beijing-style hawthorn lollies are sweet enough to give a dentist nightmares. But I think that the western art of tooth decay reaches its pinnacle firstly in chocolate, and secondly in the enormous range of cakes, puddings, pies, and pasteries. And in this regard, China lags far behind.

So important are these foods to me, that I have already written once about cake and once about chocolate. There are some tasty traditional chinese pastries, such as moon cake (although the market tends to be flooded with inferior ones) and laopobing. Niushebing is worth trying just so you can tell your friends that you've eaten "ox tongue cake" (don't mention that the name comes from its shape, not its ingredients!). But as for "cake" as we know it in the west, there is no lemon and poppyseed teacake, no banana and walnut loaf, no chocolate muffins, just flavourless sponge cake. And there is no icing except flavourless artificial cream in every colour of the rainbow, which is used to turn the flavourless sponge cake into an elaborate and tasteful (albeit flavourless) work of art to be admired and/or eaten at a birthday or other important occasion.

What Calendar is Your Birthday?

It's interesting to have two calendars, but it's also just as much trouble as it sounds. In cities, people use the Gregorian calendar, but in rural areas people still use the lunar calendar. Traditional festivals are celebrated according to the lunar calendar, but modern ones like National Day or Teachers Day are calculated on the Gregorian calendar. And as for birthdays, some people use one calendar and some people use the other, so if you ask somebody's birthday you had better make sure you know what calendar they are talking about!

Chinese brands of chocolate have several identifying characteristics: they have a relatively light weight, they leave a greasy feeling in the mouth, and they taste absolutely nothing like chocolate at all. So it's no surprise that the foreign brands Dove and Cadbury, which both have factories in Beijing, have captured a big slice of the market. Dove is undoubtedly the best domestically produced chocolate (especially their dark chocolate), and if I was religious I would remember the company (which is Mars, actually) in my prayers. There is a Shenzhen-based company called Le Conte whose chocolate sells for almost the same price as Dove; according to its web site it was the first company to put premium chocolate on the market in China back 1990, but I would dispute the word "premium" since its flavour is hard to distinguish from ordinary chinese brands which cost a quarter of the price.

In Xining, I have discovered a shop that sells imported chocolate. The first time I passed this shop I was in dire financial circumstances because my wallet and my debit card with it had been stolen while I was riding a bus, yet somehow this momentarily slipped my mind, and I couldn't help buying myself a treat. They had something from Lindt, but unfortunately not their Lindor range. Most of the other brands were unfamiliar to me, so I settled for Guylian seashells. A box of 11 shells was one of the few products in the shop under 100 yuan. I was with Yang Ying and Zhuoya at the time, and of course I made them have a taste. While I was moaning with pleasure at the indulgence so long denied me, they swallowed a shell each and reported that they couldn't tell the difference between exquisite Belgium pralines and any old chinese muck!

But neither of them are fans of sweet snacks in general, regarding them as something for children rather than adults (Ha! Who would waste fine European chocolate on children!). Some might suggest that chinese-made chocolate and cakes are somehow suited to the chinese palate, but I can't agree. The people I've spoken to who enjoy chocolate agree that Dove is the best. And here in Xining there is a stall in the local market which turns a profit just by selling "European style" cupcakes, which means they use real eggs, butter, and sugar. Wisely, they don't ice them. It's not chocolate mudcake, but it's the best cake I've had in China.

I'm still waiting for "European style" icecream, though. Icecream on a stick (called xuegao, literally "snow cake") is another popular treat in China, but as with chocolate it is debatable whether this really deserves to be called icecream. I prefer xuegao without icecream in them, such as delicious mung bean popsicles.

I will conclude this article in much the same way as when I wrote about chinese and western food. Chinese snack food is voluminous and varied, and I'm sure that everybody could find something here to satisfy the munchies. But in China it's better to sample traditional chinese snack food, not chinese imitations of foreign snacks.

Related link: Sinosplice Junk Food Review

Oh, just an afterthought: those readers who live in China or have been to China, why not leave a comment saying what your favourite chinese snack is? I think I would have to choose those toffee hawthorn fruit myself. But I must admit that while I was preparing my lessons, I used to eat rather a lot of "haoliyou", a chocolate coated cake from a brand called Orion. Hmm, that might seem a bit hypocritical after I dissed both China's chocolate and cake!
24.10.2004 , 21:05

The beef-jerky like dried beef or pork is always good, and is so moreish. Unfortunately, it also usually contains an amazing amount of oil, which literally drips off the piece of beef or pork as you eat it, so I cannot say that it is healthy by any stretch of the imagination!
25.10.2004 , 21:25

Oh, and regarding sunflower seeds. They're damn tasteless, but are great fun to just sit there and crack. Kind of like chewing on chewing gum - it gives your mouth something to do.
25.10.2004 , 21:26

Love the sugar coated/roasted de-shelled sunflower seeds sold in packets (3 of RMB10) at the Tiger Beach
29.10.2004 , 16:01

Dave, the dried meat I'm talking about is not so oily. If you buy it in a supermarket, it often comes in little individually wrapped pieces, like lollies.

TC, that's the first I've heard of de-shelled sunflower seeds! But certainly I've tried various kinds of nuts and beans with various kinds of coatings. Not bad, although I prefer them without chilli.
29.10.2004 , 21:04

I haven't tried many but one of my favourites is doufufa: fresh, hot, sweet, soft tofu. mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

and dried persimmons
30.10.2004 , 23:46

Simply Delicious!
lilikhh [homepage]
22.11.2004 , 12:18

This was so helpfull to me thanks. I've now tried alot of new foods.
24.11.2004 , 09:59

everything is so true though I AM a CHINESE.
05.01.2005 , 12:58

I am working on a project to market a children's snack food in China. Can you tell me what a premium snack food, with nutritional value might cost in yuan?

Thank you!
Aimee Horner
14.04.2005 , 09:10

Aimee, sorry it took me a while to notice this question on my web page. But in any case, it's too vague to answer I'm afraid. Good luck with your research.
02.05.2005 , 10:26

i would like to thank you for making this site it was very helpful with my project which was on foods in China.
thanx again!
mel [homepage]
13.05.2005 , 14:46

this site is great :)
ursula in new zealand
08.06.2005 , 17:26

my favorite snack is dried fish, kind of like fish jerky. Of course beef jerky is good too. Dried prums are great and you have so many choices. BTW, good article.
15.08.2005 , 05:51

i was just thinking about a snack food we used to get at the local chienes restaurant
when i was a child.
they were puffs sordve(deep fried i believe)
and were usualy pink or blue.
im am trying to locate a store in which i
might order them.
i believe they are sold in what resembled a piece of candy but when droped in oil they puff right up.
anyone know what im referring to
06.09.2005 , 15:03

JMarty, it sounds like you're talking about prawn crackers. Virtually every chinese takeaway place in Australia has them (however, I think I've only seen them once or twice in all the time I've been in China).

If you're looking for the uncooked crackers (you're right, they are just tiny plastic-looking discs), try an asian supermarket.
07.09.2005 , 23:37

can you please send me recipes on ready made chinese snaack foods. it will help me with my alevel food technology.
bethany webber
20.09.2005 , 17:30

Hi - you forgot to mention the ice-creams. They are incredibly cheap. My favourite is the 'corn' ice cream for around 2 yuan.
13.01.2006 , 11:41

my favourite is rice noodle,very delicious
07.05.2006 , 10:35

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