It’s 5pm and already dusk in the warren of streets down behind the fabric market on Lujiabang Lu. Autumn is fading fast and soon winter’s short days and long cold nights will be creeping in. Ahead, in the darkening light, I can see an orange glow coming from a strange set-up on the pavement. There’s a crouched figure, surrounded by sacks of grain, and bags of what look like….like puffed rice breakfast cereal. He’s slowly rotating the strangest looking medieval cast-iron device over a naked flame, powered by a gas cylinder sitting next to his legs. Smoking a cigarette, he turns the handle of the black contraption, and I notice a pressure gauge near it’s neck. The needle is pointing to the red. The whole thing looks kind of dangerous.
Then, the explosion occurs. I’m not expecting it, so there is no photograph of the actual moment and I may or may not have slightly screamed, and/or flung my hands over my head to protect me from the shrapnel. He has directed the neck of the iron chamber into the mouth of a big wide rubber tub to his left, which empties into a sack. A lever is quickly pushed, and BANG! white puffed rice explodes spectacularly into the tub with a giant cloud of black smoke, puffing dramatically in size as soon as it leaves the pressurised confines of the iron chamber. Around us, the force of the explosion has set off car-alarms all down the street, but hungry buyers are already pushing forward to get a bag of the still hot puffed rice.
I only learn afterwards that the name of this street snack is bao mi hua – which translates poetically as ‘exploding rice flowers’. If I’d known that beforehand I might have stood a little further back… The rice is heated under pressure until it reaches the right point for puffing (that would be pressure gauge in the red), then the sudden release of super-high pressure causes the rice grains to explode into light white puffs. Just like popcorn really, but you can’t make this one at home. As well as puffed rice this vendor also puffs other grains, like millet. It is most commonly eaten as a snack on its own, or you can add hot water and eat it for breafast. 3 yuan a bag, two bags for 5 yuan.
In a nod to OHS, notice the flimsy piece of plywood protecting passing pedestrians and shiny black cars from exploding rice.
Catch up here on the other street foods you’ve missed!
Number 24 Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25 Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes