Excited as a small child I flew into Shanghai last week on a whirlwind five day visit for the Shanghai International Literary Festival, and of course squeezed in a great deal of street food during my stay – starting with xiaolongbao, and fried radish cakes topped with chili sauce, and ending with these crispy, spicy fried chicken strips.
I was invited to moderate a Literary Lunch session at this year’s festival with author Audra Ang and her recently released book To The People Food Is Heaven, a memoir of her years as an Associated Press journalist in China covering major stories like the Sichuan earthquake, the outbreak of SARS and the plight of pro-democracy dissidents, while connecting with the people she met through memorable shared meals.
The invitation came at a perfect moment, lifting me out of a dreadful bout of homesickness (for China) and an increasing and confusing sense of ‘What am I doing here?’ (in Australia). By going back to Shanghai for a visit I could avoid thinking about that question for a while longer and just enjoy good food and the company of friends without a head filled with the complications and daily grind of getting our lives in order after moving houses, countries, schools and jobs.
It was a great honour to participate in the festival and meet the author whose book I had enjoyed reading so much. As it turns out, Audra and I are equally passionate about food in general and about street food in particular, and following the Literary Lunch (where seventy of us listened to Audra read from her book and I asked her questions about it) we led a street food tour for a group of twelve hungry and adventurous festival attendees.
In preparation, as soon as Audra touched down from the USA we headed straight to Sipailou Lu for an afternoon of ‘research’ for our tour the following day. I’ve done so much research on street food I truly think they’re going to give me a professorship quite soon.
This Sichuan salt and pepper fried chicken was one of the first foods we ‘researched’ and hell it was good.
I confess I rarely eat chicken on the street because it breaks one of my Dr Fiona Street Food Safety Rules. These rules are entirely in my head, mind you, and I’ll be writing about them in an upcoming post, but they’re all about getting the maximum enjoyment from street foods, with minimum risk. Chicken is often too close to the risky side for my liking, but as I smelled the tantalising smell and saw the crisp golden pieces, my resolve collapsed. What are rules for if not to break now and again?
The tiny open air stall on Guangqi Lu was nothing more than a table filled with ingredients, a gas-powered wok, and a sign that detailed all the possible permutations of fried chicken you could order – chicken strips, legs or wings, all with Sichuan pepper and salt. There was a naked light bulb on a wire so cooking could continue after dark, and the husband and wife team manning the stall had the division of labour completely sorted – he cooked, she took the orders and the money.
The smells coming from the fried chicken were intoxicating, and there was already a long queue of locals eager for a plate of the crispy spicy chicken strips.
Most customers ordered the jiaoyan pai tiao 椒盐排条 – Sichuan pepper and salt chicken sticks. Strips of boneless chicken were crumbed, and thrown into a wok of boiling oil where they sizzled, crisped and browned. While they cooked, the flavoursome salt and pepper mixture was cooked in a second wok – finely sliced scallions and red onion, chopped garlic, and dried chilli flakes were thrown in by the handful and fried up with ground Sichuan pepper and salt.
The seasoned aroma made all of us impatient for our turn. The fried chicken, drained of oil, was now tossed with this salty, spicy, garlicky mixture to coat it with plenty of flavour, and handed to us in a bowl with toothpicks to daintily pick up the pieces.
The next day we took our crowd of hungry food-lovers along the same street and fed them spicy fried chicken, dumplings, stinky tofu, three delicacies rice, wonton soup, sweet treats and freshly peeled pineapple wedges. They were an incredibly adventurous group of women, trying everything on offer – we had a ball eating our way through two long streets over several hours, with Audra and I explaining each food they tried. No better way to spend a day really!