Shanghai street foods don’t get much better than these crispy, oily fried white radish cakes – Yóu Dūn Zì (油墩子). Take a bite through the crunchy outside, and steam escapes from the soft radish and batter mixture inside, studded with tiny pieces of green scallion. The sauces, a salty chili paste, and a sweeter bean paste, transform a radish fritter into something quite sublime.
As for the meaning of yóu dūn zì, it translates either as oily clusters, or oily (wood or stone) blocks. A cài dūn zì is a round chopping block, so the shape and colour of the fritters probably gives rise to the name.
Like most street foods, they’re pretty simple to make as long as you have the right ingredients and equipment. Here, the essential item is a deep, long handled spoon, with the end shaped like a patty tin. A simple flour and water batter goes in first, followed by a big spoonful of shredded white radish mixed with chopped scallions, coriander and some salt, and then topped up with enough batter to fill the spoon to the brim.
Then the whole spoon is lowered carefully into bubbling hot oil and left until the radish cake rises from the spoon and is released.
Once it’s nicely browned on both sides it’s placed on the drip rack above the wok to cool for a moment (along with some other fried snacks) and then has a hole poked unceremoniously in its top with the blunt end of a chopstick. Into this go the magic extras – salted chili sauce for saltiness and bite, and bean paste for sweetness and depth. Aaah.
(I’m having happy memories of the day I ate these in one of Shanghai’s back lanes. They were very good, and by the time I’d finished my second the gathered crowd (only about twenty people) knew that: a) I was Australian, b) I lived in Shanghai and c) I really, really liked Shanghai street food. This last, in particular, seemed to be a connection they could really grasp.)
Street food! Get your street food!
The Shanghai Street Food Series
Number 3 Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4 Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5 Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6 Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7 Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 14 Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers