Zhujiajiao Water Town is a paradise for street food fanatics, with an unending variety of traditional Chinese snacks spilling out of the densely-packed storefronts.
We first came across these beans made with preserved orange peels. This is something I hadn’t seen before.
I was very familiar with the shanzha sweets. Shanzha, Chinese hawthorn/hawberry, is a slightly sour fruit that is a popular flavoring for candies and teas. The three tubs in the photo above all contain a type of shanzha candy. The flavor is similar for all shanzha confections, sweet and slightly tart like cranberry jelly, so the mouthfeel is the important thing. The tub on the left holds shanzha paste balls that have the texture of raw dough, the middle tub’s chunks most similar to cranberry jelly, and the right tub has tough, dense shanzha candy that takes effort to chew.
Behind the sample tubs are tubs of fresh haw fruits. These have a good flavor but are a pain to eat because each one has several pits.
Haw fruit is the main ingredient tanghulu, an iconic street snack from Northern China now available all over China. The fruit, pits and all, is coated in a crackly, crunchy sugar syrup that hardens into a shell around the fruit, resembling a candy apple. I would highly recommend buying some shanzha candy and eating a tanghulu because haw is such a unique and interesting flavor of China.
Another iconic sweet snack you’ll see on the streets in China is sugar syrup drizzled in various shapes and forms and presented on sticks. Caramel art.
Here we have a dragon, a horse, a fish, a tiger, a rabbit, a bird…the possibilities are only limited by the imagination of your sugar artist.
The best thing I picked up at Zhujiajiao were these gummy candies, called niu pi tang, literally cow skin candy, or leather candy. They are called leather candy because they are very chewy. They had an addictive ginger flavor, and are some of the most delicious candy I’ve ever eaten. I wish I had bought 10 bags!
Continuing the cow (niu) theme, we bought some niu she bing (cow tongue cookies). Don’t worry, they are not made of cow or tongue and are just delicious, buttery cookies. They are named cow tongue because of the elongated shape.
Other street food:
Lotus root cakes and stinky tofu, deep-friend on the spot.
Filled savory pastries. The sesame pancakes are baked in a traditional Chinese oven resembling an Indian tandoor – dough is slapped onto the sides of the oven for baking. The smaller round pastries are delicious flaky mouthfuls providing great hits of umami flavor. I think onion was in the brown filling, but I’ve never had them before coming to Zhujiajiao.
Preserved foods play an important role in the Chinese diet, providing alternatives to refrigeration along with flavor.
These bags of pickled vegetables are for flavoring rice porridge.
The dark brown stuff is sweetened, seasoned, and chewy tofu (kind of like certain types of beef jerky). I am a big fan of wuxiang dofu (five-spice tofu).
Quail eggs preserved in salt.
Some kind of Chinese barbecue.
The green things are lotus root pods. The seeds have a mild nuttiness and are soft yet firm, like boiled peanuts. The red things are rambutans and the purple things are figs.
Yummy green onion dumpling-shaped crackers that are great in any situation but would shine as bar snacks. In the picture above, there are more niu pi tang in the bottom left-hand corner. Under the tub of purple (sweet potato) crackers are mooncake-esque cakes of molded sweet mung bean paste. In the upper right-hand corner, mochi.
Sweet and powdery black sesame cake. Try it before you buy it.
More powdery sesame candy, cut into wafer-thin sheets by machine.
Chewy, bouncy, bready – steamed cakes of rice flour. These sweet cakes are similar to the Korean mujigae tteok.
I’ll end this post with a story every Chinese kid knows, about the green things in the picture below. The green things are lumps of sticky glutinous rice, usually wrapped around savory meat or sweet red bean paste, folded into leaves (traditionally bamboo). Sometimes they’re called sticky rice dumplings, but the real name is zongzi. Although zongzi are associated with the Dragon Boat Festival, Duanwu Jie, they are available year-round.
The story behind zongzi is a tragic one. The famous patriot and poet Qu Yuan, who lived during the violent Warring States period, tried to warn his king about the expansionism of a neighboring kingdom. He was not taken seriously and his country did not prepare adequately for invasion, so their capital was taken. Qu Yuan drowned himself in a river out of grief, and his countrymen prepared zongzi which they threw into the river so the fish would eat the rice and not Qu Yuan’s body.
This is a popular story because of its themes of duty and patriotism.
My next post will be about Zhujiajiao Water Town’s street scenes and architecture!