Usually, if I see internal parts on a menu, they’re worth trying,” says Frank Kasell, who I’ve invited to discuss his first book, Chinese Street Food (Blacksmith Books), over a lunch of dan dan noodles, spicy beef with soft tofu, and stir-fried pork intestines at Szechuan Garden in Morrisville. I’ve never had that last dish, but since the guy wrote a book bearing the sub-title “A Field Guide for the Adventurous Diner,” I dig in. (It tastes like richer, chewier pork belly).

Kasell spent three months traveling by train across China, sampling and photographing more than three hundred street-food dishes, recording tasting notes and anecdotes, and cataloguing them according to province and city. And while several fall on the more adventurous end of the spectrum, such as Chengdu’s rabbit heads, or Changchun’s skewered deep-fried silkworm pupae, the book explores the gamut, including fried snacks, sweets, dumplings, noodles, soups, porridges, and more. Whether you’re an intrepid foodie or an armchair traveler, the catalog of dishes is a fascinating look at the diversity of Chinese street food and its cultural nuances. 

As often happens with discovering a new cuisine, all it takes is one bite to get you hooked.

“Biting into a yóu cí is like sinking your teeth into a greasy pillow of pure joy—not a brand-new fluffy feather pillow that is mostly just air, but a denser, worn-in one that has already conformed to the shape of your head,” Kasell writes in his book, describing the fried glutinous rice balls stuffed with tofu and scallions that he discovered while living in Jiujiang.

In 2006, after graduating from St. Norbert College with a philosophy degree, Kasell and his wife (then-girlfriend) Leslie, moved to Jiujiang, a town in the Southeastern province of Jiangxi, to teach English. During his year abroad, he ate street food regularly, locally and in other cities, gradually building an affinity for it.

“I liked the culture of street food and how it’s integrated into the city life in a way that it’s not [in the U.S.],” Kasell says. “When you’re walking down a city street in China, in most cases, it’s not storefronts with walls and windows and a door. [Vendors] have a gate that they close at night but it’s pretty much just open to the street. You’re walking past vendors all the time—there’s no barrier between you and them—and you see people eating often on the street.”

Kasell left China in 2007, harboring a “someday dream” of writing a guide to Chinese street food. He moved first to Virginia, then D.C. to work at a non-profit called the National Council for International Visitors (now called Global Ties). In September 2011, Kasell faced a now-or-never moment. He and Leslie had discussed starting a family, and sensing that his free time would soon be limited, he quit his job and prepared for a research trip to realize his dream.

In January 2012, with no outside funding, no publisher, and no prior writing experience, Kasell embarked on a three-month, fifty-three city tour of China, averaging four cities per week. To minimize expenses, he traveled almost exclusively by train and relied on for accommodations. This tactic also proved a great source of material—between his seatmates and hosts, Kasell discovered enough dishes to double the original length of the book, though he still ended up cutting forty dishes. It took two years to complete the manuscript while moving to Pittsboro in 2013, another year to find a publisher, and two more years until the book was released in December 2018 (on Amazon and on the publisher’s website; it’s also available at McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro).

Looking back, it’s no wonder it took two years to write. Even a category such as dumplings required consideration to capture all the regional variations and proper categorization. In Shanghai, for example, you’ll find xiăo lóng bāo, or soup dumplings, but an hour away, Kasell discovered a namesake version in Wúxī, which have a thicker skin and sweeter aftertaste. And in Yinchuan, a Muslim-dominant area of China, guàn tāng bāo are filled with mutton instead of pork.

In Guangzhou, Kasell sampled shāo mài, a steamed dumpling with a frilly, open top, that’s often associated with dim sum. It came as a surprise to discover that shumai’s birthplace is actually Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. The shumai look the same, but here they’re stuffed with mutton rather than shrimp or pork. In Tianjin, locals insisted he try bāo zi, or steamed buns. They’re found all over China (typically filled with pork) but ultimately, he filed them under Tianjin because the buns are so revered locally due to their precise recipe and preparation.

Many of the dishes can only be found in specific cities, including Kasell’s favorite, Chengdu’s tián shuĭ miàn, rough-hewn wheat noodles with spicy chili oil and a sprinkling of sugar, or Lanzhou’s rè dōng guŏ, warm pear in a sweet red-date-tangerine-peel broth, a dish so important to the city that there’s a bronze sculpture to commemorate it. But happily, there are several dishes from the book that you can seek out at local restaurants, no train fare required.

Eat the Book

Biáng Biáng Miàn These long, wide wheat-based noodles are often called belt noodles, and in Xi’an, they’re served in a chili-oil soup with either mutton or beef and chives. The noodles at Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets in Durham are a little chewier, but still served in similar ways, such as braised mutton with chili-cumin oil, or monkfish in a fermented tomato broth.

Dān Dān Miàn Dan Dan noodles, one of Chengdu’s most famous dishes, features thin, flat yellow noodles with minced pork and a málà sauce made with chili oil and Sichuanese peppercorns. At Szechuan Garden, the noodles are white and round but still boast the trademark tingly sauce.

Liáng Fĕn These slippery “noodles” made from jellified mung bean starch are served cold in a thin, salty broth with tofu and chili oil. It’s particularly popular in Northern China; Kasell tried it in Datong and can vouch for the rendition at Gourmet Kingdom in Carrboro. 

Shāo Mài Look for Cantonese shumai at dim sum restaurants. At Raleigh’s Brewery Bhavana, the steamed dumplings are filled with pork and snow pea tips. In Durham, they are filled with pork at Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, and with shrimp at East Coast Asian Bistro. 

Xiăo Lóng Bāo Also known as XLB dumplings, these soup dumplings are the pride of Shanghainese cuisine. To avoid spilling any broth, eat them in one bite or bite off the pointed peak and then sip. Look for crab-and-pork XLB at Brewery Bhavana and Shanghai Dumpling in Chapel Hill.

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