What do you do when you’re a penniless munchies-ridden person with a fridge that’s as empty as it is cold?
If you aren’t starving, you wait till about 10.
If you are, you can go out hunting earlier, but be sure to check out dark corners and narrow alleyways, because that’s where your prey will be hiding for the time being.
If you glimpse a tiny cart with a canopy, giving out huge puffs of steam, and catch a whiff of frying oil in the evening air, you’re on the right track. This is what you’re looking for:
The street stands, which provide dinners and late-night snacks for probably most of the population of this city. Every stand has a few gas stoves, pre-prepared food (eg. cooked noodles and rice, sliced vegetables and meat, etc., etc., a huge jar of MSG – always! – and an equally huge jar of dried chilli flakes – if they’re from Sichuan. One may hope the food has been washed, but it doesn’t really matter, since they’ll put it in the pan with their naked, money-handling-and-ear-digging fingers anyway), one or two huge woks, bagfuls of take-away bowls and a plethora of vats containing legs, breasts, necks and other parts of some hapless ducks and chickens, all braised in a delicious red, slightly hot sauce.
The menu is the same all over the city*: fried goodies of your choice – eggs, bamboo sprouts, spring onions, etc. (= the veggie option – for just 6 RMB!) and meat (pork/chicken), plus staples – thin rice noodles, tape rice noodles, regular noodles or rice. Usually the noodle stands pair up with the shaokao stands, which provide various skewered comestibles. These may include parts of animals, different kinds of mushrooms, slices of eggplant, cauliflower and others. I’m not a huge fan of food on sticks (somehow doesn’t feel like a real meal if you can’t put it on a plate and contemplate it during the consumption process), so I don’t have any pictures, but I promise I’ll take some one day.
Now back to the beginning. Why does it have to be 10 pm and who are they hiding from before that hour? The reason is simple. Because of its renowned street food Hangzhou was selected one of the 5 best cities to eat in China. Therefore, very logically, the authorities banned the stands. I’m sure there are many wise reasons, like affecting real restaurants, giving a bad impression to the tourists and whatnot, but the result is that before 10 pm those poor people, who work sometimes as late as 4 am, have to skulk around the corners to avoid the pestering chengguan (the guard) and us hungry city dwellers have to wait with rumbling stomachs till way past our usual supper time.
To finish, a short yet sweet conversation with two guys from a street stand, which took place last night:
(Me: ordering food, Them: making sure they understood, expressing the usual surprise – wow, you speak Chinese! – Me: trying to come up with yet another variation on what is basically a yes, blah blah blah, until finally…)
Them: So you live around here, yes?
Them: We had another foreigner here a few days ago. A man.
Them: He ordered two portions. Was he your husband?
* Oh, the sweet night markets of Taipei with your delightful variety!