One of the most endearing things about being in Asia is the variety and abundance of street food. The gutsiness, the authenticity, the honesty. Wafts of smoke and cooking smells make the crowds linger and assemble in alleys, carparks, markets, main streets and bus stations: a real sociable place to eat, catch up and get your fill on true food at affordable prices.
Fine dining with its pomp and ceremony has its place, but what makes me appreciate a foreign destination is what I eat from its hard-working street food vendors. Yes, it comes with a slight gamble – ie: will I get sick? – but I have a rule – if it’s busy enough with people and the food looks good enough, I’m willing to give it a taste.
My recent work trip to Yiwu consisted of long days cooped up in massive buildings congested with people and products, but I had a little time in the morning and after work to take time out and relax, walk and explore.
Yiwu attracts so many Middle Eastern traders that one small area in the city has become an enclave of Arabic restaurants and bakeries. Sadly this was a little too far from our hotel so we never made it.
Another place I wanted to get to was the Istanbul Restaurant near Trade City, yet sadly all I saw of it was when we drove past in a car back to the hotel. There’s always next time.
My introduction to Uighur (or Uyghur) cuisine was in Yiwu. Turkic men can be found grilling spiced mutton skewers and baking flatbread throughout the city and the tell-tale sign of their whereabouts is the billowing plume of smoke from the char-grill they operate.
For a couple of RMB you can pick up a skewer of tender cumin-spiced mutton and a hot flat bread to help soak up the rich juices. At first I thought these guys were Middle Eastern, but I soon learnt they originate from west and northwest China.
On one of the evenings after finshing work Miss B and I walked around with our cameras, exploring and stumbling across beautiful gardens tucked down side streets where locals would meander and relax beneath blooming cherry trees and weeping willows. Such a relaxing place away from the traffic and noise of the congested streets.
One place we discovered in our wanderings was this baker churning out perfectly made nang (flat breads) from a makeshift metal barrel oven similar to a tandoor. He’d roll and flatten the dough, shape a hollow into the top and quickly slap it onto the inside of the oven to cook. A minute later it was thrown onto the display table ready for us to eat. One disc of nang RMB1. What a bargain.
On a few of the mornings before starting work I’d take a stroll through Xiaozici Park near the Ramada Plaza, where we stayed, and watch groups of women dancing to traditional music while snapping open colourful fans in unison. Beautiful to watch.
In a carpark across the road from Trade City I found a food vendor knocking up some delicious-looking fried egg buns. What he did was break an egg into an oiled and heated mould, season it with a few bits and pieces and then flip it over gently. Once turned, he carefully ladled a little batter in with the egg and let it cook before sprinkling chopped spring onions over and turning them out to be bought.
Nearby I did a double take when I spotted sausages twirling in a small cabinet, thinking I was in a 7-Eleven in some western country. Had they been cooked I would have tried one.
Sadly, Yiwu isn’t immune to American fast food, so I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed to see these two places not too far from my hotel. I thought the delivery bikes for KFC were pretty amusing, though.
On another evening I wandered down Chengzhong Road Nth near the hotel. It’s full of motorbike workshops, literally side-by-side and tucked inbetween is a kitchen the width of a doorway cooking up local delicacies. The goose head & chilli soup caught my attention, but not my tastebuds. No, I didn’t try it as it really isn’t my kind of thing. Honestly, what is there to a goose head other than a bit of skin on the skull and a tiny amount of brain?
I found another Uighur grill near Trade City grilling large pieces of mutton over coals. If I had the time I would have hung around and sampled some of it. I’m not one for being rushed, but I guess I was working, right?
It wasn’t all about meat and bread. Here and there we came across such places as this one selling dried fruits and nuts. And of course sticks of peeled sugarcane ready for chewing and spitting out the fibres.
The city of Yiwu is far from being a holiday destination and isn’t marketed to be that way. This town is purely business and I look forward to getting back there in a couple of years.