When you travel, how do you travel? Do you stay in hotels, or hostels? Do you eat at the finest restaurants, or at street-side stalls and markets? I must confess that, if I could afford it, a month at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris would suit me just fine. But another part of me understands that sometimes, you just cannot really get the feel of a city and its culture unless you get down on the street with the common folk. So when I traveled to Dali, Yunnan — a charming old town in the southwest of China — I knew I had to get a taste of some of the street food.
Chinese people tend to wake up very early, so breakfast is a big deal. Walking along the narrow, cobblestone streets and alleys of old Dali, past the imposing town gate, I listened to the sounds of a Chinese town waking up. The cries of babies, the splashes of washbasins, the chirping of birds, the grunts and moans of the old people as they conducted their morning calisthenics — these all created an atmosphere of really being there, in the moment.
I came upon a food tent on the side of the street. Under the tent, a woman was stirring a steaming pot, and the low benches scattered about were full of Chinese diners, eagerly eating little bowls of whatever was in the woman’s pot. I knew that I had found the right place. I walked up and looked into the pot. Seeing a yellowish custard, I asked her what it was. 稀豆粉, she told me. Xidoufen, a paste made of peas. She was also frying 油条, long, yeasty sticks of bread, vaguely reminiscent of the beignets of New Orleans. I ordered a bowl of the pea custard, and a couple of sticks of 油条. Noticing a condiment area, I topped it with what everyone else seemed to be using: ground chili peppers, fresh sprigs of cilantro (coriander), fresh chopped green onions, and some fresh bean sprouts.
Mixing it all together, I dipped a piece of the bread into it and tasted it. The smooth, creamy mouthfeel and the legume flavor of the custard added balance to the bright, soapy element of the cilantro, the piquancy of the chili peppers, and the tanginess of the green onions, while the warm, yeasty flavor of the bread acted as a luscious foundation. As I, the only foreigner there, sat at my low bench and enjoyed my local breakfast, I noted how similar the meal was to the town of Dali, and to China herself. It was a mixture of several disparate elements that represented vastly different flavors, textures, and mouth-feels. It was at once chaotic and uniform, plain and colorful, sweet and spicy, loud and gentle. Like China, it somehow managed to draw together elements from different worlds, and yet make them work in a strange sort of disarray. And at that moment, I knew that I was really tasting breakfast in Dali as it was meant to be.