As I was gnoshing on my gloriously fermented cabbage, perfectly peppered fries, and deliciously juicy BBQ, I wondered why there isn't a food truck culture in Shanghai? Surely this owner would have considered having a food truck here, and only chose to tether himself down with lease and permanent address out of necessity. While I don't know why this particular place has eschewed the open road, it occurred to me that China does indeed have a "food truck" culture. It's been under my nose the entire time I've been here, but in those manic first few months in Hangzhou three years ago (when I quickly hit my limit of how much "newness" my brain could process on a given day), I put China's food trucks in the mental file labeled "too exotic for now, will investigate later." Well, dear reader, now is finally "later." :) As we begin our fourth year in the Middle Kingdom, I increasingly have the mental capacity to engage in Chinese food truck culture.
So, what's a Chinese food truck like, you may ask? Good question. China's food trucks are much simpler, often dirtier, yet typically just as delicious as their Western counterparts. From what I can tell reading novels set in China decades earlier (with their occasional allusions to these mobile vendors), the Chinese had them long before they were popular back home.
Chinese food trucks are highly seasonal: during the summer, a passerby can delight in sliced watermelon, canteloupe-on-a-stick, and sesame cold noodles (a personal favorite!). Apparently China's mid-autumn festival, which occurred on September 8th this year, marks the change in seasons for the vendors. By September 9th, the cold noodle trucks disappeared, and were replaced with vendors roasting sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and chestnuts, as well as with carts of juicers making freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice. These food trucks, often run by immigrants from other parts of China who come to Shanghai for a better life, can be found all over the city.
The smell of roasted chestnuts is one of the first aromas I remember from Hangzhou when we moved there in September 2011, yet at the time I was too overwhelmed to attempt this new snack. Only last year, after a Chinese friend kindly explained them to me (as well as demonstrated how to eat them! :), did I actually try the nuts that I had merely sang about for years at Christmas. Yes indeed, dear reader, chestnuts roasting on an open fire are a delight of the olfactory and culinary senses :).
My current food truck favorite is pomegranate juice. For $1.50 a glass, I have the pleasure to watch the vendor cut the pomegranates, juice them through a strainer, and top off the cup with lid and straw for my drinking pleasure. Pomegranates are still a relatively new fruit to me, and I love the sweet and tangy combination of this popular crop in China. I also appreciate when someone else removes the hassle of the pomegranate's many seeds so that I can simply enjoy the juice :).
So, there you have it. Food trucks have been circulating in China's cities for years, and this foreigner is finally getting on the bandwagon (occasionally). While I suspect I'll always feel a little more comfortable with Western food trucks, I'm glad I can at last venture to partake in the delights of the Chinese ones, well. The prospect of driving the trucks, however, is another story--I suspect driving in any capacity in China will always remain in my "too exotic for now" mental box :).