Cuisine de la Rue feeds the soul

2 years ago

Living on a school campus in China leads to experiences with street food. My first year of teaching there showed just how much initiative my students possessed. First, never stand between a college student and F-O-O-D.

The kitchens at the school managed to put on a quality product. Full of variety, flavors from all over China and a raucous atmosphere of students, chefs and cutlery.

One small problem was that if you were busy studying, exercising, sleeping or ill, then you would miss out on any food from the kitchens. Forget the midnight snack of noodles and broth. When the kitchen is closed it is closed, and the padlocks are on the door. Parents know the sound of the fridge opening. No such luck for many students. They cannot have fridges or microwaves in their dorm rooms.

Outside the gates to the school is a solution: street vendors, from all over and with all manner of cooking devices — charcoal grills tied to the rear rack of a motorcycle, pressurized vessels for puffed rice rotating on a spindle, woks sitting on a gas burner — and hundreds of different ingredients. My students could have just about anything, and in most instances the price of three or four yuan, about a dollar, one solid student meal could be had. A student meal is enough to feed a small basketball team.

Second problem faced by dedicated students was how to get the food. Solution one: walk out the gate and peruse the living menu. No food served until bought and paid for was the limit. A few of my students, wanting to earn a few extra yuan to offset their own costs, created a texting service that allowed their fellow students to text their orders into a central service and other students would carry the order to the vendor, pick up the finished hot dish, and deliver it, still steaming, to the ravenous customer. At the time it was cheaper to text than talk on the phone. The purity of capitalism and service would have pleased any Wall Street tycoon. There was money to be made all along the food chain. Regrettably, this service began to compete with the school kitchens and the authorities shut it down. Sad.

In spite of this and perhaps in support of their cause, we learned to shop for the best street food in the neighborhood. Bowls of noodles, vegetables, meats and rice, all available for a dollar or two. Fresh roasted chestnuts stirred in a pot of gravel for even heating. Noodles stir fried with all sorts of interesting tidbits. Learning who used good oil and who tried to get away with old oil. An aromatic delight that pleased the eyes and olfactory receptors. Watching as the chefs stirred, stirred, tossed, and served dish after dish in the evening light. What a gastronomical delight that is sorely missed.

Proposal: Central Aroostook’s Chamber of Commerce or some other business entity should sponsor a fast food contest for “Cuisine de la Rue.” With all of the cooking schools we can afford to give it a real showcase of student talents with what’s available. Given the temps outside, we have a shopping mall that often appears as a haunt of haints rather than a haunch of yum. The winner gets a professionally built food vehicle and startup money, maybe even a Pineland Farms hat. Run it until spring comes. Celebrate the ingenuity of the County cuisinieres.

Orpheus Allison is a photojournalist living in The County who graduated from UMPI and earned a master of liberal arts degree from the University of North Carolina. He began his journalism career at WAGM television, later working in many different areas of the US. After 20 years of television he changed careers and taught in China and Korea.