Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Youdunzi, you done me good!

I was late coming to Youdunzi, long a popular Shanghai street food, but I have an excuse. Youdunzi are usually made by the same street vendors (most often women) who make chou doufu (stinky tofu) and I find it hard to pass up another rendition of stinky tofu when I come across it. After repeatedly hearing Shanghainese (including my sister-in-law, Daisy) wax rhapsodic about youdunzi, I finally got into them near the end of my Shanghai stay in October, and regretted my tardiness in doing so.

A glance at the picture above is enought to tell you that youdunzi are tasty; after all, anything coming out of a deep fryer looking golden brown and crunchy like that have got to be tasty, right? But just what are youdunzi?

Youdunzi (油墩子), if you auto-translate it will come out as "oil block." "You" means oil, and often, as in this case, signifies deep fried, and "dun" means "block." But why "block"? I don't know, but some older Shanghainese pronounce it youdengzi and insist the name should be rendered "油凳子" where the "deng" character means "stool," as in the type of stool you sit on, and the food in question does resemble a shallow stool in shape. I'd tend to agree with that theory, except searching on "油凳子" doesn't yield many results, whereas "油墩子"does.

To make our deep fried "blocks" or "stools," a flour, water and egg batter is pressed into a special long-handled mold (shown in the picture on the right), and this "skin" is stuffed with a mixture of shredded luobo (daikon) and minced green onion, then covered with more batter and lowered into boiling oil. The process is illustrated in this photo tutorial (in Chinese). What emerges from the oil is a marvel of delicate crunchiness surrounding a tangy soft inner melange of savory daikon and green onion. Some versions add white pepper for additional spiciness, and some also add shreds of carrot. There are even recollections of sweet versions, in which red bean paste is used as the stuffing.

If you are averse to street food, you'd better hope you know someone whose grandmother makes youdunzi, because you are unlikely to come across these in restaurants.

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