Harbin, Heilongjiang Province
In this narrow alley barely wide enough for one car to pass through, a decades-old barbecue joint still stands strong.
Old Granny’s Grill
This is Mr Fang, who’s been grilling for over thirty years.
He now has another much bigger joint at a better location and several trainees under him.
Only the very oldest and most loyal customers can still enjoy barbecue grilled personally by Mr Fang.
Some came here on their wedding day before going to reception.
Some have been coming here for 20 years.
What’s the house specialty then?
香筋, 亮筋,板筋,窝骨筋,酱油筋, 熟筋 “flavourful” beef tendon, “bright” beef tendon, “flat” beef tendon, “bone” beef tendon, “soy sauce” beef tendon, “cooked” beef tendon . . . What are these? I don’t know either. Only Mr Fang and his fan base do. I guess you have to actually be there to see and taste it for yourself.
And that’s just from the cow.
Then there’re other poultry and vegetables.
Mr Fang refuses to say which one is the house specialty, but his personal favourite is 肥翅.
“Fat wings” are not chicken wings. It refers to a strip of meat below the ribs of a cow. Has a bit of fat and tendon.
This is what it looks like.
I guess it’s between the rib and the plate cuts.
Only about 10 kg of “fat wings” are sold each day.
The small amount of fat contained in the meat is not too much to cause a grill flare-up or make you sick, just enough to add a juicy taste to the rest of the lean meat. The tendon makes it chewy without being too taxing on your teeth like a skewer of pure tendon.
Fang has also a unique invention.
The first challenge comes from skewering raw eggs. How to poke an iron skewer through the eggshell, without breaking it apart or spilling the liquid egg yolk inside, is a skill that’s hard to learn just by watching.
Even Mrs Fang finds it hard. The result of her practice is dozens of eggs they have to eat.
Mr Fang says you have to approach the eggshell with the skewer tipped at an angle, and turn as you push it through the shell, like how a drill bit works.
With such weird and innovative and tasty dishes not found elsewhere, entire cases of beer are gone before you realise it.
Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province
The city is known for its soup buns and other steamed buns and fried rice.
The main clientele at Mr Shang’s barbecue stand used to be students from the Yangzhou Middle School, who descended on him in droves as soon as the bell rang.
Even teachers couldn’t resist. Students may well find the teacher who’d just given them an earful about eating at unsanitary roadside stalls an hour ago gorging themselves on barbecued mutton in Mr Shang’s joint.
The specialty here is 肥大串, “big fat skewers” of pork. It’s taken from just below the pork belly.
For the perennially hungry teenage students, skewers of grilled pork belly are a much preferred source of energy, worth getting chewed out by parents and teachers later.
It should be a crime to set up a barbecue stand within a 100-metre radius of a school. When the wind carries the smell of cumin, fennel seeds, star anise, sizzling pork, and mutton to the campus and to the classrooms, no student could concentrate on the words of the teacher.
Students return to the joint long after they’ve graduated.
Barbecue joints like this are not necessarily the ones with the tastiest food or the highest ratings on Yelp, but they are the ones that people keep coming back to.
To be continued . . .
Some of my best childhood memories are related to barbecue. Here’s one of them.
Back in primary school, I had a friend whose grandpa ran a barbecue stand. He sold not just barbecued mutton sticks, but also sausage and pickles wrapped in fried omelette, deep-fried potato wedges, and sugar paintings (malt sugar made into the shape of dragons, pigs, and clouds).
So, one day in second grade, instead of heading home after school, I followed her back to her grandpa’s barbecue stand, uninvited, and stayed there until 8 pm. Her grandpa treated me to everything he had, probably thought I’d run away from home.
When my parents finally found me and dragged me home, I was like this:
How to carry on a love affair with food when you were a 8-year-old kid with limited pocket money? Well, I offered to tutor the friend on homework, in exchange for her bringing me at least two barbecue sticks every day.