1. Fenghuang, Hunan: Candied ginger
Fenghuang is known for its ginger crafting. That much is clear with a simple Google. However, further information about what type of ginger is hard to come by. Pickled? Candied? Sugared?
The shops along the obviously-tweaked-to-look-ancient-but-still-striking streets of Fenghuang sold white sticks that looked like bleached bark. This might have been ginger. We walked past a man in practically medical garb working a taffy machine like a jumprope, twirling it and lassoing the air gracefully.
This may have been ginger, too. Who knows?
What I eventually bought was a baggie of crystallized ginger from shop tucked way off the main road, just because that was the image in my head of how ginger ought to be consumed. It looked just like the kind you get at Trader Joe's: soft, chewy, and sugared - except that instead of big crystals of sugar, it was powdered sugar. And also, there was the small matter of it tasting so fresh and dewy and spicy that I may have gathered a handful straight from a passing fluffy ginger cloud.
My fatal error was buying only one bag, thinking it would last me the rest of my trip (about 6 weeks at that point). It lasted me three days: just long enough that I was on the train to Kunming by then, regretting my decision strongly.
Ruili had something similar, imported from Malaysia, and so did Vietnam, in gigantic plastic bulk containers at the market, but nothing ever quite reached the magic of Fenghuang's.
The dominant sweet in Weishan, The Friendliest City in China, was a jiggly white Jello-like cake lump that inexplicably, when cut into, formed a jagged, baklava-like square, as though phyllo dough were hidden in the midst.
It tasted like paper and soy. I wished it were interesting. It was offered as a sample by a pair of friendly (of course) sisters under a cardboard awning.
The rarer sweet carts only came out in the morning, disappearing entirely by about 10am. From one of these epheremal vendors came something wholly un-Chinese, so utterly random as to almost seem unreal.
This square of cornbread, stuffed with a sweet brown fig filling, would have seemed more at home somewhere in the Mediterranean. We were soon to see figs in Dali, in the same province, but they were plump, green, and looked almost like apples. This filling looked like it came straight from a Black Mission.
It was a welcome respite from the bracingly sweet red bean cakes that popped up in every Yunnan bakery we would pass for the next 3 weeks. Too bad respites work better when they come after the routine, not before.
3. Ruili, Yunnan: Shandong squid skewers
Yeah, that's a lot of place names.
I specify that this squid skewers originate from Shandong because the man who grilled them never stopped talking about his hometown. He insisted that his skewers were the best in Ruili because he grilled them the way he had learned to grill them all the way across the country - really all the way across, over 1850 miles away.
Here he is, grilling squid the Shandong way, arm-muffs and all:
I don't purport to be able to distinguish squid skewers by grilling style, but I do know that these were more than worth the wait in the tropical rain. He had the squid divided up into legs and bodies. I had chosen to try one leg skewer and one body skewer, but he insisted that I choose both legs, since they were 'better'.
He soaked his grill with oil, scraped it flat, placed the squid on, coated it with oil, pressed it hard with his metal press, then let all the juices that pressed out soak up the oil and spices left over from previous orders. Then, he scooped up the now-fried juices and poured them back over the squid, pressing them out again and repeating the process four or five times, adding garlic and powdered spices towards the end.
Again, I regretted only ordering two after I had returned to the dryness and coziness of my hotel room, and was disinclined to venture out and get more. We looked for him the next night, but as it goes in China, he'd moved on to a different corner and was never to be seen again.
What we initially thought were tortillas on a stick were thinly-sliced sheets of goat cheese, stuck in the fire until they blistered and crisped! (And they weren't on a stick, they were shoved ingeniously in the center of one split chopstick.)
That makes more sense than there being tortillas in China. Duh. Now, my thoughts on Dali cuisine are well-documented, but occasionally these tangy, pungent snacks would be well-made and when they were, they were otherworldly. They'd crunch and then melt, leaving a bite on your tongue not unlike Swiss cheese, but with a brown sugar aftertaste.