I love a man who cooks for me. And if he cooks over a raging heat, outdoors, on a hot day, using skill, muscles, and professional technique, my appreciation skyrockets.
Enter Chinese street food vendor – located on a dusty roadside in Shun Yi, Beijing.
We pulled over our bicycles when we spotted him: the one-dish wonder. Smoky wok-tossed noodles were the extent of his roadside culinary repertoire. But they were outstanding noodles. And his skills on the wok were superb.
A number of locals queued ahead of us, so we watched the noodle man’s performance several times. He had it down to a three-minute fine art.
When the blackened wok was smoking he added a slug of oil followed by beaten egg, which formed a skin-thin omelet within seconds. Dried chilli was added if the customer acquiesced.
With his hand inside a plastic bag (who said hygiene suffers when food is cooked kerb-side?) the noodle maestro threw in mixed vegetables, including shredded cabbage, other greens, carrots, bean sprouts, and noodles.
Two large metal spatulas were his tools to mix the sizzling pan-load together. Then he threw in generous handfuls of shredded chicken and gave it all a good licking with what looked like oyster sauce.
The wok master carefully transferred the heaving pan to one hand and flicked the ingredients about eight times in quick succession. He tossed the wok as if it was weightless, though the pile of ingredients and size of the wok suggested otherwise. A slug of soy sauce was added and he effortlessly tossed the ingredients another six or seven times.
Three spoonfuls of an unidentified white powder were added (MSG? chicken powder?), and the wok was given a final few expert flicks. A fried egg on top was optional.
The food vendor’s face was smeared with sweat, a shroud of smoke hung thick around him, and the cauldron-hot contents of the wok spluttered and spat. He repeated his culinary act flawlessly numerous times.
The noodles were poured into plastic cartons. Each carton went into a plastic bag with a pair of flimsy, disposable chopsticks. Customers stepped forward to stake their claim. Locals sat around on their haunches, devouring their midday feast. We sat on a bench across the street. For quite some time the mound of smoky hot noodles didn’t appear to get any smaller. We dubbed them the never-ending noodles.
It was a no frills, no fuss operation. We were charged ex-pat prices – 15 Yuan (around $2.30) per serve – but there were no complaints from us.