Open barbecue stalls were a ubiquitous nocturnal phenomenon on the streets of Chongqing, until the stricter regulation of recent years forced them indoors, outside the city, or out of business.
That’s for the most part, yet not entirely.
One survival technique is simply going under the radar, where stall owners relocate to out-of-sight clandestine pockets, well away from the prying eyes of authority.
The contrary solution has been to operate in broad daylight, but with increased mobility in the form of tighter kitchen units on wheels. At least this way, they can split at the first sign of potential grife.
My elder daughter’s school is a prime example.
Each late midweek afternoon, out of sight from the main gate, a handful of stall owners set up to meet the after school rush of hungry students, selling them a range of tasty snacks, such as cooked pancakes (手抓饼Shou-zhua-bing), cool noodles (凉面Liang-mian) and glutinous rice balls dipped in red sugar powder.
Since the whole operation became so efficient, school teachers began to admonish pupils against buying from them, under the threat of detention should any fellow students acting as spies catch them red handed.
Whether it be going underground or overtly mobile, it’s officials from the Urban Management and Law Enforcement Agency known as ‘Chengguan城管‘ with whom they are keen to avoid any run-ins.
In tandem with Chongqing landing on the international scene for business and tourism, such regulation has contributed greatly to public order and cleanliness. However, I have watched the disappearance of street barbecue with heavy heart, as many truly were delicious, fun and economical.
The matter wasn’t solely the lack of a business license.
Air quality was another motivation for transferring the barbecue stall into modern indoor premises with extractor fans, as when they cooked outside with charcoal grills, the oils could often generate a haze that enveloped the immediate neighbourhood.
Public health also featured on the list of concerns.
I recall just two occasions where I suffered an upset stomach from suspicious hygiene practices. Interestingly, the main source of contamination isn’t usually the food itself, but the latter stage where everything is stirred together in a mixing bowl with a range of sauces and condiments, then served up on a larger platter.
Another issue I find grimly amusing are the disinfected cutlery some places hand you. Sometimes, you pay one yuan each for a set of ceramic bowls, dishes, spoon and glass tumbler, all wrapped up tightly in a transparent plastic seal.
It works like this.
Since many stalls and restaurants stay open until the early hours, they don’t have time or energy for washing up. At the end of the night, they place all the used cutlery into crates and leave them outside, so that a third party may take care of the collection, washing, disinfection, and re-packaging, before finally returning them in time for the next night’s patronage.
The only problem arises whilst the crates await collection. Unless they are securely covered up, members of the local wildlife, such as stray dogs, love nothing more than to eat out the leftovers once the front is quiet. I first learnt about this from a report on the local 360 television news station.
So, for better or worse, the days of street barbecue on every corner has been consigned to history, in the main city of Chongqing, at least.
The final major change I have noticed are in the faces of stall owners.
Over a decade ago, there were many Xinjiang migrants in the city who sold lamb skewers over small charcoal fired barbecues, and they were quite a familiar sight in daily life.
They were always immediately recognisable for their turkic appearance, moustache, traditional attire, and heavily accented Mandarin.
However, for reasons I’m not entirely certain of, they are only noticeable in Chongqing today through their complete absence, and in all walks of life.
Funnily, whenever a local discovers I speak Chinese quite decently, they first guess I’m from Russia, failing which the second is usually Xinjiang, even though I bear very little ressemblance. Many really do think highly of the westerner who learns Chinese well.
Trials and Tribulations Only
In the future, I will cover the delicacy of Chinese style barbecue, but my focus of my blog post today is more on developments I have witnessed over the years.
For those of you interested in seeing Chongqing barbecue, I will leave you with a clip from iChongqing, where Vivi hosts a barbecue dinner with Patrick, a frequent guest on the channel, a Croatian friend, and Ben, an American who moved to Chongqing in 1994, speaks great local dialect, and runs his own popular bar chain called ‘Ben’s Bar.’
Enjoy watching them tuck in the delights of pig’s brain and throat!