The best thing since sliced bread.What is better? Why, baked bread, of course, what else? I'm not sure how different that is, since the only thing separating baked bread and sliced bread is that the former hasn't been attacked with a knife yet, which you'd think would be a good thing but apparently makes it much, much less desirable. (After all, you never hear anything referred to as the "best thing since baked bread!" Or at least you don't anymore, but I suppose at some point people did, although possibly not since the Egyptians were building the pyramids or something, so it's been a while.)
Anyway, I (surprise, surprise) digress. Why is baked bread important? Because it's featured prominently in the food craze that is currently sweeping Shanghai. I'm not sure what the Chinese name is--or rather, I was told, and since it's like seven or eight words long I can't remember it--but I like to call it "Chinese Pizza." (Apparently some Chinese people call it that as well--probably because it's easier than its current eight-word moniker, but that's just a guess.)
The bad news is that I'm not really sure what "Chinese Pizza" consists of, but the good news is that doesn't matter at all because it's two-syllable tasty: goo-ood! And it's not just me: lately it seems that everywhere I go, I see people walking by eating it, and the place by our house that sells it always has a big line out front. I'm not sure really sure where it came from either--why it just seemed to show up all of a sudden. However, for those of you who do care about such things I was told that one of the Chinese minority groups (possibly the Mongolians) are trying to claim it as "their" traditional food, although the person I talked to seemed to feel that wasn't true, that the pizza was just "made up," and that the minorities were only trying to take credit for it in order to enjoy a monopoly on the booming "Chinese Pizza" business. (In the same way that, for example, the big Muslim minority--the Uighurs from Xinjiang Province in the northwest corner of China--have a lock on the lucrative local "meat on a stick" market.)
But on to the pizza itself. As far as I can tell, it's a flat piece of bread topped with small pieces of fatty pork and seasoned with Sichuan pepper (AKA "Prickly Ash Pepper") and a bunch of other herbs and spices I can't identify. For those of you who have never experienced, Sichuan pepper, I can tell you that it is very, very odd (and now, apparently, available in the States for possibly the first time) and not hot at all, which you might expect: when consumed in small quantities, it creates a strange, tingling sensation in your mouth; when consumed in large quantities, it makes your entire mouth numb for five minutes or so. It also has a very distinctive, but very good smell, that I don't know how to describe, but it lets me identify the presence of a "Chinese Pizza" stand from about a block away. Seriously.
(Side note: the lack of Sichuan pepper in the US is one reason the Chinese food tastes very, very different--that's my diplomatic way of saying "not as good," which in turn is simply my diplomatic way of saying "like shit"--in the US. Especially Sichuan food. I know, I know: with a name like "Sichuan pepper," who would have ever guessed it was such a key ingredient?)
But back to the pizza: basically, you have a piece of round bread that is baked, covered with the aforementioned pork and spices, and then put in an oven so the pork fat melts and turns the top into a sticky mass of goodness without actually soaking into the bread itself. (At least, that's my take on how it's done, although as I am a terrible cook, I could be completely wrong.) In the end, it comes out of the oven looking something like this:
Or like this, which is from a different place and which I actually prefer due to its thicker crust. Whether or not that means this place "Chicago-Style Chinese Pizza," I haven't decided yet:
(Side note: Notice that both pizzas, although from different stands, came in almost the exact same bag. To me, that seems to lend credence to the idea that the pizza was "invented" by some company in Shanghai who is now selling the stuff to make it with to the little stands around town.)
Oh, and the best part? I mean, besides the amazingly good taste? One pizza only costs 2 RMB, which is about a quarter. Yes, sometimes life here is not so bad ...
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