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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the youtiao (Chinese crullers)

By Corrine Cheung 27 June 2023

Header image courtesy of Popo le Chein (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong is known for its wide variety of traditional foods with interesting literal names, like siu mai (燒賣; siu1 maai2; “burning sale”) and wonton (雲吞; wan4 tan1; “cloud swallow”). Youtiao (油條; “oil stick”) is one such side dish that is known by various English names, such as Chinese cruller and fried breadstick, but the translation of its Cantonese name, 油炸鬼 (jau4 zaa3 gwai2), literally means “oil-fried devil.” Despite this slightly disturbing name, the origin of this crunchy snack is—perhaps unsurprisingly—a dramatic tale filled with treachery, betrayal, and humour. Read on to learn more about this tasty morsel.

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Photo: Popo le Chein (via Wikimedia Commons)

A tale of treachery and betrayal

Youtiao is believed to have originated in the Southern Song dynasty. At the time, general Yue Fei (岳飛)—a well-respected hero in Chinese culture for his military expertise who has become an icon of patriotism—launched a long war campaign to recover the former Northern Song territories after witnessing the loss to Jurchen invaders.

During the campaign, he was suddenly recalled to Hangzhou by the emperor following the advice of several corrupt officials, including the infamous Qin Kuai (秦檜). Being secretly jealous of the general, Qin and his wife wanted Yue dead and devised a plan for treason, which eventually led to Yue being stripped from his titles, imprisoned, and executed.

Once the news of his death reached the population together with the Qin couple’s involvement, the people were outraged and publicly condemned their actions, taking to the streets. One particular food vendor, Wang Xiao-er (王小二), heard of the news and was so filled with rage by what happened that he took some dough and moulded it into the shape of Qin and his wife joining hands and threw it into boiling oil, an act that represented what Wang and the public wished upon the couple as the dough was fried.

Photo: Morio (via Wikimedia Commons)

A stick-y situation

While Wang Xiao-er was frying the dough in oil to vent his frustrations at such injustice, he cried out, “Come look at the ‘yao zha kuai’ (油炸檜; literally “oil-fried Kuai”)!” He attracted passers-by and customers to try the dish, and it was quickly popularised throughout the country not only as a show of political injustice but also as a delicious dish.

Qin heard the commotion and was furious that he was being insulted with a piece of dough and accused the food vendor of sullying his name. Wang and other citizens quickly defended themselves saying it was written as “油炸燴” instead of ”檜”—with the same pronunciation as Qin’s name but a different character. Seeing how the crowd became more defiant, the official backed down and retreated to the palace.

Photo: G41rn8 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In Hangzhou, a Yue Fei temple was erected to honour the falsely accused general. Across his tomb are statues of Qin and his wife kneeling before his resting place, which people used to spit on to show their disdain for the couple. Now, there have been efforts to prevent this from happening due to modern sanitary regulations.

Over the years, the recipe of the youtiao has been simplified to two long pieces of dough conjoined together and the dish goes by a variety of names in depending on the region. Starting out as “油炸燴,” it has been simplified to youtiao (油條) in Mandarin and yao zha gwai (油炸鬼) in Cantonese, where the character “鬼“ (“ghost” or “devil”) rhymes with and sounds similar to the original character, itself a parody of Qin Kuai’s name, “燴.”

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Cultural variants of the youtiao

While the youtiao is commonly seen as a pair of long, golden brown, deep-fried wheat flour dough strips, a lot of variants exist throughout different Asian countries. For instance, in Hangzhou, there is a snack called “蔥包檜,” literally translated as “spring onion bread Kuai,” which is a fried biscuit roll mixed with youtiao and spring onion fried.

In the Guangdong province and Hong Kong, youtiao can be found served alongside a hearty traditional breakfast of congee, the humble rice porridge, or wrapped in a thin rice noodle roll to make zhaliang (炸兩; “fried double“), which is then doused in soy sauce, hoisin sauce, or sesame paste with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

In the Yunnan province, the erkuai (餌塊; nei6 faai3; “bait piece“) is a popular street food. Referencing the component in the character for “bait“ (餌), which is the character for “ear,“ this youtiao variant is an appropriately ear-shaped rice cake that is often served with stir-fried vegetables and can be dipped in either sweet or savoury sauce.

Photo: Alan Mak (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Shanghainese variant, cifantuan (粢飯糰; “sticky rice balls”), is also available in Hong Kong. This treat wraps a piece of youtiao with glutinous rice, pickled vegetables, and pork floss in a ball as a savoury treat and sometimes adds white or black sesame for a sweet flavour. Modern spins on this variant include using purple rice, tuna, kimchi, or cheese as fillings. Youtiao can even be stuffed into a roasted flatbread (燒餅; siu1 beng2) which can be made into a sandwich called “燒餅油條” (“roasted flatbread youtiao“).

Other dishes similar to youtiao include the tanggao (糖糕; “sugar cake“), which is a rounded, sweet fried treat originating from the Hebei province. Popular in Tianjin, mahua (麻花) is a twisted youtiao that looks similar to a Hayden’s Yum Yum. Dipped in peanut oil for a shiny, golden colour, this variant is most popular in Tianjin, with alternative versions found in Japan (索餅; sakubei), Korea (꽈배기; kkwabaegi), Philippines (shakoy or siyakoy), and Vietnam (called bánh quẩy thừng, amongst other names).

Photo: Gadium irggvbobjv (via Wikimedia Commons)

Going for gold

If you want to try this crunchy snack, youtiao is commonly available in Hong Kong congee shops where it can be ordered as a side dish. Across Mainland China and Taiwan, it is served in a breakfast combo with soy milk, though it can be eaten any time of the day. For extra flavour, dip it in various condiments, such as sweet or salty soy milk and soy sauce.

For a softer and less salty option, we suggest dipping your youtiao in congee, which transforms the fried treat into something that melts in your mouth when you take a bite. While zhaliang and cifantuan can be ordered in congee shops, they are often found in local Chinese seafood restaurants as dim sum dishes where you enjoy them with sauces.

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Curious, introverted, and dramatic, Corrine is passionate about all things theatre, music, literature, and the mythical. When she’s not busy writing the newest story, you will find her binge-watching the latest anime and shows on Netflix, reading the latest books or screlting musical songs in the shower.