油条: The Simplicity of Oil and Dough

Golden youtiao in a bicycle basket.

I have always been impressed with the charm of the Chinese youtiao (油条).

I find poetry in the simplicity of taking a strip of dough, plopping it in a wok of hot oil and frying it to a golden brown. No spices, no salt, no sugar. No fuss. Just hot oil and dough doing their thing.

Youtiao are quick, easy and utilitarian. They are made of the most basic ingredients, can be effortlessly produced by the dozens, and quickly snatched up by customers on the way to work. They are best served hot, but can be frozen, sold in bunches, or individually savored by dunking in soymilk. They keep well, but if they are overdone or get too old you can pop them in a hot pot.

Whenever I buy a big youtiao for about twenty cents, I just feel like I am getting a large serving of something for very little…er…dough.

While each youtiao has roughly a similar shape, each has its own unique character—its surface shaped by the unique cooking pattern created as it rotated and expanded in a bubbling cauldron of hot oil.

Perhaps best of all, I love youtiao because their fundamental simplicity defies the elaborations of the market economy. Capitalist markets abhor simplicity and seek profit through elaboration and efficiency. One cannot, however, brand a youtiao or elaborate on it. Add something to a youtiao and you only detract from its youtiaoness. They are proletarian. They are everyday. Even when they are mass produced they become something else—entirely different from the hot, crispy and chewy texture one enjoys in a youtiao fresh from the hot wok of a roadside stall.

I have seen and heard folks who have been tempted to translate youtiao conceptually into “Chinese doughnut” or literally into “oilstick.”  To me this is an absurd notion that does too much damage to the intrinsic nature and subtile beauty of a youtiao.  Good translations should retain at least some associations to the original object that these attempts do not.

While it is true that doughnuts share some formal similarities in their production process, a “doughnut” is fundamentally sweet and complicated by frostings, fillings and flavors. A chocolate doughnut is an entirely different thing from a creme-filled one. By contrast a youtiao is always a youtiao. If, God forbid, someone were to frost one or fill one with creme—it would no longer be a youtiao. It would be an abomination.

Similarly, an “oilstick” sounds disgusting. It sounds like something one would find soaking in a bucket solvent at the back of a car repair shop. It sounds like the response you would give someone at a gas station when they ask if you would like anything else. “Yes, would you please open the hood of my car and check my youtiao I think I’m running a little low.” Yuck.

Nope. I think that a youtiao is entirely an untranslatable thing unto itself. It exists as the unique and sublime creation of Chinese origin. As such, I think we should respect it by using its Chinese name. We don’t translate lutefisk, sauerkraut or sushi, why would we try to stuff the many meanings of 油条 into an inadequate and inappropriate English word.

“Youtiao”

Repeat it in hushed, reverent tones over and over again while watching this video clip that I shot in Shanghai. Yum.

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