My first Chinese road trip occurred during my first trip to China back in 2009. Stephen’s family drove us to Chengdu so I could achieve my panda dream. This was also my first experience with Chinese road trip snacks. When we got in the car, Stephen’s cousin passed us a bag of snacks, which consisted entirely of fruit — mini bananas, pears, lychee and mangosteen. Some of my favorite fruit, but not the easiest to eat in the car. Growing up, my dad always took pride in our cars. It was the greatest compliment when my friends would get in and tell him our years-old van still looked and smelled brand new. Fresh lychee is not readily available in the U.S., but if it were, we would never be allowed to take it in the car. I can hear my dad’s voice now — “It’s sticky and you’ll get shells and seeds all over!” But that, in a nutshell, seems to be the requirement for Chinese road trip snacks: sticky, shells and seeds.
This month we were in China briefly for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony and reception were held at a resort in a quiet mountain town about 3 hours outside of Shanghai, so the bride and groom kindly rented a big bus to take all their out-of-town guests there. I was prepared to “hold it” the whole way — it was a previous Chinese road trip that enabled me to set my 7 hours “hold it” record (I do not recommend this). I have taken many Chinese road trips, but since I assumed there’d be nothing but squatters, I have never been inside a Chinese rest stop. Until now.
I was pleased to find one handicap sit-down toilet in a sea of squatters (did I set that 7-hour record for nothing?!). While I was in the loo, Stephen hit up the fruit stall — that’s what they have at Chinese rest stops, fruit stalls. When I emerged, he greeted me with a bag of bananas and lotus pods. Members of our group gathered round as I broke the pod open and popped a seed into my mouth.
“Oh god, this is horrible!” I said through muffled attempts to spit it out. Turns out you’re supposed to remove the bitter green shell before you eat it. If you do that the seeds are actually tasty.
Just then the bride came over and handed me what I thought was a souvenir relic from the Ming dynasty.
“Try it,” she said. “It’s good, it tastes like a potato.”
It was indeed good and potato-like, but I had no idea what it was. I meant to google “Chinese fruit or vegetable that looks like Satan’s mustache” when I got home, but I didn’t need to. An image of one happened to pop up on Reddit the other day. Turns out it’s a water caltrop, a type of water chestnut — those crunchy bits you see in tins or at the stir fry bar. Who knew they had such ominous exteriors.
Stephen returned to our little group with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts (cue The Christmas Song). I’m not sure I’ve ever had freshly roasted chestnuts, but they were delicious, and in true Chinese road trip food form, difficult to open and sticky. At least the stall gave us an extra bag to put the shells.
Once back on the bus, everyone shared some of their treasures. One guy went down the aisle passing out sweet potatoes — piping hot, gooey, delicious whole sweet potatoes.
“Why did you buy a whole bag of sweet potatoes?” I asked him.
“Because sweet potatoes are awesome!” he replied. Touche.
So if you’re keeping tally, my Chinese rest stop road trip snacks consisted of a banana, lotus seeds, chestnuts, water chestnuts and a sweet potato.
When we couldn’t possibly eat another chestnut, we passed the bag through the bus, while other snacks came to us. I passed on the bag of dried squid, but grabbed a handful of the next thing that came by.
“Ooo, are these prawn crisps?” I asked.
“Did you just say prawn crisps?” the guy across from me asked, faking an English accent. “They’re obviously shrimp chips!”
My accent might say “American,” but apparently I’ve become more British than I thought.
On our way back to Shanghai 2 days later our bus stopped at the same rest stop. It was around 7pm, so instead of just snacks, we needed to eat something more substantial and dinner-like.
“So tell us, what can we eat here that won’t give us diarrhea?” one of the American guys whispered to Stephen. His advice was to get something hot and cooked, preferably not with meat. There were stalls selling rice balls filled with pork and salty egg, all kinds of tofu, ice cream, corn on the cob, and crepe-like sandwiches. We settled on the crepe-like thing filled with egg, spam and ketchup. It was surprisingly delicious despite how I described it, and we didn’t get sick from it either. On the way out we popped into the only store somewhat reminiscent of an American rest stop filled with packaged snacks like chips and candy. A bag of honey-flavored potato chips caught my eye because I remembered reading an article about Korean honey chip hysteria. I was so excited to try them. They were just OK — better if you thought of them as really thin biscuits/cookies instead of potato chips since they were so sweet. I later realized the popular chips are “honey butter” flavored, not just honey, so I probably bought some cheap rip off Korean chip. I guess I’ll have to go to Korea someday to try the real thing.
Though Chinese road trip snacks are some of the most inconvenient things to eat with their sticky shells, seeds and skins, they are also some of the healthiest. While I don’t see sweet potatoes, lotus and chestnuts coming to an American Flying J truck stop soon, it would be nice to have some options besides McDonalds, chips and candy on my next Megabus ride.
For more in my China Impressions series, click here.