Even the strictest of budget should allow for occasional splurges: a modest hotel room after a string of hostel bunks; a just-this-once late-night cab; a beer upgrade from P.B.R. to I.P.A. But some luxuries never enter the frugal equation. Take, for example, the restaurant tasting menu — those drawn-out dinners of 8 or 10 or 25 courses, exquisitely designed (and sometimes served) by the chef. Or so I’ve heard.
On my trip to South China this past winter, I finally found a tasting menu I could afford. It took some D.I.Y. initiative, but at a spot called Hubu Alley in Wuhan, I indulged in an eight-course meal that was a culinary tour of Hubei province. And all for just over $8. A dollar a course? No tax, no tip? Beat that, Le Bernardin.
Hubu Alley isn’t a restaurant – it’s a T-shaped pedestrian area on the east side of the Yangtze, famed for the breakfast dishes sold by dozens of vendors from street carts and stalls. And designing my tasting menu could not have been more straightforward: I simply watched what other people were eating and followed suit.
So here it is: The 8-Course Hubu Alley Breakfast Tasting Menu.
Course 1: Cai lin ji (4 renminbi) – These “hot dry noodles” are the local breakfast standard, the bacon and eggs (or bagel and cream cheese) of Wuhan, and the original reason I came to the alley. My preboiled noodles were flash-dunked in hot water, then mixed with sesame paste, scallions, soy sauce and a few other dashes of vegetables and liquids I couldn’t identify. They were hearty, fresh and not too spicy. I could see why millions of Wuhan residents start their day with them.
Course 2: Dou pi (5 renminbi) – The No. 2 must-try breakfast in Wuhan is sticky rice mixed with other ingredients: vegetables and beans, in this case, wrapped in sheets of bean curd, then pan-fried until golden. The bean curd was tasty, but I discarded most of the rest; I’m just not Chinese enough to have both noodles and rice for breakfast.
Course 3: Xizang qingke bing (3.5 renminbi) – It was here, watching a man pull hot round flatbread covered in sesame seeds from what looked like a tandoor oven, that the idea for a tasting menu was born. I was already full enough to make it to lunch, but who can resist bread (Tibetan barley pancakes, actually) less than five seconds out of an oven? It was crispy around the edges, soft inside, and of course hot enough to burn the tongue and delicious enough to be worth it.
Course 4: Won ton soup (5 renminbi) – Important travel rule: if you see a line, get in it first, ask questions later. But in Wuhan, questions (like “Do you speak English?”) are met with blank stares, so here, the story unfolded as I waited. Customers at Jiangming Hundun Guan handed over money to a man in a cart as two women at a nearby table carefully filled thin dough with minced pork and twisted them into tortellini-size dumplings. The man, wearing an apron that read “Wuhan Flavor Street,” prepared bowls of minced greens, black pepper and a dash of MSG for each prepaid customer, then waited for the dumplings to boil. In came the broth, and finally a sieve full of soft, juicy dumplings, perfect for a cold Wuhan winter morning.
Course 5: Papaya juice (8 renminbi) — Several vendors sold colorful juices, made on site and served bubble tea style, with cups sealed with foil on site and then punctured by a straw wide enough to allow passage of tapioca pearls, though there were none in mine. Call it a palate cleanser.
Course 6: Fried frog (12 renminbi) – It was time for a break, so I wandered the “alley” and its even more alleylike spur of even more tightly packed vendors, passing by others walking and munching who knows what. A teenage girl passed by, and in her case, I knew what she was carrying: a frog, decapitated and fried but still very recognizable, splayed open on two skewers. Just a few stalls down was the frog vendor, a young woman with three metal trays stacked with skewered frogs, complete with webbed toes and meaty thighs. I pointed, she fried, and, with sign language, asked if I wanted it snipped in two demi-frog popsicles. I did. There was a surprising amount of meat (poultrylike, as you have probably heard) and a wicked amount of spice (the equivalent of extra-fiery Buffalo wings). I found myself gnawing at the vertebra and wondered why the French stop at the legs.
Course 7: Doughnut holes (5 renminbi) – Thinking I was done eating, I figured it was time for dessert. I’ll call these doughnut holes because I don’t know the name in Chinese (feel free to comment below) but they were neither Dunkin’ Donuts cakey nor Krispy Kreme yeasty; instead, the outside felt a bit like an ultrathin layer of fiberglass (in a good way) and the inside was gooey and glutinous (in a very good way).
第7道菜：油炸圈饼（5元）——我正想着不吃别的了，忽然想到该吃甜品了。我把这种甜点称作“油炸圈饼”（其实是“糍粑面窝”——译注）是因为我不知道它中文叫什么（请在下面自由地发表你的看法吧）。它既不像“邓金甜甜圈”(Dunkin' Donuts)那么脆，也不像“卡卡圈坊”(Krispy Kreme)的甜甜圈那么蓬松。它的外面像一层超细玻璃纤维（很好吃），里面黏黏的（非常好吃）。
Course 8: Oysters (3 for 10 renminbi) – The doughnut-to-oyster shift should be done only under extreme circumstances, but these were those. Bloated, I attempted an exit, but noticed a crowd gathered around a man who was tending a narrow grill. I poked my head in, and saw he was spooning garlic onto oysters and scallops on the half-shell. (The scallops also got a bit of vermicelli.) The garlic mixed with the natural oyster juice and began to bubble. I had to make room for one last course.
Since there was no waiter to relay my message at the time, allow me to send one remotely: Gongxi chushi shouyigao! (That’s Chinese for: My compliments to the chefs!)
当时没有服务员可以帮我传话，所以请允许我在这里送上遥远的赞美：恭喜厨师手艺高！（Gongxi chushi shouyigao! 这句中文的意思是：厨师的手艺真好！）