It has been some time that I uploaded a ‘What on earth . . .’ post, so here is a new one. Youtiao literally means ‘oily stick’. That does not sound very appetizing, which would be inappropriate for a traditional food that virtually every Chinese likes. A rather long English rendition I have come across is ‘deep-fried bread stick’. This is more like a description than a translation. If I remember correctly, I have also once read ‘fritter’ as the translation for youtiao somewhere. That is certainly a convenient one, but our fritters are incomparable with youtiao. In line with the philosophy of this blog, let’s not translate this word then and get used to youtiao, as my regular readers should be used to mantou by now (in case you have forgotten this term, look it up using the convenient search function of this site).
Youtiao are deep-fried twists of dough. They are almost exclusively a breakfast food and are usually eaten with congee or with a bowl of steaming sweetened soy milk. The vendors get started at around 5 am and are still making them way past eleven, for all the late-risers. It’s so commonplace to see someone in pyjamas and flip-flops walking back home with a plastic bag filled with three or four youtiao for the family breakfast. The reason is that youtiao are delicious when then have just left the deep-fryer, but their texture quickly becomes rubbery with the lowering of the temperature. Making them at home is not a real option. It is a waste of oil and the oily fumes are not good for your walls, furniture, your clothes and anything else in your home. Better have a street vendor fry them for you in the open air.
Youtiao are fantastic when pulled fresh from the deep-fryer. The foot-long bread can be separated into two side-by-side pieces, with a crisp, almost waffle-like exterior, and a light and chewy interior. Like all fried things, the flavour depends entirely on the quality of oil being used and the freshness.
Youtiao are made from yeast dough, rolled flat, then cut into short narrow strips. Each strip is placed on top of a second, then pressed lightly together lengthways to make the join that can later be pulled apart after cooking. The baker then deftly twists and stretches them until they are the right length, and lays them side by side in the deep fryer until they are golden brown and nicely crisp.
Here is a typical recipe for youtiao dough.
|wheat flour, sieved||500 g|
|sodium bicarbonate||1/4 teaspoon|
|water||1 1/4 cups|
|sugar, diluted in the water||1 teaspoon|
Special flour (improvers)
As I have reported in several posts on flour-based products, Chinese flour producers have developed specially formulated flours for youtiao. The motivation is not so much to encourage Chinese consumers to make their own youtiao at home, but to stimulate the industrial production of youtiao. The same applies to the development of flour improvers for youtiao. Several producers of flour improvers are offering improvers for youtiao, containing mixes of enzymes, improvers, starch, etc. A popular brand of youtiao flour is Beijing-based Guchuan.
This product lists the following ingredients:
Wheat flour, starch, sugar, salt, food additives (sodium bicarbonate, sodium pyrophosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate, calcium carbonate, citric acid)
An alternative for youtiao producers is to buy specially formulated flour improvers that can be added to plain flour. An example is that produced by Weihaili. You need to add 250 gr of Weihaili’s improver to 10 kgs of flour, together with 100 gr of salt and 6.5 litres of water.
The ingredients of Weihail are:
Sodium bicarbonate, suplhate, d-glucono-lactone, potassium tartrate, maize starch
The main challenge for industrial production is to retain the crispy texture of youtiao. Perhaps a workable solution would be a semi-finished youtiao that consumers can buy in their supermarket and heat in an oven or air-fryer.
An enthusiastic insider has attempted to calculate the maximum value of the youtiao market in 2019. With an urban population of 750 mln people, 65% of which consuming 1 youtiao every 10 days, paying RMB 2/youtiao, he arrived at an estimate of RMB 17.8 billion. Obviously, the market for any food item is big in China, but in this case it points at interesting perspectives for industrial producers.
There are several manufacturers of quick frozen classic youtiao. China’s leading producer of traditional snack food Sanquan, has developed a fennel flavoured youtiao. They are somewhat smaller than regular youtiao.
You can bake them off at home. Ingredients:
Wheat flour, water, vegetable oil, spring onions, fennel, salt, yeast, spices.
Whenever Sanquan comes up with a product, competitor Sinian can’t afford to lag behind. Sinian has launched a small type of youtiao that can be eaten with hot pot, hence the name Hot Pot Youtiao.
The ingredients listed are:
Flour, vegetable oil, water, salt . . .
That ‘. . .’ is not very nice to the consumers, but I will revert as soon as I have the entire ingredients list.
Youtiao are becoming a major growth product. Annual sales have increased from RMB 250 mln in 2015 to more than RMB 1 bln in 2018.
A number of companies produce pre-fried youtiao, comparable to the pre-baked bread that you can buy in Europe. They are quick-frozen and can be fried without defrosting.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.