Time to make the youtiaos
Time to Make the Youtiao: At the stand across the street from my university campus, people line up early for the fried oil strips.

I’ve never been to a country that didn’t have fried dough. If you’re aware of one, let me know, and I’ll make sure to never go there. I’m convinced that fried dough — particularly the kind made at street stalls and festivals — is one of the most important characteristics of a culture, and I don’t know why I’d need to bother with a society that hasn’t even had time to develop this most basic item.

Fortunately, with thousands of years of civilization behind it, China has had ample time to perfect its fried dough, and it has come up with something called the youtiao. The literal meaning of “youtiao” — oil strip — doesn’t sound that appetizing. But I’ve never met a fried dough I didn’t like.

It took me a while to find youtiao, even though I knew they were there. Despite guidebooks and online testimonials claiming that this fried dough could be found “anywhere” in “the morning,” I couldn’t locate it. My morning classes run from 7:30 to 11:30 every day, so I would go out on the weekends at what I thought was breakfast time, about 9:30, looking for the dough. No luck — until I realized that people in Beijing have a definition of “morning” that is different from mine. Their breakfast-food stands open before 6 a.m., and by 8:30 or so they pull a Keyser Söze — like that, they’re gone.

I had my first youtiao before class one day, cooked in front of me by a man named Mr. Liu, who gets up every day before sunrise to set up the youtiao stand. As their name suggests, youtiao are long (like strips), which makes them ideal for dunking in warm breakfast cereals like oatmeal and congee. Like most other fried-dough items, youtiao are delicious, but they should be eaten right away, and there is a clear limit to how many you can eat at once before suddenly feeling disgusting. (My limit is two.) Their consistency is closer to that of a beignet or zeppola than that of a doughnut. And, in a new fried-dough development for me, they do not come with toppings or fillings of any sort.

No matter where I go, fried dough never lets me down. So if you know of any fried dough you think I should check out, please let me know, and I’ll add it to the Very Important List of Fried Dough I Must Try.