Youtiao is a golden deep-fried strip of dough eaten across China and throughout Southeast Asia. Youtiao can be eaten at breakfast as an accompaniment for rice congee or soy milk, but have also been eaten voraciously as a snack food in recent times – and with good reason!
The literal meaning of “youtiao” is “oil-fried devil” and, according to folklore, eating it is an act of protest against an ancient Song Dynasty official Qin Hui, who is said to have orchestrated the plot to frame the general Yue Fei, who was an icon of patriotism in Chinese culture. In keeping with the legend, youtiao are often made as two foot-long rolls of dough joined along the middle, with one roll representing the husband and the other the wife. Thus, the youtiao is deep fried and eaten as if to eat the traitorous couple themselves!
At breakfast, youtiao can be stuffed inside shāobǐng to make a sandwich known as shāobǐng youtiao. Youtiao wrapped in a rice noodle roll is known as zháliǎng and is a very common breakfast in China. Youtiao is also an important ingredient of Cífàntuán in Shanghai cuisine and a common dim sum dish. The youtiao was quite unlike anything else I have tried (apart from churros in Spain), despite trying fried bread snacks in Madagascar, and plenty of similar items in Indonesia, such as fried bananas.
Although the youtiao is extremely popular in southern China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), it also has enduring popularity in northern China. I also see youtiao eaten quite regularly among Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia. When compared to other Chinese snacks, such as baozi, jianbing, or egg waffles, the youtiao is far more versatile and can be eaten with a range of other ingredients.
I always try to enjoy a youtiao or two when I am travelling through China, and in south eastern China these fried dough snacks can be found on every street corner! No wonder the whole population eats them!