THE ERKUAI BAO YOUTIAO LADY COMES to Luofeng Street every morning. She sets up her cart across from the elementary school and begins grilling round tortilla-like pieces of erkuai, a tender rice cake that is a beloved specialty here in Yunnan, China’s southwesternmost province.

First she toasts each piece over homemade charcoal, carefully flipping them until they are hot and blistered all around. Then she slathers each with sauce—either a spicy paste made from fermented beans and chiles, or one made from a mix of ground sesame seeds and peanuts. Finally, she wraps the erkuai around a youtiao, a long piece of fried dough, and pops it into a small plastic bag. (The bag is so thin, you have to hold it by its tiny handles, as if you were carrying a doll’s purse, to keep from burning your fingers.) Erkuai bao youtiao is a popular breakfast here, and a bag costs less than a dollar.

Six years ago, I lived on this block, in a sixth-floor walk-up with ornate wooden window screens that framed the pulsating rainbow LED lights of a small hotel across the street. Every morning my husband would pop down to the corner (if anyone can “pop” down six flights of cold concrete stairs) and pick up these treats for us, which go surprisingly well with coffee.

Erkuai is an ingredient made from local varieties of rice that is steamed, ground, or pounded, then kneaded and pressed by hand until it is dense and firm. This simple base can then be used in a surprisingly wide variety of ways: rolled into thin circles and grilled over embers, cut into cubes and deep-fried, or stir-fried in thin triangular slices. It can also be shredded into long, noodle-like strands, called ersi, that can be stirfried or added to soup. In its many incarnations, erkuai is one of the most popular ingredients in Yunnan. A standard in every restaurant and home in the city, it’s served in various forms for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner.

On Luofeng Street alone, there are half a dozen ways to eat erkuai. Street vendors and small shops sell the grilled circles for breakfast. For lunch, noodle shops boil (stir-fried pork with garlic chives). When I lived in Yunnan, I used to eat erkuai in some form almost every day.

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