It is often said that Chinese are very picky with their food and cannot handle anything that doesn't resemble the traditional local flavors. Chinese travelling abroad often look for the closest Chinese restaurant and big amounts of garlic and soy sauce must be present in every meal. Maybe this description is a harsh generalization, maybe it is true only when the Chinese mouths feel 'homesick', or perhaps it only concerns elder Chinese.
In one of Shandong province's most vibrant cities (the woman mentioned in this article asked me not to give too many details about her exact locations, not to promote competition), a 60 years old woman, Mrs. Wang, has shown that there is much place for creativity and renovation within the street-food market. This woman rides a bicycle with a carriage (the kind many street vendors in China own), leading her to a big university campus where she sales her product in the morning and at lunch she moves 2 km east and offers it in an alley in front of another campus. For a price of 3 yuan, she sales a generous portion of 蜂蜜果 fengmi guo, which is equivalent to what the French (or Belgish) call 'Gaufre', Dutch and American regard as 'Waffle'.
About a month ago, Mrs. Wang's daughter-in-law came up with an idea. A friend of her introduced her to waffles and even gave her a recipe. Understanding that the ingredients and the preparation process are quite simple, the daughter-in-law decided to start a new street business along with her husband's mother. Flower, eggs, sugar and butter (the most expensive ingredient among the four) are used to prepare a big tank of liquid. In the vending spot, a special stove is used, and each customer can have one's fengmi guo ready within a minute. Maple syrup is still missing.
Since their stand is on wheels rather than stationary, the two women don't need to pay extra high fees for being stationed in a certain position. The 3 yuan per waffle is a profit of more than 200%, and the passing clients, mostly students of the adjacent university and high-school, love it. Mrs. Wang sells between 200 to 300 waffles a day, what means 600-900 RMB, within which more than half is pure profit. If we add to this the fact that unlike the hardworking xiao chi (snacks, street food) restaurant dwellers nearby, who work 12-14 hours a day, Mrs. Wang or her daughter-in-law can settle for 5-6 vending hours, than their level of satisfaction is even higher.
Clearly these amounts can't scratch middle class salaries, but for peasant dwellers, and especially for women who are new to the vending sphere (Mrs. Wang was a housewife until she began experimenting with waffles) this is a fantastic paycheck.
Still, even more peculiar is the customers' angle in this story. What makes waffles such a hit among students? First of all, although fengmi guo is not the cheapest snack, it is quite filling and worth the expense, according to many students (particularly those who don't belong to poor households). But there must be an extra element, which make these waffles appealing, if they attract so many new curious mouths.
Unlike foreign food products that are wrapped with a 'western cover' and can give Chinese a feeling of a 'popular capitalist culture' or new divine flavor (an association which be made when encountering American fast food chains or western products in big supermarkets, etc), the waffle stand doesn't shout out 'overseas', and only its taste could perhaps produce such a feeling. This might suggest that something in the taste of youngsters is transforming and becoming more flexible or more attracted to foreign western flavors.
Waffle isn't a dish that has become widespread within the Chinese middle class and it can be assumed that most students who encountered Mrs. Wang's stand for the first time didn't recognize her snack as something they have tasted or heard about in the past. It is more likely that the sweet smell of the fengmi guo and its taste (by any standards it is very tasty, I must say) has drawn them towards it and made them loyal future customers.
The smell, the taste, the sensitivity towards certain ingredients, have all allowed the youngsters, who make Mrs. Wang's living, to choose the fengmi guo over the more traditional snack options which are offered around her (and still remain popular and will probably stay this way). Whether it is an subconscious association of the fengmi guo with other foreign sweets which the students have enjoyed in the past (certain cakes, cookies, etc), a more aware choice by customers, who like eating a snack which their tongue recognizes as western, or simply a simple preference by a generation which is culinary open, only the satisfied eaters could be the ones to judge.