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Many expat choice readers would have seen this simple fried dough fritter being sold at the local food or hawker center. What you may not know of is how this simple snack is associated with loyalty & betrayal in Ancient China. Let me then share with you the story of the humble ‘you tiao’. 

The you tiao is also known by many other names. The original name is You Cha Kuai (油炸檜) or Oil Fried Kuai. This name came from the traitor Qin Kuai. In Cantonese, it is named Yau Cha Kwai ( 油炸鬼/ Oil Fried Devil). Some say this could be named after the punishment in the Chinese 18-Levels Of Hell where false accusers are deep-fried in a cauldron of Boiling Oil. In Malaysia and Singapore, it is called You Cha Kway ( 油炸粿/ Oil Fried Pastry ) and eventually many people just know it as You Tiao.

Yue Fei was a general in the Southern Song Dynasty under Emperor Gaozong. He is widely regarded as one of China's most respected heroes and an icon of patriotism. 

Having witnessed the fall of the northern Song Dynastry to Jurchen invaders (who established the Jin Dynasty thereafter), Yue Fei launched a long war campaign to recover former northern Song territories. He was well respected for his intelligence and integrity. He also won many victories against the Jurchens & was said to have once defeated a 500,000-strong army with only 800 men. 

Video Credit: Chinese Cooking Demystified Youtiao, Chinese Fried Dough Stick (油条)

When Yue Fei was about to attack and retake Kaifeng, a former northern Song capital, he was recalled to Hangzhou by Emperor Gaozong. Prime Minister Qin Kuai and several corrupt officials had advised the emperor that it would be better to make a peace treaty with the Jin Dynasty rather than continue to fight them. Prime Minister Qin Kuai and his wife Lady Wang was jealous of Yue Fei and secretly colluded with the invading Jin state to frame Yue Fei for treason. This eventually led to Yue Fei being stripped of his title, imprisoned and eventually his death by execution. 

When the people of Southern Song Dynasty heard the news of Yue Fei's death, they were filled with rage. Everyone repeatedly condemned Qin Kuai and his wife in the streets, markets, teahouses and restaurants.

There were two food vendors on the riverbank of the Anqiao River at that time. One food vendor sells toasted sesame pancakes and the other sells fried sweet rice balls. One day during their conversation, they brought up the subject of Yue Fei’s wrongful death and both of them were filled with rage and a feeling of injustice. They decided that they would devise a way to express their outrage. 

The pancake vendor started to sculpt miniatures of two people out of dough. One figure represented Qin Kuai and the other, his wife Madam Wang. Then he grabbed the dough cutter and started slashing the miniatures of Qin Kuai and his wife. The rice ball vendor, to release his rage, brought out his deep fry wok and put it on a stove. Next he re-sculpted the two figures and twisted them together into one piece of dough with their backs together. Then he threw the dough into the hot wok and deep-fried the dough. They decided to name their creation You Char Kuai

While he was frying the twisted dough in hot oil, he shouted out loud, 

“Hey! You Char Kuai ! You Char Kuai !” 

(油炸檜) (Kuai being deep fried in oil ). 

“Come see Kuai being deep-fried! Come see Kuai being deep-fried!"

When passersby heard about Kuai being deep-fried, they were curious to find out. Gathering around the stove they saw the two ugly figures sizzling in the hot oil. They immediately knew what it  represented. Everyone started to call,

“Come see this! Fried Kuai ! Fried Kuai !"

It happened that Qin Kuai was on his way home from the palace and was passing by  Anqiao River. When he heard "Fried Kuai" in his carriage, he was livid ! He stopped the carriage and sent out soldiers to arrest the 2 food vendors. 

The soldiers brought the 2 food vendors and the hot wok before Qin Kuai. Qin Kuai shouted

“You have the audacity to have me deep-fried! Are you intending to subvert the government?"

The sesame pancake vendor replied 

“We are only common food vendors and are least interested in subverting the government."

Qin Kuai asked, "In that case, how dare you insult me by using my name in your product?!"

The man replied, "Your Grace, it is a coincidence that my product sounds like your name. However, it is written differently. Your name is written as 檜, but in my product it is written as 燴!"

The crowd started to back him up aloud, 

“He is right! They are two different Chinese characters with the same sound!" 

Qin Kuai was speechless. He looked at the two atrocious figures floating in the hot oil and shouted at the crowd, 

“Shut up! How can you possibly call this food? It has turned brown and clearly not edible! You two are obviously trying to gather people to create trouble! And now you are lying to me!"

Upon hearing Qin Kuai’s accusation, the two men immediately stepped up and said, "It has to be fried like this! “ They scooped the "Fried Kuai" out of the hot oil and started eating it. They even kept complimenting it while munching on the fried Kuai. 

“Delicious! It is absolutely delicious! It is so crispy and tasty that I want to swallow it without chewing!" 

Qin Kuai was so outraged that his face turned purple. He returned to his carriage angrily and fled from the crowd quickly.

The news of the thuggish Qin Kuai being deep-fried and devoured was immediately known to the entire capital city. People from all over the city hurried to Anqiao to have a taste of fried Kuai. The two food vendors combined businesses and specialized in making fried Kuai from then on.

Because it took a long time to sculpt the faces of Qin Kuai and his wife and customers had to wait in line, they designed a simpler version of fried Kuai. They made many small strips of dough and twisted two strips together before frying it in the wok. One strip represented Qin Kuai and the other, his wife.

At first the fried Kuai caused quite a sensation because people wanted to eat it to vent their anger, but soon they became very fond of its taste.As it was very affordable, it quickly became the most popular snack in town. Soon many food vendors in Ling'an started to make Fried Kuai as well. Eventually the food was introduced to other cities of China and became a popular snack food. 

So the next time you picked up your Yu Tiao, let it remind you of the virtue of loyalty & the treachery of betrayal.


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