Right in the middle of consumer crazed modern China is a little shop roasting sweet potatoes on ancient clay ovens presenting a lens through which to view this country in transition.
In the center of Taizhou there is a monument to The New China: a massive shopping complex packed with shops chasing the viral fashion trends that are ripping every which way across the country. The sound systems of these stores are perpetually cranked up, sales fliers are being handed out everywhere, and advertisements clog your field of vision as the pursuit of profit lures you into sensory gridlock. But at the edge of this this hall of capitalistic cult worship there is a little candy store which seems unaffected by the modernized mania that is churning all around it. This unassuming little shop is run by an old couple who keep the lights off to save money as they go about their days selling penny candies and cooking lunch for the local laborers. This little place would probably go completely unnoticed if it were not for the giant potato roasting ovens that sit in front of it.
I was told they are called gang, but I just call them giant clay roaster ovens. They are usually found in the streets or down alleyways in the more traditional residential parts of China, but the ones I took a close look at were right in the heart of uppity Taizhou. They are almost landmark fixtures outside of a candy shop, and an old couple roast sweet potatoes and corn on them throughout the day to sell to people passing by.
One day I stopped in my tracks and really got a good look at this set of rather magnificent roasters. They stood about four feet high and each one was far more than an arm span in girth. They looked like giant yellow wine vats, but there was a flame within each that cooked the food that were placed upon a grill over their tops.
There was a single door at the very bottom of each of these giant roasters which was latched shut. This is where the fuel for the flame — which I’m guessing could be either charcoal or wood — is inserted and set alight.
Burlap cloths covered the grills to keep the heat inside, and the old man who was manning these giant ovens peeled back the covers to show me the food that was piled up inside.
One roaster was cooking a pile of sweet potatoes, the other was baking corn. I ordered a jin of potatoes — which is pretty close to a pound –and got a real good look at the roasters as the old man plucked my order from under the burlap flaps. I put my hand against one of them to get a feel for its weight, and I have to estimate it to be at least 150 lbs. Truly, these clay roasters are gigantic — so much so that they were placed on industrial carts so they could be readily transported.
I imagine these types of roasters were more common in China’s past, as I only ever see them once in a while as I travel around the country. They are more often than not being used by old people who seem to have a clientele made up of China’s working class. The sheer size, weight, and the mastery that’s more than likely needed to construct these roasters make them seem rather antiquated in the rapid pace setting of modern China. But as I bit into my sweet potato it was clear why they still keep them around: it was perfectly cooked.
As I travel I look for things that pique my interest — big and small. Part of the art of travel is knowing how to be fascinated by something as seemingly banal as a clay oven. But it is from the little impressions that the big pictures are made.
A giant antique stove cooking cheap food for poor laborers in the context of a massive giga-modern shopping complex is a quintessential snapshot of where China stands at this moment in time.