Thirty years ago, Du Yaying went to prison for running a gambling den. Now, she is the chef and owner of a popular hole-in-the-wall in Xiamen, China.
It’s 4 pm on a breezy winter day in Xiamen, a coastal city in southeastern China. A line of eager diners has formed outside a small eatery on Kaiyuan Road, a major thoroughfare famous for its street food.
The shop, Liangshan Food Stall, doesn’t open until 5 pm, but there are already people waiting outside. They’ve come to try the owner’s specialty: sweet and sour pork.
But this is not just any sweet and sour pork. Liangshan’s version is legendary for its textural contrast—crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
(Read more: A 200-year-old recipe for sweet and sour fish)
Du Yaying, the owner who’s been making the dish for over two decades, credits this to tenderizing the meat by hand for an hour straight before cooking. Pork typically has a tough texture, but by beating the meat, its muscle fibers loosen, and the meat becomes soft.
“If you cook it right away, it won’t be crispy and won’t taste good,” she says. Her shop goes through over 20 pounds of meat per day. “In the summer, your whole body is soaked in sweat.”
Customers flock to Du’s restaurant not only for her sweet and sour pork but also for her eccentric character and warm familiarity, an increasing rarity in a gentrifying Xiamen. She’s known to playfully scold customers for taking too long with their food.
“Eat before you fool around. Listen to a mother’s words,” she tells a group of young customers, as she shuffles through the small gaps between packed tables.
For 25 years, Du has been running a tight ship on Kaiyuan Road. She’s only taken a true vacation twice and occasionally steps in for chefs who quit on her. Not everyone is cut out for the work and heat. “The sweat is so salty that you can’t open your eyes,” she says. But it’s an improvement from her previous life.
“You weren’t supposed to cry in prison. People would scold you if you made a sound. I was crying all day.”
Before she stepped into the food business, Du ran an underground gambling operation with a friend. After the police raided their den, she and 25 others were sent to prison. She served two years. Du says her heart still aches thinking about that time.
“You weren’t supposed to cry in prison,” she says. “People would scold you if you made a sound. I was crying all day. I’d cry under the covers.”
In prison, Du found her passion for food. She worked in the kitchen, where her duties included washing vegetables and hauling buckets of water.
Prison fare, though, was dreadful, and she was happy whenever the guards could offer her their leftovers. “They had over 10 types of dishes,” Du says.
(Read more: A chef's identity trapped in a Chinese takeout box)
After she got out in 1994, Du sold her most prized possession—a necklace she bought from her gambling earnings—and started her business with just a little over $300. In the beginning, it was just her, a chef, and one other worker. They had two tables.
“I was really scared,” Du says. “I didn’t know how to run a store.”
But as Xiamen developed and the city’s population grew, so did business. Du says she was the first street food stall to open on Kaiyuan Road, which had been in decline since the 1960s.
Then, several banks, including Xiamen International Bank, decided to build their headquarters nearby, and from the 1990s onward, the area has seen a revival.
Today, Du has 10 employees, but she still picks out the meat and tenderizes it herself. Another friend in the business has suggested she step back a little and let others take over, but she is reluctant.
“I won’t stop,” she says.