Asia Scope

The Softer Side of Tire Wars

US tire tariffs on China have caused some recent controversy…and prompted The Diplomat to take a look at the prospects for a similarly shaped pastry to ease the tension

Sudden tariffs on Chinese tire imports announced by the US last week have spurred speculation and controversy in the international media, including a spot of commentary by The Diplomat’s Jason Miks on the subject.

But while the politicians argue, a softer, 100-percent more edible geometrical counterpart of the car wheel is creating a lot less international controversy these days. Also plant-produced, this popular caloric heavyweight has reportedly seen its sales rise in the US in 2009. According to the sales charts of some top US producers including Krispy Kreme and Hostess, this year more consumers are seeking their comfort in—donuts. This may be due to new attractive donut varieties that have been developed without trans fats, in smaller portion sizes and new flavors. Or it could have a lot to do with recession-induced stress: Low-cost comfort foods are known to grow in popularity in troubled financial times.

But, over in China, no one seems to care much for the American junk food staple. Though feeling the ripples of the global recession, the nation’s stress-levels apparently aren’t high enough to warrant diving into a box of half a dozen glazed…or sprinkled. Even then, most Chinese would likely be more inclined to bring out the emergency red bean paste to calm the nerves.

American donut chain Dunkin’ Donuts tried and failed for a Chinese market in the late 90s in Beijing and the capital city remains donut franchise-free today. Krispy Kreme opened its first store in China in 2006 and has yet to hit the big time there.

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As for the Chinese donut market in the US—it’s waifish…at least on a corporate scale. Still, the Chinese donut itself, or you tiao, remains readily available in ethic eateries across the nation. The long, gold, deep-fried treat, less sweet and more savory, is often served as accompaniment to congee (rice porridge) and soy milk in Chinese cooking. Crispy on the outside, airy and tender inside, it also boasts different versions of various names throughout Asian cuisine.  

The Cantonese name for Chinese donuts, yàuhjagwái, can be translated as ‘oil-fried ghost’ or ‘oil-fried devil.’ Some folklore suggests that the pastry’s shape was inspired by that of two human forms attached at the middle, representing Song Dynasty official Qin Hui and his wife. When the donut is deep fried and eaten, it would have symbolized a cruel punishment to the couple, who were believed to have orchestrated a plot to frame General Yue Fei, a Chinese cultural icon of patriotism in his heyday.

It seems China’s own comfort food, though seemingly benign, holds its own weight in controversy.