'Dough-Stick Brother' bemused by fame
Media attention over a Sichuan peasant's discovery of a healthy recipe for a popular snack has made life more complicated
Three years ago, a Sichuan peasant named Li Gang set up an iron skillet and a few tables at an old residential block in Chengdu and started cooking deep-fried dough sticks - one of the most common breakfast foods for Chinese. The business was small and returns were modest - until early this month, when the 47-year-old street vendor became an overnight national celebrity after he reportedly found a healthy replacement to a chemical compound that has been used to cook the food for hundreds of years. The media dubbed him "Dough-Stick Brother" and praised his effort to make a common food healthier, particularly as food-safety scandals have raised serious concerns among the public in recent years. The sudden fame has resulted in not only additional business, but also an offer for a free booth in a prime location of the city. However, the attention and notoriety have been a bit overwhelming for the man with a humble background, and he explains that it's not what he set out to achieve.
What led you to try making a living by cooking deep-fried dough sticks?
My home is in a small village in Sichuan's Shehong county [under Suining city]. I left my hometown at the age of 16 to make more money. I did a lot of different jobs. I worked as a construction worker, electrician, factory worker and laundry-shop operator. In 2008, I was working at a cloth-dyeing factory in Jiangsu province, but the business was not going well. I needed a better-paying job to make money to pay my son's university tuition fees. So I came to Chengdu to seek help from my brother, who had a stall that he used to make and sell breakfast foods. I learned from him how to fry dough sticks. Later, I set up my own stall.
What made you think of improving the recipe for dough sticks with something healthier?
A year ago, I was watching a TV news programme that said alum, a compound that is commonly used to leaven dough when frying the dough sticks, contains aluminium and could harm one's nervous system if consumed over a long period. One night, I was a bit drunk and forgot to put alum in the dough. The next day I found that the dough sticks were actually not as bad as I had expected. This inspired me to look for something to replace alum and lower the amount of aluminium in the snack. At that time, I thought that maybe more people would like to buy my dough sticks if I succeeded.
So what do you use in your deep-fried dough sticks instead?
I have conducted more than 50 tests over the past year, and I tried a lot of things, such as eggs, corn flour, rice powder and buckwheat powder. Some of them did work, but the taste wasn't as crispy as when I used alum. Finally, I found something better. I can't tell you exactly what it is, but I can say that it's something that is a reflection of a peasant's wisdom. It is 100 per cent natural. People said my dough sticks tasted the same as others. At first nobody believed I didn't add alum. A customer told me I should get the food certified by an authorised organisation, so I brought samples of my dough sticks to Chengdu's food-safety testing centre. [The test] cost me more than 200 yuan [HK$247]. The centre said my dough sticks contained 16 milligrams of aluminium per kilogram - much lower than the national standard of 100mg per kilogram.
Now that you're famous, the media have described you as someone with a social conscience. How has your life changed because of all the attention?
Now I have almost no time to sleep. In the past, my wife and I would get up at 3am to prepare everything, then we would get some rest after selling out of dough sticks around 9am. But now I have to deal with media interviews all afternoon. Then, around 6pm or 7pm, I must knead dough again for the next day. We used to sell about 170 dough sticks a day. Now more than 2,000 are snapped up in less than two hours. Some people come to my booth as early as 5am and wait to buy my dough sticks. I had to ask my sister and my brother-in-law to come and help me.
The media coverage helped your business a lot, didn't it?
I used to earn 4,000 to 5,000 yuan a month. However, the more dough sticks I sell, the more it costs me to make them. Since the media started reporting my story, I've felt obligated to make better-quality food for people. So now I use oil purchased from big supermarkets - at 77 yuan for a five-litre bottle, and more than three times the price of the oil I used before. I also need to spend more on the alum replacement, and there are labour costs. Honestly, the cost of my dough sticks has doubled, but the price remains unchanged at 1 yuan each. I can't change it, because everyone is watching me.
The media reported that the head of a big property-development company in Chengdu offered to lease you a booth for nothing for a year so you could sell dough sticks in the city's central business zone. Are you happy with this arrangement?
I am so grateful for his offer. I went to see the site - it's in a big shopping centre that sells computers and IT products. People shopping or doing business there must be university graduates. But I have only a middle-school education. Look at what I am wearing and doing - I actually feel like I don't belong in that place. But how can I refuse such a kind and generous offer from such a prominent person? I will start to run my second booth there next month. I don't feel like I did anything worthy of such a response from society. I did all of this just so I could sell more dough sticks and earn more money. I'm not as great as the media makes me out to be. I wish I could go back to the way things were.
So what are you going to do next?
I am just a peasant who doesn't know much about running a business. I hope to meet an honest and capable person who can work with me to turn the healthy dough sticks into a franchised business. There were some people coming to me for co-operation, but I felt like I didn't know them very well.
Li Gang spoke to Celine Sun