Saw this guy touting his Wu Dalang Baked Sesame Pie (武大郎燒餅) with a pair of woodblocks in HeFang Street, Hangzhou and the puckish lingo bug of mine bit deep. It must be ages since last time I ate it, and for good reason since there's nothing handsome about this pie. Just pie or pancake baked with pepper and salt inside and frosted sesame with outside. Still, this pie is famous and ubiquitous in China not because of its taste but because of the person selling the pie, Wu Dalang. It might be the only food in China, or could well be the whole world for that matter, that its authenticity has nothing to do with the food itself but rather the outlook of the person selling it.
First off, Wu Dalang is a character featured in two Chinese literature epics across, the Water Margin and later on one that grafted on to it, the Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei). While "Wu" is a surname," "Dalang" literally means a) "big man" or b) "the elder brother".
In both novels, Dalang was storied as the puny elder brother of Wu Song, aka the mighty "Tiger Slayer," whose eyes, as depicted in the novels shone like stars, with eyebrows that never fail to draw together to point skyward. The earth cracks when his feet move and the sky rumbles when his fists hit -- in short, the finest, handsomest warrior the world could ever have known.
In stark contrast, the elder Wu was anything but. Made a humble living by selling steamed pie (炊餅), he was ugly and short, thus widely known as "three-inch nail with the face of bark" (三寸釘谷樹皮). His marriage to his adulterous wife Pan Jinlian was described by neighbors as "a rose stick onto a pile of cow dung" (薔薇插在牛糞上). He was poisoned by Pan soon after he caught her and lustful womanizer Ximon Qing in the act for adultery.
Because Wu Dalang's fame is so fabled, the name has in times become an euphemism to describe: a) a short and ugly guy or b) a man who's been cheated by his wife.
Little by little, a 'code of honor' has developed over centuries in the baking trade to form a tradition that only men with height disadvantage can sell baked pies in this style and claim it Wu Dalang Baked Pie with legitimacy in China, with the Yanggu Prefecture in Shandong the only exception. It's all because this prefecture is the place originating the baked pie of Wu Dalang as say so in the two classics above-mentioned. You can't escape from seeing these "small, but perfectly formed" Wu Dalang Pies selling in bales with all kinds of flavor no matter wherever turn. They eat this all day long for breakfast, lunch, dinner and for snacks and suffice to say, they simply can't manage to find enough small person to bake the tricks.