I was watching a video on China not long ago which included “street foods”, and, invariably they showed the street markets at Wangfujing, filled with funky things like fried goat lungs, scorpions and centipedes on a stick and other disgusting items. It always frustrates me when I see this because that is NOT what most folks in Beijing go for when they look for street food! This is the kind of exoticism that Americans love to film, as if they want us to go, “EWwwww! I always KNEW Chinese would eat anything!” I want to let you in on the kinds of things most Beijingers would eat when out and about-most of which, Americans would love! When I lived in Beijing for 3 years teaching English, I found these to be delicious, convenient, cheap-and, even if you are a temporary traveler, you can enjoy one of these goodies (and not worry about bug legs).
BING TANG HULU – This is usually seen in the colder months, though sometimes in the spring as well. My personal favorite was the candied crab apples: little round, light reddish, sweet-tart fruits, usually without seeds (though you had to ask to make sure). The sugar on the fruits is thin and crackly, just heavenly, and the perfect thing when you’re craving something sweet. I began to notice, my second year in Beijing, that the vendors would sell orange slices, banana slices and strawberries in the warmer months-it was all fantastic! It was also interesting to watch them boil the sugar and dip the fruits, which came out in jewel-like golds, reds and oranges.
BAOZI – This is steamed dumplings served in bamboo trays, sometimes with a couple of tables and wobbly chairs nearby so you could sit and eat. The most popular filling is pork and chives, but I also recall having them stuffed with shredded carrots, spinach and other veggies (which were cheaper, of course). The dough is thin and the center is juicy, so watch your clothes! This was a popular breakfast food as well, and I was always seeing folks dip them in a hot chili oil or soy sauce; a tray of about 10 costs around a dollar. JIAOZI – Small steamed or fried half-moon shaped dumplings, which are also boiled in soups. These come in a wide variety of fillings, very delicate and delicious! There are restaurants in Beijing devoted mainly to jiaozi with fillings like shrimp, pork, venison, chicken, quail, fish, you name it! The ones you get here in the States are too thick, and only filled with greasy sausage-the Beijing dumplings are delicate, tasty and a real treat, whether steamed or fried golden!
YOU TIANR – This is a long, twisted fried dough stick, crispy, golden and best served hot from the oil. The Chinese don’t usually put sugar on it, but you can always request it. It is served with warm soy milk, and sometimes dipped in it. I admit that it was a little plain without the sugar, but most stalls had some under the counter for us spoiled Americans! This is a common breakfast food in Beijing, and sells for about 50 cents for a foot long one!
JIAN BING – There is nothing like this fragrant dish when you’re starved. The pancake batter is spread out thin, then an egg broken on top and spread out, then the whole thing flipped and spread with either a dark bean sauce or a hot sauce, followed by chopped green onions and cilantro. The last ingredient is a big flat square of some kind of delicately crispy fried noodles-then the whole thing is folded up into a quarter, wrapped in a paper napkin, then tucked into a plastic bag for you to eat. I always said that if any of these guys came to the States, they could easily sell these for $4-$6 each, but in Beijing, they went for 40 cents. They’re also quite filling and relatively healthy, made with little oil and lots of fresh veggies.
HONG SHU – Roasted sweet potatoes! When the weather begins to get cold and chill winds blow, the fragrance of the sweet potatoes roasting will draw you like nothing you’ve ever seen! It’s like those old cartoons where the starving guy is floating on a long curling wisp of cooking food smell, onward towards the real thing. These are generally quite cheap: 50 cents or so, roasted and soft and served with a napkin or piece of brown paper bag. No butter or sugar-that’s a Western taste-but when you’re freezing to death on a street corner waiting for a cab, and hungry as well, they can make a wonderfully delicious tummy-warmer!
CHA JIDAN – Tea eggs are boiled in a brew of soy sauce, black tea and star anise for a few hours-they’re basically cracked about half way through, so when you peel them they have a web-work of dark tea color on the outside of the white. These make a really good quick snack with a cold Coke.
XIAN YA DAN (right) – Salted duck eggs-I’m still not sure how they make these, though I think it is a kind of pickling process where the eggs sit in super-salt-saturated water for a few days. This pickling “cooks” the egg and renders the white solid and a little meaty, as well as making the yolk, which exudes a kind of rich reddish-orange oil, a golden red. The Chinese love these and generally eat only the yolk, which is very rich. I was just the opposite, eating only maybe half the yolk, but loving the super salty whites! The shell is a light and lovely pale green. In the hutongs, or alleyway neighborhoods, the vendors would ride through the alley singing, “Xian ya dan! Cha ji dan!”, with duck eggs on one side of the bicycle cart, and the other side filled with tea eggs.
HUNDUN – Wonton soup is very popular for breakfast, especially served with bits of spinach or a kind of small dark green cabbage called ‘you cai’ (oil veggie). The filling was usually pork, and the dumplings quite delicate, lying in a pork or chicken broth.
ZHOU – This is a simple rice porridge, made thin and served hot with pickled vegetables usually or red-cooked pork or green onions. You could also get it plain and ask for a little sugar. There were whole restaurants, albeit little ones, that served ONLY different kinds of zhou. This is a hearty, filling, tummy-warming breakfast, and very good with a cup of warm soy milk. It’s one of best deals too, at 24 cents a bowl, a little more if you want meat or veggies on it.
XINJIANG NAAN – Xinjiang is China’s far west province, filled with mostly Muslim Chinese, and famous for their incredibly delicious golden flatbread. There are little midnight bakeries all around Beijing where you can see fathers and sons baking and loading the breads into the little display window in the front of the store. Sometimes they also sprinkle a little onion or garlic on top, and the result is heavenly–also very cheap at around 50 cents per bread.
MATANG – Another Xinjiang specialty, which is like a huge energy bar! These are made really large, like 24″ X 36″ and served off of a cart-they will cut you the size you want. They’re made of dried fruits (apricots, white raisins, date, etc.) and nuts like almond and hazelnuts, along with honey. These chunky goodies are rather chewy but oh so good, and give you energy on your long walks around the city.
YANGROU CHUANR – Also originally from Xinjiang, the Chinese eat these lamb kabobs like we eat hotdogs and hamburgers! Everywhere throughout the city you’ll see these guys in alleys or around the corners of buildings with their little grills. They sprinkle a kind of cumin-curry-spice on them, and roast the tasty bits over an open flame. Usually you can get them with a little chunk of lamb fat in the middle, which is a little crispy and like a kind of cracklin’-may sound weird, but it’s incredibly good! One stick goes for around 11-24 cents. In restaurants you’ll pay a little more, but still cheap-and the sticks are bigger! Nothing like chuanr for a quickie lunch-add a Yanjing beer and you’ve got a great meal!
Let me wrap up by saying that, yes, Beijingers do eat some bizarre stuff at times, but, having lived there and observed carefully for 3 years, the snacks I’ve listed here are the main items you’ll see on sale. You give most folks there a choice between a fried scorpion and a piece of spicy lamb on a kabob, and they’ll pick the lamb every time! Take a chance and try out some of these goodies yourself!