Beijing street food: the obscure and the sublime

Despite being one of the most profound economic heavyweights in the twenty-first century, China is often overlooked as a destination for the average holidaymaker. Perhaps considered a cultural antithesis to the West, the state of China is black-listed as a realm of mysteries.

Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony Fireworks

The People’s Republic may be limited by censorship itself, but that is no reason to censor China from your  travel considerations. The Beijing Olympics spotlighted the global significance that China has to offer by theming its opening ceremony in accordance with China’s “Four Great Inventions” –  paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. These discoveries have had enormous impact on the globe and it is with a lens of enlightenment that we must engage with the apparent oddities of China.

A shocked reaction to China’s street foods is commonplace but now is the time to embrace what is “other” and listen to the universal language that permeates nation and history: the taste bud.

Don’t play it safe but delve into the delicacies; isn’t that what “Confucius says”? Chinese cuisine is not just greasy takeaways and chicken feet but is as vibrant and diverse as the country itself. If you are smelling stale cooking oil and dense door-stopper spring rolls, you are not eating Chinese. Discard any trepidations or preconceptions of Chinese Food and keep an open mind during your holiday; the City may be “Forbidden”, but the food certainly isn’t.

 

Street Food – 街头食品

Street vendors of snack foods are becoming rarer as local governments try to reduce street congestion, an ailment that seems to be inescapable whichever region of the World you are visiting. To compensate, numerous small restaurants and shops throughout many of the major cities are providing these delicacies with the benefit of an enclosed location.

 

Wangfujing – 王府井

Wangfujing is a street in Beijing that is notable for its continuing purveyance of the more unusual street foods on the cobbles of a busy pedestrian passing. Wangfujing is a shopping street located in the Dongcheng District in Beijing and translates to English as “Prince’s mansion well”. Its etymology is rather a romantic one; wang fu (Prince’s mansion) refers to the ten aristocratic estates built there during the Ting Dynasty, and jing (well) refers to the well of sweet water that was discovered soon after in 1417.

Wangfujing

Wangfujing exploits Westerners’ expectations of the “wacky and wonderful” and in a way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, providing more unusual food that is not a true reflection of local Beijing cuisine but meets the holidaymakers demand. Precisely because the produce is directed towards tourists, be prepared to haggle during your trip as the prices may not be as modest as the signs would indicate.

 

Chuanr – 串儿

Commonplace in Wangfujing are chuanr, or simply meat and insects impaled on sticks. In Wangfujing, you’re likely to find the more daring of varieties, for instance, one of the most striking is the hippocampi. Hippocampi is a skewered fried seahorse chuanr and is probably the most expensive of the street foods found in Wangfujing. A rare sight to behold in the ocean, the image of a series of seahorses impaled and implanted along the sides of vendors’ carts is otherworldly and one laced with a melancholy beauty.

Seahorses on Sticks

However, this contemplation is immediately dismissed upon tasting the delicacy. Hippocampi may take an adventurous character to try, but it does reward you with a very pleasant flavour. The fried seahorse tastes mildly of spiced pork rinds; they are nutty and meaty, but fishy and ever so slightly bitter.

Other Wangfujing chuanr include skewered centipedes, locusts and silk work pupae. Although I haven’t personally tasted these particular delicacies, my experience with China has led me to believe that what appears to be debatable is often delectable.

 

Uyghur Food – 维吾尔菜

Chuanr is a derivative of Uyghur cuisine, which encompasses a whole lot more than just meat on sticks and even so, is more likely to include a tantalising medley of mutton, camel or chicken than insects and sea life.

Other predominant flavours of Uyghur cuisine are raisins and nuts, a variety of local spices, aubergine, honey and yoghurt. This is because the Uyghur People are a Turkish ethnic group  living predominantly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the north-west of China and their cuisine is Halal, albeit one that has diffused throughout the whole of China.

A particular Uyghur delicacy found in the Xinjiang District is sangza, a dish comprising of deep-fried noodles coiled into a pyramid shape. Sangza is salted, lightly spiced and has a crisp texture. What is fascinating is that sangza is considered a traditional food to serve to guests in particular, and so is readily available in most shops and restaurants in the district.

Sangza

 

Houhai – 后海

Houhai is the name of a lake and its surrounding neighbourhood, in the Xicheng District of central Beijing. The narrow streets meandering around the lake are called hutong and are notable for the many residencies that pepper their lengths and have been converted into bars, restaurant and cafés. The effect is a hybrid one; there is the serenity of the Houhai Lake amidst a more electric atmosphere of tourists and leisure-seekers.

Beijing Houhai Boat

Houhai is less controversial than Wangfujing in terms of the street food offered and is a more authentic mirror of traditional Beijing cuisine. Sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason and this is certainly the case with Peking duck, a delicacy found throughout Houhai and one synonymous with China’s capital (then called Peking).

Beijing Peking duck is nothing like the cremated “crispy duck and pancakes” that plague restaurants and supermarkets of the West. In Houhai, you are likely to find both vendors and establishments serving a dish that is nothing less than mouth-watering. Preparing authentic Peking duck is a feat of engineering that is probably best left to the Chinese. Firstly, a duck is raised on a special diet for precisely 65 days. The method of preparation is to first soak the duck in boiling water for a short while before it is hung up to dry. During this stage, the duck is glazed with a layer of syrup, and the inside is rinsed with water. After 24 hours, the duck is roasted in an oven until it becomes gilded with a tantalising crust of golden-brown. Peking duck is usually served with pancakes, scallion and either hoisin or sweet bean sauce. In Houhai, the flavours are pungent and harmonious.

Peking Duck

Often seen as a Dim Sum appetiser, jiaozi are abundant in Houhai’s street stalls and restaurants – and I would be happy if they were the appetiser, main and dessert. Jiaozi are a steamed dough dumpling, with crimped sides concealing a treasure of minced pork or vegetables. Jiaozi are thicker than wontons and are not served with broth but soy-sauce or vinegar; both sharp condiments that offset the sweet and savoury flavour of the jiaozi.

Jiaozi

 

Desserts- 甜品

An erroneous claim is that China “doesn’t do dessert”.

With many Western Chinese restaurants offering simply a variation of a lychee fruit salad, it is easy to see why people have become disenfranchised. However, Chinese cuisine is notable for its saccharine palette. No more is this evident than with tanghulu, a crystallised fruit confectionery served on bamboo sticks. A tanghulu street stall is like something out of a Roald Dahl novel; explosive colours and sweet smells seduce you into a candy haven. The candied fruits range from Chinese hawthorn, strawberries, blueberries, pineapples, kiwifruit and much more. They are usually dipped in sugar syrup but do come in varieties with a chocolate or sesame seed coating. Tanghulu is both fresh and sweet, and is a pleasure that is less guilty than anything processed.

Tanghulu

 

Drinks – 饮料

Matcha latte

Appropriated by Starbucks but best left to the locals, is the green tea or matcha latte. Matcha is a green tea powder often used to flavour ice-cream or confectioneries, but when paired with frothy milk yields a drink that is both comforting and has a sharp bitterness that enlivens the brain in a way I consider infinitely more effective than espresso. Matcha latte is arguably more indigenous to Hong Kong than mainland China but is still easy to find in many restaurants and supermarkets.

matcha-latte

Perhaps all the blessings from the lucky cats guarding the doorways of the “English Chinese Chippy” have worked and you are able to embark on your very own voyage to China.

If this is the case and you are able to book a holiday to China, you really are going to be barraged with sensory delights, from the sights, sounds, smells and most importantly, taste. The cuisine, like China itself, is often misunderstood; what we see isn’t really what we get. The best of the best is simply “Made in China”.