From the Stretch-A-Leg Blog

Summer Snacking on Beijing Street Foods

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It’s May and the xiaochijie (小吃街) have come alive again!

Tourists and locals alike are flocking to Beijing’s roadside vendors, night markets and snack streets to enjoy cool beers and sample the wealth of delights on offer.

For me, the smell of fresh, spicy lamb skewers and the glow of BBQs on street corners definitely mark the start of summer in Beijing.

Such scenes though common all year round are more prolific in the summer months when the city dwellers seek out these smoky outdoor grills and neon ‘串’ signs to provide respite from the sweltering temperatures.

Asia as a continent has long been renowned for the richness of its food culture, so what’s more authentic than joining hungry Beijingers to crowd round a sidewalk table and eat food cooked in the street?

Where did Street food originate from in China? And why is it so popular?

Street food has been ingrained in Chinese food culture for thousands of years. There are many theories as to how it first originated, the most popular being an evolution from prepared foods made for troops in battle.

Chefs from regal kitchens are also said to have started selling such snacks to door-to-door peddlers who later opened small eat-in or take-out businesses themselves. Thus it slowly filtered out and became a part of life for other streams of society.

Regardless of where the trend started, one thing for sure is that Chinese street food has been very influential throughout the Asian continent. During the late 1800's Chinese coolie workers exported to parts of Southeast Asia heavily influenced the street food culture we see there today.

Night Market

Here are some tips on where you can find the best snacks:

You can find snacks and delicious local food everywhere; nightmarkets, on snack streets known as xiaochijie (小吃街), on the back of bicycles and motorized carts by the roadside or in tiny street corner restaurants and noodles shops (面馆 mianguanr).

Here are a few of my favorite spots:

  • The Donghuamen night market just off Wangfujing shopping street is the place to go if you want to challenge your taste buds with scorpions, starfish, seahorses and many more exotic skewers.
  • 五道口Wudaokou comes alive at night with the streets brimming with students and tourists crouched on picnic tables munching on skewers, jianbings
  • 北邮小吃街 This narrow street brimmed with stalls and roadside vendors, not far from Beijing Normal University is quite off the tourist track but a perfect destination if you wish to catch a glimpse of local people enjoying plates of dumplings, xiaolongbao and fried chicken wings as they catch a breath after a long day at work.

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What different types of street food are there?

Whilst in the south of China, snacks tend to be sweeter; Beijing and the north are in favor of savory items. There is an abundant choice of food to be sampled, from kebabs, fried chicken and noodles to baozi, tofu and fruit skewers. It is simply a question of pointing at what you think looks delicious and handing over some money – usually no more than 5 yuan a go.

Egg fried pancake (煎饼 jianbing)

The jianbing is one of the most popular and typical types of street food. It consists of dough, egg, garlic and scallions fried together and then rolled up to be served like a wrap.

Vendors will each have their own version and array of additional ingredients such as sausage, chicken, salad and spicy sauces to go inside. With the cooking equipment and ingredients fastened to the back of a tricycle these vendors can easily move to trap customers in different areas and are hence seen all over.

Barbeque (烧烤 shaokao)

Barbeque stands are a common sight on many a street corner. Eggplant, mantou (white fluffy buns), beef, tofu, chicken and pork are all pieced with a wooden stick and grilled over a BBQ.

Night Market

Kebabs(串chuanr)

Chuanr from China’s western Xinjiang province are one of the most coveted street snacks around. The skewers are grilled over coal fires and also sprinkled with spicy sauces and cumin.

How can you find these? Look out for the bright orange 串 signs or follow the spicy aroma wafting through the hutongs.

Noodles (面条 miantiao)

Choose from fried noodles (炒面chaomian), soup noodles (汤面 tangmian) or cold noodles (凉面 liangmian) and add vegetables, chicken and egg as you please.

The Beijing Sandwich (肉加馍roujiamo)

This classic of Beijing street food even though its origins are Shaanxi province is at its simplest a meat stuffed roll. Thick pitta breads filled with sweet pork and coriander – the perfect lunchtime snack.

Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐choudoufu)

Don’t be put off by the smell, nor the name. Originating from Fujian province but found all over the country this local specialty is a type of fermented tofu fried and dipped in chili oil, coriander, sichuan pepper and oil.  But don’t say we didn't warn you that they are indeed pungent!

Baozi (包子)

The perfect filler if you’re not quite satisfied from lunch or you haven’t got time for a lengthy stop, grab one of these steamed filled buns (酱肉 jiangrou is my favorite), and you will soon become addicted to the savory snack. Where to find them? Look for high piles of bamboo steamers outside Chinese eateries and roadside restaurants.

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Fruit Skewers (糖葫芦 tanghulu)

For those of you with a sweet tooth why not try the delicious fruit skewers? These are pieces of fruit such as strawberries, banana, kiwi and hawthorn skewered and covered with a thick sugar syrup glaze.

There is also a wealth of fruit and vegetable stalls around from which you can pick up a stick of the freshest seasonal snack on offer – pineapple being a Beijing favorite.

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Should I worry about food hygiene and safety?

People have begun to question how healthy and hygienic street food is, with some recent rumors about vendors using oil extracted from the city’s drains. However, despite such concerns about contamination at street food vendors, studies have shown that the rate of incidences of food-related illnesses from street food is comparable to restaurants.

So like anywhere in the world, it is important to watch a street vendor make the food to ensure that it is done in a sanitary way and be sure to wash any fruit or vegetables that you buy first before eating. You should also be careful to select stalls with a healthy turnover and discerning customers.

The Chinese have a saying ‘现炒现卖’ (xianchaoxianmai)。 The literal translation of this, being to sell on the spot that which you have just fried. It extends beyond the physical connotation of cooking food and selling it directly to the customer, to mean using your freshly acquired skills and talent to help you achieve.

This is the very essence of street food culture. If it’s cooked right in front of you by someone well-experienced in the trade and art of Chinese cuisine – then there can’t be a sounder way to sample local food at its best.

If you want to explore Beijing's unique street food with the help of expert guides who will provide the cultural context and history that makes exploring even more fun, make sure you contact us or email us at info@stretchalegtravel.com so we can start planning your trip.

Night Market

 

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