At first I was afraid. I was petrified. I kept thinking I could never live with you inside my belly. But I spent so many nights paying way to much for dinner, and this was wrong! So I grew strong. I learned how to get along.
And now we’re best friends, me and Chinese street food.
There is a tourist food market in every city. You can find things like live scorpions, penis fish, bugs and starfish – they’re mostly displayed for the ick factor and bragging rights (except for the penis fish, that’s everywhere in Asia and people eat it raw!). I’m not talking about that street food, I’m talking about dumplings, pancakes, pork sandwiches and every part of the every animal grilled over flaming coals.
We’ve noticed that each city has a street food speciality. We started in Shanghai where everyone drank their lunch through a straw – Soup Dumplings. Before touring around China, I used to love these damn things. But they were my fall back food for several weeks in China. I must have devoured 8 dozen different types of dumplings and I can no longer face their doughy deliciousness.
In the sea city of Qingdao we were offered the same gross bugs but the street food scene had changed a bit. We saw rows of stored selling dried fish and street vendors cooking up clams, sea urchins and squid.
But it was Beijing where I learned to ignore dirty hands, unclean working surfaces and questionably refrigerated ingredients and truly enjoy street food.
It took a few days to build up my courage. The conditions were ripe: my hotel room with toilet ensuite was only a block away and the ever-present Chinese crowd assured my that the food was going to be tasty – even if it was cooked in what K.B.C. would have called appalling conditions.
Holy moses, what have I been missing!? From an egg cilantro breakfast crepe, to mutton sandwiches for lunch and grilled chicken wings for dinner, this is the way forward for food in China.
We met up with a friend from NYC who happened to be in Beijing – crazy!- and hit up the street food market together. Like any market, people were yelling and encouraging you to try their food. But it’s not often that someone screams at you, “Testicles! You want Testicles! These are balls!”
We even found a nearby restaurant that specialized in street food.
If you happen to be staying at Hutong Inn, take our advice. Walk out of the hotel to the main road. Look both ways and run across the street, hopefully avoiding all manner of crazy car, taxi, bicycle and the ubiquitous rickshaw. You will see a Canadian place. This is fine for a quick poutine or a 30 quai sandwich, but the real treat is just up the block. Walk up the main street in the direction of traffic and look for a packed restaurant filled with Chinese people on the right. It’s just past the sandwich place, if you’ve hit Le Petit Saigon or the Golden Noodle you’ve gone too far. Here is a picture of the restaurant.
The seats are small, tables are tight and the menu is only in Chinese. But this is the best dining experience we’ve ever had. The walls are graffitied with chinese characters, invitations to fixie meetups and ironic propaganda. Gear from the 60’s is hung from bookshelves stuffed with children’s paperback novels. Beer is served in a communist tin cup and a hip young woman runs up and down the stairs carrying dozens of steaming sticks of meat.
The menu in only in Chinese so we looked around and ordered by pointing at what people had in front of them – dozen of spiced grilled wings on a plastic covered metal tray. The whole restaurant helped us order food, from a huge bowl of spicy tofu soup, to cucumber salad and delicious grilled corn. Total cost – about 8 bucks, including 2 beers. We went back the next night!
Some people aren’t so into street food or chicken wings (who ARE you?). In that case, walk across the street and head to the Original Beijing Hotpot. If you’re at the Hutong Inn, it’s pretty hard to miss the rows of smoking hot containers manned by a squatting gentleman in white. His large white dog may be hanging outside the restaurant as well.
These containers are used to heat the water for hotpot. Oh the deliciousness of thinly sliced beef covered in spicy sesame sauce. Highly recommend.
In most food markets vendors were selling ‘Muslim Food.’ We thought was pretty strange – what kind of food could this be? Obviously lamb, but from where – Iraq? Afghanistan? Ethiopia? There is a large range of potential flavors this term could refer to. And why is it called Muslim food, not country-specific food?
This question bothered us for a while, and then we figured it out: one of the largest ethnic minorities in China are the Hui or Muslims who came to China on the Silk Road. So ‘Muslim food’ doesn’t refer to a country, it refers to a group of Chinese people. In any case, it’s delicious.
In Xi’an we hit up the Muslim Quarter where Beijing’s grilled chicken kebabs and Qindao’s dried fish were replaced with roasted walnuts, lamb pancakes and flat bread.
I’m hesitant to write that we haven’t been sick yet, but we haven’t. And memory of all that greasy overprice crap that was our first experience has happily faded and been replaced by all this delicious food.
Wish us luck and good digestion for the future.