For those living in Beijing, the gradual disappearance of the city’s various street foods has become painfully visible. Areas that once were the go-to place for quick morning snacks or nightly munchies, such as Xidan, Sanlitun backstreets, central Wudaokou or Xicheng hutongs are now devoid of street vendors. People selling nightly spicy soup or early fried eggs have become hard to find on the city’s central streets.
The area of Beijing’s famous Wangfujing is one of the remaining oases of street food in Beijing. The narrow streets behind the main shopping area has become a place where tourists can try a variety of snacks and where you can get an overview of all street snacks the central city once had to offer.
Although the capital’s city center has become devoid of outside snack stalls, street food vendors are still very common in the suburbs and outer districts of the capital, as those zones are not regulated as much as the inner city.
Street food in the inner city of Beijing has largely disappeared over the last two years due to municipal government crackdowns. Under the umbrella of “civilized Beijing”, much has changed in the city, which includes the gradual exodus of street vendors. Street food is often seen as an indication of underdevelopment by Beijing government officials who might not think of the city’s street food in the pleasant and nostalgic way most do. Pollution caused by street barbecues and food safety issues are also said to be reasons for the recent crackdowns.
From Street Food Stalls to Large Chain Stores
Less than half a decade ago you could find everyday street food on practically every corner of Beijing, where people would set up their mobile food stall to sell people a variety of snacks.
In the mornings, particularly jidan guangbing (鸡蛋光饼) and jianbing (煎饼) are the breakfast hot sellers. The first are eggs in a biscuit kind of pancake, the second is also known as ‘street crepe’ – a fried pancake wrap with deep-fried dough stick and chopped green onion, cumin and sesame (see image below).
Plain fried dough sticks (油条 youtiao or 焦圈 jiaoquan) and warm soy milk are also popular breakfast items. In the evenings, areas as Sanlitun would generally have a malatang (麻辣烫, officially translated as ‘hot spicy soup’) stall on multiple places besides the road, which has now become quite rare – although some of the back alleys will still have a stall (see image).
As street food is getting more rare in the city center, larger chain stores are profiting from their disappearance.
One of the chains that has been successful over the past year is Huang Taiji (黄太吉). The 33-year-old founder of the chain compares it to Starbucks, but then for Chinese traditional snacks. “Chinese fast food for the WeChat generation”, is how Chinese media have described the flourishing chain. Huang Taiji is indeed popular amongst the social-media-loving generations, as the company is known for its guerrilla marketing campaigns on Weibo and Wechat.
The chain Huang Taiji has taken the original recipe of the jianbing – which originally just had a crispy cracker in the middle and a savory crepe wrapped around it with some sauce, coriander leafs and spring onions – and they have taken that concept and upped its quality. It is still Beijing ‘fast food’, but you can now put meat inside it and a lot of things that you were not able to get with the street food.
The jianbing version by the Huang Taiji chain, image by SCMP.
Many chains in Beijing are replicating the Huang Taiji success. You can find them in shopping centers and the Beijing Soho complexes. Compared to the original street snacks, prices have gone up dramatically. A few years ago, a jianbing would be about 3 RMB (0.45 US$) on the street, and then, before street vendors were moving away from the city center to less regulated areas, it went up to 5 or 6 RMB (0.70-0.90 US$). At a chain you now pay up to 25 RMB (3.8 US$).
A Taste of Beijing Street Food
By Chinese standards, typical Beijing street snacks are actually not considered the most delicious in China. Beijingers are known to commonly like intestents and salty flavors. Its flavors are not as strong as most Chinese like them; not as sour as central Chinese cuisine, not as sweet as the coastal areas, nor as spicy as the dishes from the central south. Still, Beijing street food is quite well-known, as it also brings together some of the country’s most popular snacks.
Wangfujing is one of the area’s of Beijing where you can still find many street snacks, although the place is very touristy and hardly authentic. Still, the snack street offers a great variety of street foods, which would be otherwise very hard to find in one place.
Sound fragment: Ryan Myers walks through the snack street in Wangfujing.
One thing that is sold a lot on the Wangfujing market, is the popular ‘chuanr’ (串儿) or skewered meat. The name basically refers to any type of meat (or even octopus) cut into pieces and roasted on skewers.
Chuanr in Beijing are most commonly prepared with lamb, and are usually seasoned with cumin and chilli powder. Depending on your own taste, you could tell them to make it extra la (辣 spicy) or not.
The Wangfujing snack street also offers something which is more like a tourist attraction: the skewered scorpions – still alive with the legs wiggling around. Not a lot of people actually eat them Beijing – except for the visitors who then put the picture on social media.
Here, you can also find the roasted silkworm pupae. You won’t often see the silkworm pupae (as pictured below on the right, image via Flickr) in everyday Beijing, but they are readily available here. They don’t have a very outspoken taste – it’s the texture that makes them special: crunchy at first, and more spongy in the middle.
Traditionally, things like the silkworm pupae or the deep fried starfish have medicinal purposed in Chinese medicine.
Other snacks here include the tanghulu (糖葫芦), a traditional Chinese/Beijing snack of candied fruit. Its recipe is quite simple. Basically it starts with warm oil mixed with sugar, that is then used to dip in skewered fruits. This makes the fruits crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside.
One of our favorite classics is kaorou (烤肉), which is like Turkish traditional kebab. It is usually lamb, but it can sometimes also be pork in China. This was commonly sold around subway stations before, like at Xidan and Wudaokou, but they have now disappeared. A kaorou sandwich, with minced meat, red peppers and small pieces of cucumber would usually cost around 5 RMB (0.7US$).
Sweet skewered roast corn is also popular for breakfast, and used to be sold in many places, just like roasted chestnuts, which are very typical for Beijing.
Available all over China is stinky tofu (臭豆腐), a fermented tofu with a very strong smell. Comparable to the durian fruit, its odor is unique and might make you run if it is the first time smelling it. It really does stink: the fermentation process brings out bacteria that gives it the special smell.
Donkey burgers(驴肉火烧) are pieces of bread with meat – kind of like an actual hamburger. The bread is quite thin, with roasted donkey meat in the middle – a popular snack in Beijing.
Donkey burger, image by Daqing55.
For cow stomach, fried pork liver or noodles with fermented soy beans, Wangfujing is also the place. Not all of its snacks may be very popular or generally available anymore, but they can still be tasted and smelled in this oasis of Beijing street food. Nothing against Wangfujing’s street food galore, but ideally, Beijing’s street food should be where it belongs: on the streets of Beijing.
– By Manya Koetse & Ryan Myers
All photo’s in this article are by Manya Koetse, unless stated otherwise.
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