I’ve been waiting for this post for a while! I love exploring the street food culture of any place I visit but I had the highest hopes for Beijing and luckily, the city didn’t let me down. Now, this is by no means a complete guide to the street food available in Beijing; instead, it’s what I encountered during my two week trip.
I’ll quickly start by saying that the two most famous streets to have street food in Beijing are located off the central shopping street of Wangfujing: Donghuamen Night Market and Wangfujing Snack Street. The former is known for its many insects and other unknown creatures on sticks while the latter serves more traditional street foods. I visited them both early in our trip and was not inspired by either of them; they’re extremely crowded with tourists and the food didn’t look that great either. Apart from one stick of candied fruit, we didn’t eat anything there.
My first breakfast in Beijing was found just down the road from our first hotel (a courtyard/hutong hotel right by the Forbidden City). Of the many places to eat, this one had a queue – a queue is always good! I came away from the queue with a hot shaobing nestled in an impossibly thin plastic bag. A shaobing is a flaky pastry topped with sesame seeds and mine was filled with a fried egg. It was a little too salty but the flakiness was delicious.
To go with my shaobing, I got a sealed plastic cup of hot sweetened soy bean milk. Jab your straw through the seal and your breakfast beverage is ready – and this turned out to be the freshest soy bean milk I’d ever had and the perfect complement to the salty shaobing. I saw many places offer this drink in the morning along with a very dark drink that I couldn’t identify.
Another morning, I headed straight for the little hole in the wall where I’d seen jianbing being made. A very stern man and his jianbing pan (like a big crepe pan – pan may be the wrong word. It’s just a big, flat and hot disk) were framed by a literal hole in the wall and he was making them to order. First, the crepe batter was spread onto the disk, followed by a freshly cracked egg spread thinly on top. When the bottom was judged to be done, the whole was flipped so that the egg could cook some more and the top was spread with a hoisin-based sauce, a chilli paste, chopped spring onions, chopped coriander and finally, a sheet of crispy fried dough. The whole lot is folded together into a manageable square and placed into a plastic bag for you to takeaway. 3.5RMB (I hear this is quite expensive but this was near the Forbidden City). This was incredibly moreish – I love anything spicy for breakfast. I only just wish that the fried piece of dough in the middle would stay crispy; it tends to go limp in the heat.
There were a few places close to my first hotel with these steamers set up at the window but I never got a chance to see what was inside. I can only guess some kind of steamed bao.
Other than an overpriced yet very pretty jianbing at the Great Wall at Mutianyu, I didn’t eat any street food for lunch. However, many of those places that sell breads and pastries for breakfast continue into lunchtime.
I saw one place just switch from freshly made pastries at breakfast-time to large bowlfuls of cooked dishes that were being packaged into ready-to-takeaway lunchboxes with rice at lunch-time. They looked fab.
It’s snack time! You could have any of the small bites that were also available for lunch or breakfast or you could stop by one of the many candied fruit on a stick vendors to be found at most of the tourist attractions. Each stick is about 5RMB.
I first chose plums on our visit to the Wangfujing Snack Market. The candied coating was thicker than I expected and the sugar sticks something nasty all over your molars but there’s something quite addictive about it when paired with the juicy plums. See that odd looking plum at the bottom of the stick? Yeah, that’s because it was a cherry tomato. Candied tomatoes on a stick appear to be popular but it’s just not for me!
The original variation is tang hu lu, fresh hawthorn fruits coated in that thick, sticky caramel and when I saw them being sold near the Forbidden City on my penultimate day, I bought a stick and spent the next hour in a park gnawing away at them, the perfect way to rest my weary feet after a morning visit to Tian’anmen Square. They have a texture like floury apples with plenty of seeds inside. Spit spit spit.
I saw these pottery jars all over Beijing; full jars and empty jars were always stored side by side, indicating that there must’ve been some kind of deposit system going on or perhaps you had to consume the contents immediately upon purchase. We found that both were in effect when Mirna went to attend a Hutong Eats tour with Hias Gourmet. What’s inside? Fresh yogurt, lightly sweetened! You jab a thin straw through the paper covering and suck it up. If I remember correctly, they’re usually 2RMB if you drink there and then and return the jar immediately; 3RMB if you want to take the jar away with you.
Our second hotel, which was closer to my conference location, was situated right by the Olympic site, a place where there was quite the dearth of snacking foods (apart from a few western fast food joints) – quite surprising seeing that loads of Chinese tourists make a visit here. I did see one actual street cart that only sold grilled hot dogs on a stick: from what I gather, it’s a very popular street snack in Beijing.
Anyway, I noticed a few street carts adjacent to a random restaurant where we ate one night and I vowed to visit them after I’d given my presentation at the conference (I was watching what I ate up until that day). And one clear night, with Mirna, I had my chance.
This cart is the first sign that we were onto something good.
However, we skipped that first cart and went for one further inside, mainly because he (of a husband and wife team) was rolling his flat breads from fresh dough. See the hot dogs? Told ya they were popular.
We ordered one of these flat breads with an egg cooked into the bread, a sweet wheat sauce and lettuce, all rolled up. It’s quite the healthy little snack though not a terribly exciting one.
We also ordered chicken skewers from him, which were freshly grilled and then sprinkled with a magical powder of chili and cumin before being handed over to us. The recipe for the sprinkling powder seems to vary from stall to stall to restaurant; this man’s recipe was very heavy on the cumin I quite liked with the tender chicken. Both the skewers and the wrap came to 6RMB.
We moved further past these two carts to find a few more. We stopped at a fried noodle setup run by what looked like a mother and her teenage son; she was frying noodles furiously over a flaming wok while her son was handling the orders and payment. From the variety of noodles available, we chose flat rice noodles and yes, we wanted them spicy and then we waited – that queue was long! After about 15 minutes, we got our little takeaway container of spicy noodles and I love that she fried in a lot of greens. Yum yum. 10RMB for the noodles, I think.
We took our noodle order over to some plastic garden patio furniture laid out by a chuan’r vendor – everyone else was doing it too! When there, we had a browse around their various raw skewers and chose a few (strangely, we didn’t order the classic lamb/mutton chuan’r). Our lack of a common language between us led to a hilarious exchange of bad sign language to establish our need for grilled chicken wings. Mirna, three people involved with the stall, and I, all flapping our arms and making chicken noises were quite the show for everyone that night!
Our charcoal grilled chicken wings were excellent. This vendor’s cumin and chili sprinkles were a more superior version as his recipe included toasted sesame seeds.
We also ordered some aubergine slices and rolls of tofu sheets filled with coriander. Unfortunately, the aubergine does end up a bit dry on the charcoal grill but the tofu sheets were lovely – tender on the inside, chewy on the outside, and all sprinkled with the excellent spice mixture.
The skewers and a large bottle of beer came to 22RMB – bargain! And so much fun too! I really enjoyed our street food dinner and would have returned another night had the weather been better in the days following this one. And guess what? No dodgy tummies!
One thing we didn’t try was malatang; these are various foodstuffs on sticks bubbling away in a fiery red broth. At our little street food area, there were a number of tables set up with a big rectangular pot in the middle. People were making up platefuls of dipping sauces before pulling up a stool to one of these tables. They’d help themselves to the sticks they liked, dipping them into the sauces and gnawing off whatever it is that they fancied. Great excitement would descend upon the table when the proprietor would come along with even more skewers.
So, where is this amazing place? It’s right by the Olympic site and I can point it out to you on a map if you’re going to be staying in the area. However, I do encourage you to go an discover new stands and stalls and carts in Beijing – there must be hundreds if not thousands of exciting things to eat out on its streets!