Written by Tei Kue.
In the mid 2000s, I did a study abroad program in Beijing, China for 12 weeks. After I toured Tiananmen Square on the day I arrived and The Forbidden City a few days later, I’d exhausted my knowledge of the must-see destinations. All of the guide books I purchased told me to stop by the Wangfujing street food market, so I went. As I walked the lines of vendors, I decided it wasn’t for me. I would find my street food elsewhere.
The market was a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. It was a controlled adventure, a tourist trap. There were scorpions, beetles, spiders, garden snakes and numerous other bizarre creatures on a stick for the tourists to have “daring” palates for their social media pictures.
I ate my overpriced scorpion skewer (it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t delicious), enjoyed the sights and returned to my hotel to throw away my guidebooks. My adventure needed to be mine. It couldn’t be predetermined by someone else or made for the masses; it had to be unique to me.
My methodology of exploration was pretty simple. I’d take a cab with friends to random areas of the city, find somewhere that looked interesting and get dropped off. Then we’d walk around and stop every time something caught our fancy.
You’d think the day would be full of non-stop action, that we’d be zooming from here to there with uncontrolled excitement about all the new things like a puppy that’s just been let off the leash in a new dog park. Or at least that’s how I thought it’d be. In reality, we mainly just aimlessly wandered around.
And because we wandered the streets and hutongs of Beijing for hours on end, we required a constant flow of fuel. It had to be light refreshments we could consume on-the-go. In Beijing, that meant we’d be buying from the street vendors.
My first experience with a Beijing street vendor wasn’t for food but was for a drink. I saw a man with water, sodas and beer on display. When I discovered that a liter of Yanjing beer was the same price as a 12oz bottle of water, 2 Yuan or .25 USD, I went with the beer.
Yanjing Beer is the Budweiser of Beijing. By that I mean that it is the best selling beer in the area, its flavor isn’t offensive and it’s a little watery. The lager is the perfect complement to the various street foods and is especially refreshing after walking for hours on a hot day. However, its best quality is the price. For that reason, I don’t believe it’s worth drinking Yanjing here in Texas. The price is too high.
No street food paired better with a Yanjing than chuan’r (kebabs). The dish originated in the Xinjiang region of China; an area populated by a Turkic ethnic group called Uyghurs. Its derivation explains its middle-eastern and Chinese fusion of flavors.
Chuan’r are traditionally made from lamb. They’re seasoned with cumin, pepper flakes, fennel and sesame oil then grilled over smoking coals. Most vendors also sell chicken, chicken innards, pork and beef as well as mantou (steamed buns brushed with seasoned oil then grilled) to eat as an accompaniment to the meats.
My favorite times to eat chuan’r were while barhopping or after the bars closed for the night. Chuan’r vendors typically had a few stools around their stands, so my friends and I would usually sit and put in orders for chuan’r while we drank our Yanjings and socialized.
If you want to try chuan’r, I recommend this recipe. I cooked a batch using that recipe with the addition of sesame oil, and the flavor was close to that of the dish I had on the streets of Beijing. Be sure to use charcoal because the flavor imparted by the smoke is essential.
Vendors who sold chuan’r were everywhere, so it didn’t take long to discover the dish. Breakfast I loved was harder to find. I craved American breakfast. I wanted calories and protein, like biscuits and sausage gravy (I recommend you don’t try biscuits and gravy in Beijing) or pancakes and bacon. The Chinese preferred a lighter breakfast.
After weeks of trying restaurant after restaurant, my breakfast problem was solved with a street food. One morning, as I was walking down the street near my campus, I saw a line of locals at a street vendor. If I learned one travel tip while in Beijing, it’s if you see a line of locals waiting for food, get in line.
What awaited me at the front of the line was jianbing. The dish is a savory crepe that’s cooked with an egg or two spread over one side. After the egg is cooked through, the crepe is smeared with a spicy chili sauce and hoisin, sprinkled with green onions and cilantro, and topped with pickled veggies and baocui (a deep-fried cracker). The stand I stopped at that morning added a leaf of lettuce as well, which isn’t typical. Then the jianbing is folded up so that the crepe encases the fillings on all but one side.
Jianbing is a hearty yet fresh breakfast suitable for a Texas hunger if you order two like I usually did. It’s a quintessential Chinese dish, not because it uses Chinese ingrdients but because of the perfect balance of the five flavors of salty, spicy, sweet, sour and bitter.
It’s my favorite Chinese breakfast dish, and I’ve been craving one for years. Luckily, the dish is spreading to the states and has even made its way to Texas. You can try jianbing at Insennity food truck in Austin. I plan to try their jianbing next time I’m in the capital.
Some of the other street foods I enjoyed are common in the states. I frequently ate baozi (steamed buns stuffed with meat) and jiandui (crispy, chewy, deep fried pastry balls coated with sesame seeds and filled with sweet lotus paste or black bean paste), which are staples of dim sum restaurants.
On the other hand, there’s a dish called zongzi which is easy to find in Fort Worth but was extremely hard to find in Beijing. Zongzi are rice dumplings stuffed with fatty pork (my favorite) or other fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. The flavor of the bamboo leaf seeps into the rice, and the fatty pork melts in the mouth.
I grew up eating the Vietnamese variant of zongzi and was curious about how the Chinese version tasted. It took weeks of asking cab drivers where I could find zongzi before one drove me to a vendor who specialized in the dish. The Chinese version was just as good as the Vietnamese ones I grew up on, but not worth the anticipation and work put into finding it. I like the simplicity of stopping by the local Vietnamese grocery store to pick some up. If they were common in Beijing, I’d have eaten them several times a week.
For the best zongzi you can find in Fort Worth, I recommend stopping by festivals held at temples or churches frequented by a Vietnamese congregation. The festival foods are usually homecooked.
When I reflect upon my time in Beijing, I don’t regret throwing out the guidebooks. Perhaps if I only had a week or two, it would have been better to go on the path they decided for me and that everyone else takes. Luckily, I had 12 weeks, because it takes quite a bit of time to find an adventure that fits just right when you don’t know what you’re looking for. The things I found along the way made it worth the extra time and trouble. They were adventures unto themselves.