I’m not going to lie. I have never felt 101% safe eating from Beijing’s street stalls.
That said, China’s capital has a time-honoured history of producing interesting snacks, loved by both locals and visitors, usually boasting strong local flavours. For us at City Nomads, street food culture is just as crucial a part of any city’s cultural life and treasured monuments. So prepare your bellies for our personal favourites in Beijing:
The Street Crepe – “Jian Bing Guo Zi” 煎饼馃子
The highlight of this savoury crisp-fried crêpe lies in its bold contrasts of flavour and texture: fresh egg spread over wheat and mung bean flour pancake as it cooks, then stuffed with crunchy puffed strips of fried wonton, chopped cilantro and peppery scallions, and slathered with a sweet and spicy layer of hoisin and chilli sauces.
Each jian bing is cooked fresh to order on a circular cast-iron grill, just the way you want it. For extra satisfaction, eat it during chilly winter days and slowly savour the warm food pocket in your hands – what’s not to love? You can even find it in food trucks in the U.S.A and the U.K these days.
The Satay – Lamb Skewers 羊肉串儿
Found almost everywhere in the city – outside Muslim restaurant or just from a barbecue on a wheelbarrow along the streets – this street food staple is like our satay, but (dare we say) better. Skewers of lamb meat are cooked over a charcoal fire, sprinkled with cumin and spices before handed over to the salivating customer while still piping hot. Order a bunch of them and wash it down with chilled local beer such as Yanjing or Qingdao.
Most vendors also sell a variety of other meats or offal – try chicken hearts, chicken gizzards, and the pig intestines. Not feeling the most adventurous? Go for the vegetables on skewers, which are equally delicious.
The Dessert – “Rolling Donkey” 驴打滚儿
No animal was hurt in the process of making this snack.
Tracing its origins back to the Qing dynasty, “Rolling Donkey” is a kind of cake made with steamed glutinous millet or sticky rice, generously filled with red beans and fried bean flour. After it’s cut into blocks, the cake is rolled in soybean flour – like a donkey rolling on the ground and raising clouds of dust. Sweet and sticky with about three layers of sweet bean paste, it brings to mind the Singaporean nonya kueh (Peranakan sweets). Try this at a street stall, usually operated for years by an experienced uncle or auntie, or at a good local Beijing restaurant. It’s a great souvenir to bring home to your foodie friends too.
The Hipster – Beijing Yogurt 老北京酸奶
Literally translated as old-style Beijing Yogurt, these little glass jars with blue tops are a common sight on Beijing streets. Taste wise, it’s not very far off from its Western counterparts, but the difference lies in the way that it’s prepared.
Made fresh daily by heating milk, sugar, a mixture of nuts, raisins, and rice wine, it’s distributed all over the city. It is intended to be consumed immediately, and the container returned to the vendor to be reused – immensely old school and rather Instagram-worthy, we must say.
The Classic – Baozi 包子
Baozi needs no introduction. These stuffed steamed buns, a classic grab-and-go meal, are found in most places with a Chinese diaspora.
What makes the Beijing version different (and better) is the texture. Stuffed with various kinds of meat from pork to beef, and fried veggies, the Beijing buns are juicier and more flavourful. They’re served with soy sauce or spicy sesame oil if you like, for more sodium satisfaction. Unusual flavours you can find in Beijing include carrot and egg, shrimp and cabbage, and black pepper pork. The stalls – with stacks of bamboo steamers – are quite easy to spot.
The Bonus – Bei Bing Yang 北冰洋
Bei Bing Yang or “Artic Ocean” is as ubiquitous as other fizzies like Coca Cola and Fanta in Beijing. Locals refer to it fondly as “Polar Bear” (Bei Ji Xiong). This orange soda drink distinguishes itself with a “ultra-low” sugar content; although we’re unsure how true that is, it’s wonderful on a hot summer day in the streets and with spicy Chinese fare in a typical Chinese restaurant.
Top image courtesy of rp72.