Unknown to many in this pulsating metropolis, hidden away at the northernmost end of Beijing’s convoluted subway system, is a dining experience that few will ever try. I stumbled upon it by accident en route to one of the fancy but somewhat soulless expat compounds located on the northernmost fringe of the city.
Street food is very common all over China and especially in Beijing, but I have never seen a (completely locally run, non-tourist attraction) street food market of this scale. The market popped up out of nowhere in the evening, and suddenly hundreds of people were bustling around numerous men selling fruits, meat, vegetables and baked goods from a variety of “stalls” – including trucks, foldable plastic tables and oil drums. Here, I present to you – an insight into truly local Chinese eating culture: rowdy, somewhat unhealthy, somewhat unhygienic but (for the most part) absolutely delicious.
I began my culinary adventure with this friendly man selling baos off the back of his bicycle.
Bao (包子) are indisputably a big favourite with Chinese locals, especially with Beijingers. People from northern China are known for loving these delicious bread-like buns, while Southerners prefer rice and noodles. Baos are bread-like or yeast-based bun and are often stuffed with a variety of things, including all sorts of meat, vegetables and even boiled nuts or a combination of all of these (and other less appetizing things!) They are usually prepared by steaming, and are stored in round, bamboo containers to retain heat and texture, as you may see when eating Dim Sum in Cantonese restaurants.
The baos I was offered by this extremely friendly street vendor were very delicious. As seen in the background of the picture, the first bao I tried was a variation off the typically Cantonese SiewMai. This version consisted of rice and pork wrapped in a deliciously thin dough layer on the outside. Piping hot inside, these delicious little snacks warmed me well despite the Beijing heat. The second bao I tried (pictured in the foreground) was a more traditional CharSiew Bao, a thick layer of dough surrounding stir-fried pork. This one was not as impressive as the first; the dough was far too thick, a little salty and not warm enough at all.
Next, I tried the extremely popular chuan’r (串儿), or meat skewers, which are sold on every street corner in Beijing. Chuan’r are usually either lamb or chicken skewers roasted on the spot, often flavoured with a spicy chili powder mix that is added right before the chuan’r is finished. These chuan’r were being grilled by a young man too shy to have a conversation, but certainly confident enough to be roasting his chuan’r without a shirt on! Apart from their unusually large size, however, these chuan’r were nothing special. As I personally am rather adverse to fat, the inclusion of chunky bits of fat between the pieces of meat ruined them for me. Nevertheless, the meat was very juicy, probably for that exact reason. My tip – try the chuan’r on sale in the Gulou (Drum and Bell Tower) area of Beijing, there I had some of the best chuan’r of my life!
Another man was selling fresh fruit off the back of his truck. These trucks are a common sight in Beijing, and while they may not be the most hygienic or healthy way to get your vitamin C’s, they are most certainly more convenient than lining up in a crowded, messy Chinese supermarket to get fruit that most likely is just as sprayed with pesticides as that which you find on the street. But add in some lovely Chinese street-exhaust fumes and the actual health benefit of the fruit becomes somewhat debatable. Anyway, I purchased some lychees, apples, peaches and several (suspiciously oversized) strawberries, which all turned out to be absolutely (suspiciously?) delicious.
Saving the best for last, I then went over to the stall of Mr. TuDou (土豆means potato in Chinese), who was by far the friendliest and most talkative salesman I have ever met. His stall was extremely popular, a huge crowd had gathered around him and his wagon of unhealthy, deep-fried deliciousness. The concept of this snack was entirely new to me, which was probably a good thing, due to the fact that it was absolutely delicious and absolutely, completely and totally unhealthy. Mr. Tudou had on offer a variety of skewers of everything from mushrooms, peppers, jalapenos and aubergines over to fish and potato and sweet potato slices. These skewers were then dunked into a (according to Mr. Tudou) top secret mixture of ingredients, which he said he was not able to reveal to me, since it was a family secret. However, it looked suspiciously like several boiling pots of pure oil with some spices. The potato skewers and some of the others were submerged in this liquid, and then came out after several minutes, dripping with deep-fried deliciousness. Mr. Tudou then dunked these into another top-secret liquid and then shook them off, ready to serve and enjoy. I thought they were absolutely delicious, especially the potato and the mushroom skewers, though I shudder inside when I think of the sheer amount of carbs ingested in that one evening.
Overall, this was a case of where a complete lack of “dining experience” and polished atmosphere was what made the entire experience into a truly charming and unique “dining adventure”. I firmly believe in trying out the local specialties of the places that one travels to, and this to me was the definition of China – cheap, rowdy, boisterous, not entirely hygienic, but charming, delicious, fascinating, ever-changing and unpredictable.
Food is truly something that binds and connects people, relationships can form over a meal, be it a tiny petits-fours in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or a steaming bowl of noodles slurped up on a 20-cm high plastic table in the middle of the streets of a pulsating, exciting and dynamic metropolis.
Perfect for: culturally open-minded people wishing for the true “China experience”
Order recommendations: anything from Mr. Tudou’s stand
Honourable mentions: Charm and Atmosphere. Atmosphere. Atmosphere.
Not-so-honourable mentions: Thoughts about hygiene and carbohydrate intake!
Name: Street Food Market at Taipingzhuang Bei subway station (Line 5)
Address: Just outside of Taipingzhuang Bei subway station (Line 5) 太平庄北地铁站（5号线）
Reservations: Use your feet and walk there! The market materialised at ca. 5 p.m.
Price range: ¥ (RMB1-10 per person)