The Curiosity of Chinese Street Food:
Not for Your Eyes Only
By Mihika Barua | Beijing, China
It doesn’t get much more exotic than skewered insects and snakes. While we might be wanting for our familiar bagels and cream cheese, this Culinarian opts for spicy hotpot, a communal Chinese meal that promises to better hand-dexterity with chopsticks.
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Three weeks in Beijing allowed me to become accustomed to unusual foods, and discovering the university guesthouse breakfast was step one in initiating my stomach to this new cuisine. For breakfast, my usual bagel and cream cheese was replaced with an assortment of dishes that you would expect to see at lunch or dinner. Disappointed and a bit disoriented, I was initially hesitant to eat more than hard-boiled eggs and watermelon, the most familiar fare on offer, but gradually piled my plate with corn-on-the-cob, steamed bean sprouts, and sweet potatoes as I gained more courage. As the days progressed, I stopped expecting to see yogurt and granola at the buffet and even started grabbing packets of hot, steamed dumplings filled with red beans or meat, prepared fresh from the street food stalls on Peking University’s campus. Turns out that these once unfamiliar foods were a surprisingly satisfying morning meal.
Beyond the breakfast table, I quickly realized that specialties from dumpling houses, to street-side pancake stands, to food markets, housed foods that were well worth discovering. High on the bucket list was a visit to one of Beijing’s famed markets: Wangfujing food market. A narrow, traditional wooden entrance marked by ornate hanging signs marked the transition from a Western consumer’s paradise into a distinctly different sensory overload of sights and smells. Not even ten steps into the market, I was accosted by the sight of skewered scorpions, starfish, and beetles—an apparently common street snack in some parts of China. This whacky culinary orchestra was accompanied by strange smells as well, namely from the pervasive, pungent “stinky tofu,” another Beijing delicacy. (I must admit that I left Beijing without having tried skewered insects or stinky tofu, even though rumors say the insects are really just crunchy.)
Passing through Wangfujing food market lead to Wangfujing Snack Street. Lined with food stalls, it’s a taster’s paradise for cheap pan-Chinese cuisines, and just a minute away from the Zara bag-toting mannequins and Forever 21 sale posters on the main street. One side of the snack center was cordoned off from vehicular traffic and lined with food stalls sporting identical red awnings with signs advertising the type of food they sell, manned by vendors in crisp white uniforms, red aprons, and caps, and calling out to pedestrians to sample their fare.
One of the food stalls specialized in hotpots, a multi-part meal usually shared by two or more people and consisting of a simmering metal pot of soup kept in the center of the table (with a flame to keep it bubbling) and platters of raw meat, fish-balls, tofu, greens, and mushrooms that are cooked inside the pot by each participant. Dipping sauces, including peanut, garlic, and “Chinese barbecue” add complementary flavors too cooked foods. Dexterity with chopsticks comes in handy here—retrieving cooked fish-balls and spinach leaves from the depths of the pot can be a time-consuming task.
Our group opted to order the spicy version of the hotpot, and it made for a great group meal, albeit being less adventurous choice than the skewered goats’ testicles, whole frogs, or snakes that we could’ve gotten elsewhere. The spicy soup choice, however, is not for the faint-hearted; enjoying it requires readiness to eat an entire meal drenched in a fiery stew as it is spiced with red chilies and a certain variety of peppercorn that, if accidentally consumed, creates a numbing sensation in the tongue for a few minutes. We took the risk of ordering the spicy hotpot, and were happily surprised with our choice. Lucky for us, we tolerated the strong flavor of the spices.
For dessert, we tried pineapple rice and chestnut cake. While the former was thoroughly enjoyed, the latter proved disappointing—only mildly sweetened, it failed to soothe our tongues from the spicy hotpot.
Half of the experience of eating Chinese food comes from not simply the way it tastes, but from the elaborate production and presentation of the entire meal. From flipping through a colorful, twenty-page menu filled with photographs, to pointing out choices to the server, to seeing the food arrive and eagerly spinning the Lazy Susan in the center of the table for condiments, to the teamwork required to fish out errant pieces of tofu from the depths of a hotpot, a Chinese meal is one to be shared among friends. And, of course, all the better when washing it down with some delightfully weak Tsingtao beer that costs less than a dollar.
After spending two years in bustling New York, where food has become increasingly mobile and grabbing food ‘to go’ is the new sit-down meal, I have learned to appreciate sitting around a table with friends, putting all else aside for a good couple of hours. In Beijing, we got to do just that, and learned more about each other (and the delicate art of chopstick usage) in the time that we spent over hotpot than we did during class. And if you ever find yourself in Beijing, maybe you’ll be braver than I and will try a scorpion or two.