Fast Food: Beijing's Best Street Food
Part of the fun of exploring Beijing's lively hutong alleyways is the chance to munch on the city's traditional snacks, served by itinerant food sellers.
Where to go
Wangfujing Snack Street and nearby Donghuamen Night Market, both in Dongcheng, are fun for browsing and sampling. The two markets have an extensive lineup of cooked-food stalls, many selling food items designed to shock. Sure, it's extremely touristy, and you'll be elbow-to-elbow with wide-eyed travelers fresh off the tour buses, but they’re also incredibly fun and great for photo ops. Cheerful vendors call out to potential customers, their wares glowing under red lanterns.
On the banks of Houhai, near the historical residence of Soong Ching-ling, is the entrance to Xiaoyou Hutong. Down this narrow alley you'll find Jiumen Xiaochi, a traditional courtyard house occupied by a collection of old Beijing eateries forced to relocate due to urban redevelopment. Some of these small eateries have been producing the same specialty dishes for decades. Look out for lu dagun, a pastry made of alternate layers of glutinous rice and red bean paste; dalian huoshao, northern-style pork pot stickers; and zha guanchang, deep-fried slices of mung bean starch dipped in a raw garlic sauce.
What to try
Sweet-potato sellers turn their pedicabs into restaurants on wheels. An oil drum, balanced between the two rear wheels, becomes a makeshift baking unit, with small cakes of coal at the bottom roasting sweet potatoes strung around the top. In fall and winter, sugar-coated delicacies are a popular treat. Crab apples, water chestnuts, strawberries, and yams are placed on skewers, about half a dozen to a stick; the fruit is then bathed in syrup that hardens into a shiny candy coating, providing a sugar rush for those all-day walks.
Kebabs are popular, and it seems as though anything under the sun can be skewered and fried. There are the outlandish skewers of scorpion, silkworm cocoons, and even starfish, all fried to a crisp and covered with spices. There are also the more palatable (and authentic) lamb kebabs flavored with cumin and chili flakes.
Some modern snacks are ubiquitous, such as the jianbing, a thin flour crepe topped with an egg and a crispy fried cracker. Briny fermented bean paste and hot chili sauce are spread thick and a sprinkling of cilantro and spring onion is added before it’s rolled into a tidy package for munching on the go. Also on the streets: baozi, fluffy steamed buns filled with all manner of meat and vegetables, and xianbing, wheat flour pockets typically stuffed with chives and eggs.
Cooked to order?
The turnover at vendor carts and street-side stands is rapid, so it's unusual that anything has been sitting around long, but stick to the busier stalls. If you have any doubts, ask the vendor to cook yours to order, rather than accepting the ready-made food on display.