China is well known for offering a vast variety of different foods. The very concept of “Chinese cuisine” is hard to pin down because the country is so big and the dishes vary so wildly from place to place. One concept that does unite the country however is a love for street food. From Shanghai to to Xi’an to Kunming you will find locals getting their meals on the go at tiny carts and hole in the wall counters.
Street food sometimes gets a bad reputation for causing upset stomachs. Even so, to overlook street food is to miss an important and delicious component of Chinese culture. With a few easy precautions, you can enjoy a wide variety of really tasty dishes with only a minimal amount of risk.
A few tips for enjoying street food in China:
Find the Best Spots
Before you can enjoy the best street food you have to find it! In most big cities vendors seem to group in clusters. To find the most popular places look down side streets, not busy main roads. You’ll have better luck in historic parts of town than in newer business districts. Finally, anywhere near a university is a great bet for finding cheap food.
If you’re at a total loss, ask a local to point you in the right direction. You may need to vary up your schedule as well. Many stands only appear in the early morning and after dark.
Size up the Stand
Once you see something that looks enticing, take a moment to analyze the situation. In the war against food poisoning your first line of defense is your eyeballs.
Does the stand look clean and efficient? Are the ingredients covered and protected from flies, or is there meat sitting in the sun (or on the floor as I’ve spotted in the past). Your best be is to go for food that is made fresh to order as your wait; you don’t want anything that has been sitting in a case for too long.
Street Food IS a Popularity Contest
When you are picking where to eat, follow the locals lead. Try a stall with a long line, or a lot of people eating outside. While it may seem counter-intuitive to want to wait in line, a vendor that is popular with the locals is likely to be the tastiest and most sanitary food around. Lots of people also means higher ingredient turnover, which mean things are likely to be much fresher. Beware of a stall that people seem to be avoiding, that is where you will run into tummy trouble.
Use ALL of Your Communication Skills
The chances of a street food vendor speaking any English is less than zero, so it’s time to employ creative methods of getting your message across. Pointing, nodding, grunting and maybe even miming. You can use your fingers to indicate the number you would like, although keep in mind that the Chinese count on their fingers differently than we do in the West. Don’t worry, the vendor is likely to be more amused than annoyed at the spectacle you create.
Have Very Small Change
One of the greatest things about street food is that it is impossibly cheap—you can often get a full meal for less than a dollar. The downside to this is that vendors aren’t likely to have much change on hand. If you’re planning on sampling some snacks make sure you have some small change: at least a ten yuan note, although a stack of one yuan notes or coins would be even better.
Try One Of These
There is a near endless variety of foods to pick from, varying wildly from region to region. You can of course try anything that looks interesting or smells good, but if you’re not sure where to start, here are some popular snacks to keep an eye out for:
Bao Zi—These soft steamy buns can have a variety of fillings, but pork is the most popular. Usually you buy a wooden basket full of them and dip them in a spicy soy sauce mixture. They are most popular for breakfast. Also look for their popular dumpling cousin Jao Zi.
Kao Rou—A type of muslim barbeque brought to China from Central Asia. This is particularly popular in the Shaanxi province but can be found all over the country. Strips of lamb rubbed with spices are skewered and grilled over a low flame. Chicken and sometimes beef are also offered. You order based on the number of sticks you would like.
Jian Bing—A giant crepe sandwich filled with scallions, thick soy sauce and crispy crackers; a very filling breakfast.
Tea Eggs—A big pot of eggs boiling in an ominous black liquid. Relax, it’s just black tea which stains the eggs brown and gives them a unique nutty flavor.
Things on Sticks—This could be nearly anything from candied fruits, to fried potatoes to hot dogs. You name it; the Chinese will put it on a stick. At the famous Beijing night market you can try all sorts of exotic things on sticks including scorpions, starfish, and centipedes.
Of course there are also many, many variations of dumplings, noodles, breads, soups and more. Just look around and see what catches your fancy.
There’s always an element of daring in every new street food experience. Without speaking Chinese there’s a large likelihood that you don’t know exactly what you are getting, or the correct way to eat it. There’s always a chance, however small, of getting sick.
The rewards of an interesting, cheap, and delicious meal outweigh that risk for many people. So take a chance and sample something new. It will make a great photo and story at the very least.
- Stephanie Yoder
All photos courtesy of Stephanie Yoder.