China’s Street Food: Don’t Leave China Without Eating This One Thing
By Patti Morrow
“Don’t go to street markets!” warned our Chinese guide from Viking River Cruises. “Dangerous. You get sick.”
I get it. Nobody wants tourists to have a bad experience. Viking, in particular, caters to an older, affluent crowd who prefer fine dining and luxury experiences.
Enter me, a well-traveled adventure junkie who isn’t good at following the rules. I adore street markets and have safely sampled the food all over the world. In fact, it lights my hair on fire when people say they refuse to try China’s street food.
Eating street food is synonymous with absorbing the culture. It’s my comfort food away from home. There are, of course, some true-and-tried rules to follow, which I will reveal later on.
China is legendary for its culturally-vibrant open-air markets with offerings that run the gamut from sinfully sweet, temptingly savory, nose-running spicy, to downright bizarre. Here are my market adventures.
Jinzhou is an ancient city with 2,000 years of history and culture. On my visit to the local market, I was the only non-local in the entire market.
Housed in a large hall, the stands were small, each with a counter and a small floor space for displaying pig noses, squiggling eels, chicken feet, butchered cow heads, fish heads, and flat-pressed ducks. Oh, and produce, too.
I entered the market and was astonished to see the hanging skinned carcasses of….dogs. In some Asian countries, dogs are raised on farms for consumption like other animals. The practice of eating dog meat is controversial, though, with some cultures touting it as traditional while for others it’s clearly taboo.
I strolled around the market and then tried a rubbery, cooked chicken foot. I gagged.
Luckily, just a few steps outside the market, I spied a small storefront selling fresh, handmade noodles. I ordered a bowl of extra spicy and relished the 5-alarm lusciousness.
Shanghai, the third most populous city in the world, is my favorite city in China. It’s a stunning hotbed of growth, culture, and diversity. The Bund, an upscale riverside boardwalk is a must-see, especially at night. On one side are colonial-era European-style buildings; on the other side of the Huangpu River is the most magnificent sci-fi skyline.
Shanghai has experienced a bit of a crackdown on street vendors, though not nearly as severe as Beijing.
The Bazaar near Yuyuan Garden in Old Shanghai dates back to the Ming Dynasty. It’s a rabbit’s warren of alleys and passageways selling foodstuff like giant sweet pancakes, skewered glazed fruit, pork buns sprinkled with sesame seeds, and squid on a stick.
Tucked into the alleys between Old Shanghai and the Bund is where you’ll find the most authentic street food. There aren’t too many tourists in that area. Here, I found grilled squid, bean sprouts, stir-fried vegetables, steamed buns, and several kinds of noodles.
Beijing was a huge disappointment in my quest for street markets. I couldn’t find a single one anywhere near my hotel; the concierge said they’ve been closed down.
I was really looking forward to Wangfujing’s Donghuamen Night Market, the legendary bustling market known for selling scorpions-on-a-stick and other gag-inducing fare like fried crickets, silkworm larvae, and sheep’s testicles.
In spite of TripAdvisor naming it one of the top places to visit in Beijing, the market was controversial and locals are happy for the closing, citing it as a horrid tourist trap.
Reportedly, the market was closed due to noise, lack of hygiene, and traffic congestion. Donghuamen was the first night market to open after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 so I find it sad to see it closed.
The only street food I came across was a tiny mom-and-pop storefront selling steamed dumplings near my hotel.
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, the starting point of the Silk Road, and the UNESCO site of the Terracotta Warriors considered one of the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century.
While I enjoyed seeing the mausoleum of 8,000 life-sized ancient sculptures, my favorite part of Xi’an was exploring two of its downtown markets.
The Muslim Street Market is a historic road that dates back over 1,000 years and is the hub for Muslim activity in the city. The Hui people are the Muslim decedents of the Arabic countries and Persia in Xi’an.
It’s a carnivore’s dream, with tidy stalls lining both sides of the dark flagstone street, selling a variety of delicious treats such as barbecued meat kebabs, mutton stew, and roujiamo – marinated lamb stuffed inside a steamed bun or muffin.
Other vendors sold fried shellfish, black eggs, dried fruits, freshly baked bread, fried tofu covered with green chilies and cumin, cold noodles, herbs, persimmon pies, and beautiful fruit pops.
Adjacent to the Muslim market, close to the Drum Tower Square, is the brightly lit North Gate Night Market. The colorful architecture on the main street and offshoot alleys is Qing dynasty.
The street is a wild cacophony of dazzling lights, the frenetic sounds of peddlers and music, and fantastic smells of charcoal grills. The aromas of spicy hot pot and fresh steamed buns wafting from the stalls are hard to resist.
Animal carcasses are strung up on both sides of the market. The Bazaar also sells handmade souvenirs like paper cuttings, embroidered purses, silk scarves, wood carvings and other artwork.
I heard a thumping sound and turned to see a young man making thick Biang Biang noodles. He repeatedly stretched the rice noodles and then slammed them onto tables creating the biang biang sound from which the noodles get their name.
You just never know what you’ll see at a Chinese night market, especially one like this which was filled with more locals than westerners. Pushing through the crushing horde of people, basking in the stimulation of all my senses, I was nearly knocked over by a woman holding a toddler.
She sprinted to a trash can in the middle of the market where she proceeded to pull the lad’s pants down and “point” him into can, where he promptly urinated.
I suppose it’s more hygienic than polluting the street with pee, but I won’t lie, my eyes nearly popped out of my head and I snorted to keep my giggles from exploding.
My favorite edible treat in all of China was found in the Xi’an night market…deep fried crab on a stick. After being submerged into a boiling vat of oil before my eyes, the hot crustacean was pulled out and coated with a very crispy, spicy substance similar in texture to bread crumbs but with a peppery, zesty flavor.
I confess, I purchased the double crab more for the photo op, but when I took a bite, my eyes went wide with shock and delight. It was absolutely delicious! The shell was finger-licking crunchy, and the flesh inside was juicy and succulent.
Worldwide, some 2.5 billion people eat street food, of which I am one. While the incidence of contamination is low and in line with restaurants, it pays to be savvy about safety.
Here are some tips for eating safely at street markets:
- Is it popular? Are there a lot of people waiting in line?
- Check out who is in line – look for locals and children.
- Visually inspect the stall, cooking implements and cutlery for cleanliness. Unlike a traditional restaurant kitchen, everything is in view.
- Check to make sure the same person prepping the food is not also taking the money.
- Eat only heated, hot food, and watch it being cooked.
- Raw and rare meat/seafood have a high risk of bacteria. I never touch sushi. Ever.
- Eat only whole meat, nothing that was formed or ground together, like meatballs or sausage.
- If you like spicy food, like me, that can help (in moderation) Chili peppers and other spicy foods help to kill certain bacteria. And it tastes yummy.
- Stay away from creamy sauces, and condiments like salsa and guacamole, especially if you don’t know how long they have been sitting out.
- Drink only bottled water. Do not use ice.
- Eat only fruit with a skin that can be peeled off.
If a few hours after eating you start to feel sick, here are some remedies that might help you feel better. If they don’t work, find a doctor:
- BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce (USA), and toast
- Pepto Bismo
- Oral Rehydration Salts
- Ciprofloxacin (antibiotic)
I love this bit from Kevin Cook of Monkey Abroad who spent years teaching English in China…
“A single Big Mac patty can contain meat from up to a thousand different cows from five different countries. I’ve met foreigners in China who won’t go near street vendors yet they’re happy eating in Chinese McDonald’s. The fact is, neither one of us knows exactly what we’re eating or where our food is coming from.”
For more information about eating safely, read How to Shit Around the World by Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth. Informative and entertaining.
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer based in South Carolina with over 150 bylines in 35+ print and online publications, author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and editor of the award-winning travel blog Luggage and Lipstick.
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