Beijing street food
Arachnid kebob, anyone? If you haven’t lost your appetite from all the lusty hawking and spitting and splatting, your stomach will certainly rumble as you browse Beijing’s edible temptations. Between great steaming caldrons and vats of bubbling oil, squirming specimens are lined up, already impaled, ready to be plunged to their crispy deaths. They’re simply waiting to be chosen…by you?
If you’re bored by the ordinary, fed up with fishballs and fried octopus, sick of spicy noodles and delicate dim sum, why not try the next level of Beijing street food? Have something on a stick.
The adorable seahorses must be all crunch when fried, but who’d want to eat such a fantastical creature? I’m heartbroken to see the splintery skewer piercing the armor of its chubby belly while it’s big round eyes stare sadly… Excuse me while I anthropomorphize. Don’t call me ethnocentric!
On the other hand, I get the shivers looking at the seahorses’ stick-mates. The headless scorpions curl and straighten their tails and claw the air. They’re certainly fresh, but not terribly appetizing, even though my heart holds no soft spot for them.
When I see them fried, they’re no more offensive than a barbecued shrimp: a thin-shelled body with a lotta legs. Crisp and plump, with the promise of succulent sweetness inside. It’s mainly a difference in attitude and behavior, isn’t it, between the shrimp and the scorpion. One swims, one hikes. One fishes, one hunts. One has charm and magnetism, the other is furtive and hostile. The scorpion’s reputation makes him repugnant. It’s prejudice! And look: unlike the shrimp, the scorpion’s fully edible—no legs or tough shells to spit out. Still…no thanks. I can’t bring myself to nibble one.
The young woman in the video is a Russian tour leader. And yes, she ate them all—I watched. She judged the fried scorpions “actually quite pleasant.” She was hesitant to eat their tails, but I know about these things and told her the shop would have removed the stingers if they were harmful. She bought it and chowed ’em down.
Silkworms, locusts, and grasshoppers are other potential snack options, sold separately or in colorful combinations. Big fat larvae, mahogany brown and shiny with oil, are five on a stick. They look like beads of exotic hardwood, but I know their liquidy centers would gush out at the gentlest squeeze. Wait, on closer inspection they appear to be candied. My mouth waters in anticipation of a brittle coating of burnt sugar shattering against my teeth. Maybe they’re buttered, not oiled… I’m close to grokking the allure of the delicacy. If it weren’t for the damn ick factor.
Read the rest with more photos…
There’s nothing repulsive about the metal tray of tiny naked birds. The size of a baby’s fist, they’re bigger than the ones I ate on a stick in Shanghai once. The birdies squat face-forward, heads up, elbow’s out; perfect posture for a little beast brigade. Small but succulent, I don’t think they’d nauseate any carnivores.
But look at them. Chop off their beaks and tack on tails, and they’d look exactly like wet cats. Well, as long as you don’t see their spindly chicken feet. So…imagine this is a tray of skinned and honey-roasted kittens. Would they be appetizing? Revolting?
What is it that dictates our individual dietary taboos? Why are some perfectly edible items directly hot-wired to the ick factor? Even if they’re (said to be) tasty and nutritious, we simply can’t choke them down. The very thought of what’s delicious to me might be loathsome to you.
I don’t eat anything with four legs. I might eat something with eight (crab) and I might not (scorpion). I might eat something with two (chicken) and I might not (bat). I’ll pass on escargot, thank you, but slurp down raw oysters. I won’t try a crisp-fried Thai-spiced grasshopper, but a whole baby squid with curly tentacles? Gimme—head and all. Sea urchin gonads? Yum! Bull balls? Uh uh, no.
These photos are all from the snack street off Wangfujing Street in Beijing. Some offerings seem to be there solely for their weirdness, like snake, and crocodile. They’re battered and fried, so how do we even know what’s inside? Who’d recognize if it’s just chicken under the crumb coating, anyway. Or kitten.
And starfish—are they really good eating? To anyone? Or just a novelty item for the list-ticker and sustenance for the desperate. Could they be anything more than salty dry grit? I could have found out—but I didn’t.
Many items I can’t identify at all. Flora or fauna? Sweet or savory? Anyone have a clue what these twiggy pods are? Some sort of sea urchin, maybe?
Hundreds of vendors cook and hawk their wares on the long food street. It was packed with snackers, but we saw almost no Westerners. Maybe it was the time of year—March. There’s very little written English and even less spoken; but a few drawings help identify some of the critters on offer. Like the fluffy sheep sketch that lets me know the enormous bloody joints are not bear bones, even if they appear to be.
A kiosk cook was busy making crepes to order. He poured a thin brown batter on a crepe grill, then the crepe was flipped. While the second side cooked, he broke an egg on the crepe and smeared it around. When the egg was a little cooked, he dribbled some dark sauce on it—plum sauce maybe? or hoisin?—then sprinkled green onions and chinese parsley on it. I began to drool. Then the cook plopped on a big crispy curl of fried animal fat—duck? pig?, folded the crepe around it, and handed it over. I can imagine the goodness of the rich, crisp fat, making the crepe delicious. He must make other combinations, though. Pig fat’s not on my list of edibles.
In Japan, people do not eat or drink on the street. In China, street food is a joy of life. (On the other hand, Japanese people do not hawk up and spit globules in public.) For portability, many Chinese snacks are sold on sticks, added eco-benefits unintended. Skewered frozen fruit embedded in ice makes a festive and refreshing snack or dessert. Strawberry sticks are coated in sticky caramel that floats across the face in long invisible threads with every bite, then hardens in the teeth long after the juicy fruit is gone.
I came across two men with wooden mallets rhythmically pounding a heavy golden mass with all their might. When the stuff was flattened like a pizza crust, a third man used a cleaver to scrape it up and fold it back into the center of the woodblock, whereupon the pounding would begin again. Eventually, the nuts and seeds were sufficiently pulverized, and the honey (I think that’s what held the mass together) sufficiently evaporated. The dough was then cut with the cleaver (it looked tough) and packaged. It is a wonderful, dry, crumbly, not-too-sweet sesame halva-type treat. I wish I knew more. Anybody?