BEIJING - I used to eat by the guidebook. Before first travelling to Asia in 2013, I received all the requisite warnings from the local travel clinic — how to avoid malaria, ways to ensure my water was clean for drinking and why I should stay away from street food.
That initial trip was to Nepal, where vendors spread miniature sugar bananas, oranges and fresh strawberries across multi-coloured blankets and street-side carts. The ring road in Kathmandu was bumping with fruit vendors and men selling fresh Nepali dumplings from stacked metal trays.
My commitment to avoid street food lasted about a week.
Soon I was enjoying fresh fruit and crunching on deep fried dough, eagerly sampling each of Nepal’s abundant offerings.
After three months of eating street food in the country, I wasn’t sick once — in fact, I became a full street food advocate. Unfortunately, a positive attitude towards street food remains somewhat rare, and in the ongoing debate of what to eat and what to avoid, roadside goodies are often cast to travellers as a dirty no-go.
Our perceptions of street food can align with those of an unfamiliar place: the unknown can be suspicious and scary. But just as we travel to unravel a new understanding of a place, we eat to do the same. Eating street food goes beyond basic sustenance — it helps a traveller process the culture and routines of a country.
Of course there can be exceptions, and there is no doubt that there is street food that is not sanitary. The same, though, can be said about many restaurants, be them guidebook-recommended or the hole-in-the-wall variety.
Bad reputation in mind, I made it my goal to eat primarily street food when I visited China this past spring.
Arriving in Beijing, I was met by my travel companion, who — within minutes — was exclaiming about the bag of tiny mangoes he had bought the night before. Rather than slicing the fruit, he was peeling them like bananas, sucking the juicy pulp from its flat pit.
The following days in Beijing were filled with moments like this: joyous culinary discoveries on spit, skewer and slab. I ate sticky tanghulu (candied fruit on bamboo skewers) outside the walls of the Forbidden City and glutinous tangyuan (rice flour cubes filled with red bean paste) bought from an old man with a glass dessert case mounted to the back of his bicycle. We picked away at roast duck in steamy plastic bags, and sliced-and-diced tofu topped with spicy sauce and greens. The conventional three meals a day became street food every few hours.
Above: First-time visitors to Asia and especially China will be challenged by the food.
The argument in favour of street food is easy: it’s delicious, authentic and cheap. But what I love the most is its ability to draw you off the beaten path, down narrow alleys and across busy roads, in search of that next delicious discovery. Stomach full and eyes wide, street food helps you get a better sense of a city.
One early morning, I wandered down a narrow Hutong street in Nanluoguxiang, a neighbourhood in central Beijing. No direction in mind, I rounded a corner and came across a small storefront selling breakfast. It was bustling, and I am of the belief that any place well attended by satisfied-looking locals is worth trying.
I sat myself down and did as one does when they don’t speak the language. I smiled and pointed at what someone else was eating. I was brought a steaming bowl of douhua, a soupy dish of soft silken tofu, garnished with a squirt of soya sauce, green onions and cilantro. It was accompanied by a pancake-sized round of soft baked dough, which you folded around a puffier piece of fried bread. Both were then dunked liberally in the soup.
Above: Street food served in China's largest cities is some of the best anywhere.
This was the first of many street food breakfasts — in Beijing, and then further along in my trip in Pingyao, Xi’an, and Shanghai. Often breakfast was a bowl of hot noodle soup with beans or more silken tofu, youtiao (deep-fried, oily breadsticks) and a variety of dumplings, pan-fried or steamed. In Shanghai, my favourite guotie dumplings were filled with enough liquid to slosh down my chin as I bit into them, clumsy chopsticks working while I sat along a street-side curb.
On my final night in Beijing, a friend and I sat on knobby stools along a main road by the China Foreign Affairs University. We drank chilled bottles of Tsingtao beer and he ordered a variety of skewered meats to our tiny table. There we gorged on chicken hearts and cartilage and a hefty amount of lamb meat.
The atmosphere and the food was different than anything I would have gotten at home, but ask me again, and I’d choose that street-side fare over any restaurant feast.