The street food of China

A recent trip to China convinced us that there’s plenty of Chinese food to discover besides the tiny slice we know. In this widely varying cuisine, some foods, such as dumplings, are well represented in Australia, while other street foods are completely new to us.

This was our third trip to China, a tour which took in the great bucket list sights, hence our disclaimer: there’s so much sightseeing to do in China that one cannot concentrate on food alone. (Did I really say that?)

As a tour group we were served Western versions of Chinese dishes for most meals, however we photographed street food in markets and on street corners as we travelled between Shanghai, Xi’an, Chongqing and Beijing.

Chinese cuisine is said to be ‘Sweet in the south, salty in the north, hot in the east and sour in the west.’ Food in Beijing features bread and noodles, hearty stews and dumplings; in Chongqing, hotpots and the ‘numbing’ dishes of Sichuan cuisine can be laden with chilli and pepper (impossible for us to eat); whereas steamed and stir fried dishes employing soy and ginger as aromatics dominate Eastern dishes.

We’ll describe some of the dishes we encountered, (it’s certainly not a definitive street food list). Some dishes we tried in different permutations, and others we avoided, depending on time and inclination. Get the picture?

Baozi (Chinese Bread Buns)

Baozi are buns made of dough, filled with barbecued pork or vegetables. They vary in size from the larger Dabao sold by street vendors to Xiaobao (small buns). They are a classic grab-and-go meal and looked pretty delicious.

Beggar’s Chicken

Considered a delicacy, we saw this dish in a market street in Ciqikon Ancient Town. To prepare the dish, the chicken is stuffed, then wrapped in lotus leaves before it is encased in clay and baked. The origin of this dish is the stuff of legend:

“Legend has it that during the Qing dynasty, a hungry beggar stole a chicken from a rural farm. The farmer caught wind of the crime and chased the beggar down to a riverbank. To hide his loot, the beggar buried the chicken in mud. Later that evening, the beggar returned to the river, lit twigs on fire, and set the mud-soaked chicken directly on top of the flame. The result? A tight clay crust formed over the chicken. When cracked open, the feathers fell right off to reveal aromatic, tender meat. The Emperor, who happened to be passing through, stopped to dine with the beggar and declared this dish so delicious that it was added to the Imperial Court menu. And, rather than keep his new-found dish a secret, the beggar rose from poverty by selling Beggar’s Chicken to local villagers.” – Wikipedia

Bing (Flatbread)

This wheat flour-based bread is flattened into a disk-like shape. We saw bing loaded up in street stalls for sale, just one of the variations of this dish sold throughout China. One of the most popular variations of bing is Cong You Bing, deep-fried scallion pancakes – thin flatbread layered with spiced spring onion which are deep-fried in oil. Made with dough instead of batter, cong you bing is a common street breakfast item, though it can be oily. A Jianbing Crepe is probably a better option!

Chai Pan Wonton (Wonton Soup)

Steaming hot wonton soup is a great way to have your soup and dumplings in one. Down the dumplings with such a translucent wrapper filled with tasty pork stuffing, and you’ll know it’s worth it. We found this soup at Grandma’s Kitchen, Nanjing West Road, in the Jing’an District of Shanghai, and it was deliciously moreish.

Chuan’r (Chinese Kebabs)

The influence of the Middle East in China can be seen in Xi’an, the beginning of the Silk Road, where we saw these delicious kebabs. Pieces of meat (usually lamb) are skewered onto thinly cut bamboo sticks, coated with salt, dried chili flakes and ground cumin before barbecuing over flaming charcoals on a roadside grill.

How good does this meat look, skewered to bamboo sticks, coated in a salt, dry chilli flakes and ground cumin spice mix before barbecuing over flaming charcoals at a roadside grill!

Dried fruit and nuts

We found sacks of dried fruit and nuts on sale at markets – peanuts, roasted walnuts and various dried fruits.

Dumplings – Jiaozi (Chinese Dumplings) and Guo tie (Potsticker dumplings)

Filled with vegetables or meat, dumplings can be found as street food throughout China. Steamed, shallow fried or deep fried, the shape of jiaozi, like ancient gold ingots, is believed to bring you good luck. They’re a New Year’s Eve specialty food. We love to dip our dumplings in soy-vinegar sauce for extra flavour. Slightly thicker skinned than Japanese gyoza, dumplings have made their way into mainstream dining, including hotel buffet breakfasts and dinner tables where we were served both jiaozi and Shanghai wonton. Yummo! (see also Tangbao, Xiao Long Bao and Chai Pan Wonton)

Fruit and vegetables

Markets in China carry a huge range of sparklingly fresh fruit and vegetables – blushing nashi pears, huge watermelons, tables of greens, cucumbers (which we saw sold whole as a snack food in several regions of China), and exotics such as lotus flower pods. Chinese cuisine excels in the cooking of vegetables, including some vegies underutilised in the West, such as eggplant and celery.

Many people, including the farmers relocated in the Three Gorges project, farm the areas around their houses, with corn, cabbage, beans, oranges, soya beans and loquat growing in the garden we visited. Every spare piece of land is used, even on steep slopes.

Huo guo (Hotpot)

Hotpot, is a Sichuan specialty dish with many variations across China, each regional specialty using a range of different meat, soup bases, sauces and condiments. The most famous hotpot is the Chongqing hotpot, which adds Sichuan pepper to the boiling meat broth. It’s a burning oily red hell of spicy numbing food that locals say you must eat at least once. Eat at your peril! (Our experience of numbing peppers in Chongqing Spicy chicken – Chonqing lazi ji – was enough!)

Lao Beijing Suannai (Old-style Beijing Yoghurt)

These cute little jars can be seen in shopfronts of cities across China, some gorgeously decorated. The yoghurt is made fresh each day, and besides the milk, sugar and starter, can contain nuts, raisins and rice wine. It’s a popular breakfast or snack dish, the ceramic containers returned to the vendor.

Noodles

Hand-pulled, made from a range of ingredients, noodle dishes are common throughout China. We had them in several ways, not just hot but also cold in sesame sauce (Majiang liangpi).

Pickles and condiments

All sorts of fermented vegetables, together with dried seaweed and herbs for medicinal drinks were on sale at local markets. The local family we visited makes their own pickles in huge barrels stored along a hallway.

Street meat

Definitely off the agenda for us, it was common in rural areas and markets to see sectioned fresh meat for sale, as well as all kinds of cooked meat. Many Chinese have the inclination to eat all parts of the animal – brains, feet, tongue, organs and even intestines. There’s no refrigeration in sight. Cantonese favourites include lou mei (internal organs or entrails on a stick) or siu mei (meat cooked on a rotisserie). We also saw lots of dried meat similar to jerky.

Sweets

We found these sheets of sesame candy in a market street in Chongqing.

Tangbao (Soup buns) and Xiao long bao (soup dumplings)

We came across these large steamed soup-filled buns just outside the Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai. A straw is poked into the ‘eye’ of the dough on top of the dumpling, through which you can drink the liquid within.

Tangbao were served alongside smaller Xiao long bao, soup dumplings filled with crab and a burst of scalding soup. Xiao long bao are one of Shanghai’s most famous foods, delicious little parcels filled with pork mince and scalding stock. They’re a must try. Become converted and you will be a fan forever!

Tofu

It’s not unusual to see tofu sold at markets from large vats. Buy it by the slab, or rolled into balls as a snack, or even as a savoury tofu soup.

Stinky Tofu is something else again! You don’t have to go looking for it; it will find you! A fermented delicacy, the smell is unmistakably penetrating. Made from a mix of fermented milk, vegetables, and meat, the brine can also include dried shrimp, amaranth greens, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs, fermented over several months. We came across this Hunan-style black stinky tofu in Tianzifang. To us it’s the durian of China, a dish unlikely to make it to Australia!

You Tiao (fried pastry twists)

This long, twisted fried dough is the Chinese equivalent of a doughnut, with sugar the optional extra. You can see the vendors in the front of shops throwing around the twisted dough and yelling out to attract attention. You Tiao has become so common that it was served to us as tourists for breakfast snacks.

Zong Zi (glutinous rice parcels)

Glutinous rice is served in a variety of ways throughout China, stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves, often in a triangular shape. They are cooked by steaming or boiling. These gorgeous parcels were seen at the market in Chongqing. One of our favourite sayings to do with rice came from our tour guide: ‘Stay together like sticky rice.’ Great advice indeed!

Our stay in China finished in Beijing, our last meal being the famous Peking Duck. Dating back 600 years to the Ming Dynasty, this dish, once confined to the kitchens of the Imperial Palace and served only to emperors, provided a fitting end to our tour of China. Farewell Peking, or should I say Beijing. Oh yes, we did wash it down with a bottle of Great Wall (Chinese wine).

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