Thirdeyemom

Chinese Street Food 101: How to eat like a Chinese without being grossed out

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”  – James Michener

A sign posted on the outside window of a Chinese restaurant near our hotel in Beijing.

One of the best things about traveling the world is experiencing the world through your stomach.  Taste, of course, is one of the five senses and you cannot possibly leave home without it.

Food is an integral part of every country and culture around the world whether it be for mere subsistence, pleasure or some of both.  It is often said that one of the best things about traveling can be trying and eating all the different kinds of cuisine a new place has to offer.  However, that said, one of the worst things about traveling can also be the food.  It is all a matter of how you interpret things and of course how adventurous or non-adventurous you are.

Let’s take me as an example.  I am a relatively adventurous eater who loves to eat ethnic food.  My favorite cuisines are Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern and recently Ethiopian.  However, I do not eat red meat (sorry folks, I had to drawn the line twenty years ago when my grandfather fed me a hamburger that was stone cold frozen down the middle I haven’t had the desire to eat red meat since then).  I also am weary of any other types of odd meats (donkey, venison, dog to name a few) and “meat parts” such as organs (eye balls, hearts, livers, etc).

I can’t stomach strange kinds of uncooked fish such as fish eggs or scary looking raw creatures (I lost 10 pounds when I traveled to Japan as a teenager).  Yet, When in Rome I try my best to try the local cuisine, especially if it is vegetarian, cooked fish or poultry.  Therefore, I’m not a meat an’ potatoes kind of gal but I do steer clear of McDonald’s and opt for Pad Thai.

Before my big trip to China, I was extremely anxious about the food.  I had tried the Americanized version of Chinese in the States (and even went to have Dim Sum in Chinatown) but I’ve always left the restaurant feeling sick.  It was too greasy, too fried, too MSG’ed and too much.   I had high hopes that perhaps I’d enjoy the food in China much more than the terrible Chinese American food I’ve tried here.  Unfortunately, I proved my fears correct:  I hated the food.  (Note:  I am certain there is some Chinese food that I would have enjoyed if I had more time in China.  Each province has their own unique kind of cuisine.  As a tourist who couldn’t read any Chinese, I was at a severe disadvantage thus I am perhaps being a little unfair in my judgments).

My first lunch in China proved to be edible.  I had cashew chicken with no rice (never figured out where the rice was!).  It was gooey, relatively bland and so-so.  It left me feeling incomplete and unsatisfied but at least I kept it down.  That evening, I tried Sichuan pork at another Chinese restaurant and my mouth was on fire.  The fire raged all throughout my sleepless, first jet-lagged night and I woke up at 4 am with a burning stomach-ache.  From that point on, I simply threw in the towel and gave up.  I know, lame lame lame!  But given my past history with parasites and other unmentionable stomach ailments, I didn’t want to risk it for bad food.  So for the rest of the trip, instead of eating Chinese food I found myself taking picture after picture of the various types of Chinese cuisine I saw along the street.

Never before had I ever seen such a wide variety of street food in my life!  You could find anything you wanted, any time of day and the price was right.  It was beyond cheap.  So cheap that most Chinese prefer to eat both breakfast and lunch out everyday on the street!

So, without further delay here is thirdeyemom’s Chinese Street Food 101:  How to eat like a Chinese and not get grossed out.  Time to get out your chopsticks and dig in!  Hope you’re hungry!

Scenes from the street:  Every evening this enormous line of street food vendors would set up shop on Donghuamen Daije (a busy thoroughfare in the heart of Beijing) and sell plates and sticks of food to hungry passerby. 

Raw meat was selected and cooked up on the spot.

As well as other types of raw foods (fish, pig’s feet, beef).

Candied calabash and other delights were for sale on a stick for a quick and easy dessert.  These were extremely popular and I frequently saw locals slurping them down.

Stir fry and noodles were made to order (obviously this Chinese vendor thought I was interested!).  All the ingredients are fresh yet the pots, pans and plates are not very clean or hygienic.

You could also find fish fry around town.  You would simply pick your fish, then they would kill it for you and cook it right before your eyes all in a matter of minutes. 

Smelly green sea cucumbers are also cut up fresh and served in a plastic container to go. Mmmmmm.

And one last time (I promise, I just can’t get enough of this picture) you can buy live scorpions, beetles and seahorses (supposedly have a medicinal quality per a fellow reader of my blog) to be cooked up live on the spot and eaten.  I did not see any tourists eating this stuff as it was strictly in a Chinese side street.  Thus I cannot confirm who does eat the live scorpions on a stick and why! 

Outside of town, you could find peasants selling their excess produce.  I still have yet to determine what these are (a fruit? a vegetable?) but I saw them growing in the trees en route to the Great Wall (thus they must be a fruit!).

Fresh nuts, figs, dates and other dried fruits were for sale as a tasty snack which even picky me enjoyed (they made a great treat for our  2.5 hour hike up to the Great Wall!).

Being measured are the mixed goodies I purchased.  They were delightful!

I had been warned not to be alarmed if I ordered Chicken Soup in China.  Apparently the Chicken’s foot is often sticking out of the soup!  Needless to say, I did not order Chicken Soup.

Shanghai eats:  Shanghai had much better food in my opinion which was a thankful relief.  It is an extremely cosmopolitan, modern city and is the complete opposite from traditional, historic Beijing.  Yet I did still find plenty of interesting street food!

Here are some of my favorites:

Dried fish parts, raw fish pieces and other yummy, smelly things.

Up close and personal.

Ahh….I found my Moroccan dried fruit cart, in the midst of central Shanghai! 

Ok….these steamed buns MUST be good because every time we walked by, the line was a mile long. 

 Freshly grilled Peking duck, head included.

A local specialty from Shanghai’s water village community, Zho Zang:  Bean sauce pork. 

Toes and feet included!   (Had to take it sideways to get up close and personal).

There are rows and rows of this bean-based pork delight. Seems like it would be a messy kind of food to eat while walking but many do.

Zho Zang is also known for its seafood, notably fresh crayfish as seen above.

Here are fresh oysters which are caught in one of the many fresh water lakes outside the water village.

Here is the traditional, local Hairy Crab, fished right outside of the water village.  The crabs are still chirping as you pass by. 

 The dumpling queue….must be good!

Street food and eating in action.

 Cookin’ it up.

All this talk about food is making me hungry!  But I’m glad I’m back and eating what I’m used to.  It is all a matter of our tastes and what we are accustomed to.  There is no right or wrong with cuisine.  I just wish I could have liked the Chinese food better!  Thank god for western hotel food!  (I am so embarrassed to admit!).

BEAUTY IS IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER, AS IS FOOD!!!!!

Stay tuned….next post details my exciting “climb” up and hike on the Great Wall of China.  Needless to say, it was a great adventure!

25 comments

  1. Bless your picky-eater’s heart! I know it must have been a challenge. You may not be a “picky” eater exactly, but unfortunately I am.

    Sara has worked in China, and come home insisting I would not do well there. She had some issues herself, as she was usually the VIP in most dinners she attended and had to eat the special foods she was “honored” with. Yikes! She said she learned to stop asking what she was eating. She learned ignorance was better.

    All that being said, I should also add, that I ate street food in Vietnam and Thailand–both without issue. In fact, I loved the street food in Vietnam, which may sound surprising.

    Great post, Nicole!

    Kathy

    • Wow, I can’t imagine having to eat that stuff. THe same thing happened when we were in Japan. We were invited over to a Japanese home and the woman brought out the biggest plate of sushi and tofu I’d ever seen. As a teenager, I almost cried. Now I would gladly eat it.

  2. That’s too bad the food was so unsatisfying for you! Such a pain since food can provide such joy and comfort while traveling. It is always hard when you can’t read the local language, although I think even then a lot of times it’s a shot in the dark even if you can.

    I think the orange fruit might be a persimmon?

    • Yes it has been confirmed that the fruit is persimmon. I ate it dried and it was delicious. I wish I would have enjoyed the food better. There is nothing I love more than eating and drinking wine on vacation! Oh well. Unfortunatley I didn’t loose my baby belly (still there after five years)…..I found other stuff to eat and drink!

  3. Great Post – what a food adventure! I do not think I would do well with feet or brains or internal organs – maybe not tell me what I am eating first might just help me through the experience. I have some food issues and run into problems eating out at local restaurants (here in the US). Both myself and my other half got really sick from some food or drink in Jamaica – nothing like sharing an illness together on our honeymoon – thank you for Immodium:)

    • Good! I’m not the only one who thinks organs are disgusting! That does not sound like fun on your Honeymoon! I can’t think of anything less romantic. As for getting ill, after India and believe it or not, Costa Rica, I got very sick. I would have to bring a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter next time I go to India as Dehli belly is quite common.

  4. I’m sure it would be better if you had someone who could translate and point out what some of the food is. Those steamed dumplings are indeed delicious. They are a type of bread dough with various fillings. My favourite it is the pork filling. I also think the fruit is persimmon. They are on the trees here in Italy now, where they are known as cachi. They are very delicious when eaten very ripe.
    I don’t eat offal or insects either, or raw fish if I can help it. I don’t mind the taste, I just don’t like the idea of it. I think you need to go to Hong Kong and do Chinese lite before you tackle some of the more adventurous stuff.
    Your photos make me want to go to China and investigate.

    • Thanks for the comments! Yes, starting with a Chinese menu expert would be very helpful! I wanted to try the dumplings yet couldn’t understand the insides and was nervous it would be something I didn’t like or eat. Ok…Hong Kong sounds like a great idea! You should definitely check China out and investigate with your amazing eye for pictures!

    • Ok…maybe I just need to have a couple glasses of wine and dig in! I must be a picky eater! Oh well…the visuals are what get to me. Iceland had some strange eats too!

  5. Lu

    I can see how authentic Chinese food might not be as appetizing as our westernised versions, but I think that if I ever got to visit China, I would have to try it… maybe start vegetarian and work my way up to recognisable meat dishes etc!
    Chicken’s feet are often seen in the supermarkets in South Africa. Oddly enough, I’ve never been in the least bit tempted to buy them – probably because I wouldn’t know how to cook them!

  6. I’m glad that you tried Sichuan food (although it didn’t end up well for your stomach). By the way, chicken’s foot is delicious! Too bad you didn’t try it. However, I myself prefer to eat chicken’s feet which are cooked by my mother because I believe she always clean them well before cooking.

  7. Gian Banchero

    Being I grew up in an Immigrant peasant family from Italy and Sicily and we grew our poultry and much of our meat I promise that a lot of the “meat” eaten wasn’t sold at the local American supermarket, without explaining EVERY PART of the animal was eaten… EVERY PART! I also grew up in an international colony which meant taste sensations that the average American would never be privy to. Needless to say the Chinese are some of the most adventurous eaters around. Recently I ventured to a local Chinese section of town with several young Chinese-Americans, they were rather shocked when at an Asian restaurant I ordered almost every type of offal on the menu, when I asked them to join in they all stated that they didn’t grow up with variety meats and couldn’t understand–as one said–how I could eat all that “road kill”. I didn’t care, it meant more for me. Happy happy!
    Gian, Berkeley, California

    • You are so lucky! I wish I wasn’t so picky. I don’t know why I am. I grew up on red meat and veal but now it has been over half my life since I touched it. I am sure all these exotic meat parts are good and even delightful. I just need to get past the visuals! Iceland eats a lot of crazy things such as dead, rotted shark. I made sure to steer clear of that too. That said,I adore Italian food and enjoy visiting Italy very much. I consider real italian food to be the best food out there and wished I had spent a semester abroad in Italy as opposed to France (sorry France).

      • Gian Banchero

        Please, hush now about this, but as a graduate of three culinary schools I’m one of those rare Italians that defends the French kitchen… Though I respect the country’s high kitchen it’s the country cookery that I love so much, I also grew up with native French who presented me (and my family) with recipes we still use fifty years later… Then there is the Greek kitchen which has a purity the same as the Acropolis… The Spanish kitchen… etc., etc. etc. Oh, and Sicily’s kitchen which IS NOT REALLY ITALIAN (think Spanish, North Africa) and is yet to be discovered.

  8. Pingback: Fall on the Great Wall: Part 1 | thirdeyemom

  9. Gian Banchero

    I forgot to mention that not only Spanish and North Africa are big influences in the historic Sicilian kitchen but also Greek and some French. Thanks.

  10. I love this culinary experience post! Some great photos!
    By the way the “sea cucumber” is a stinky fruit called durian. Not my favorite!
    Such a shame you didn’t experiment more with the food but I totally understand if you’ve had parasites. Local food is such a huge part of the cultural experience.
    I love street food but after having typhoid fever, giardia and another kind of intestinal infection from eating street food here in Guatemala I’m sticking mainly to home cooked food 🙁
    However, when I lived in Thailand I never had a kitchen (only a fridge) and always ate out, mostly street food, as it was so cheap and delicious. I was there over 5 years and I hardly ever had a problem!

    • I would definitely try THAI street food. I adore Thai food and can only imagine how wonderfully delcious it is in country. I honestly just do not like Chinese food at all. It is really the only kind of food I don’t like. I am assuming that I wouldn’t like Vietnamese or Korean either. Oh well. I bet the food in Guatamala is outstanding!!!!!

  11. Nicole, I wanted to send you a message but wasn’t sure where to do so my apologies that this doesn’t relate directly to your post. I recently came across and interesting blog post about why one blogger hated her time in China (the food was one of the reasons!) and I thought you might find it to be a fun read given your own experiences. Not sure if you already follow her blog; I just discovered it myself. http://www.neverendingfootsteps.com/2011/12/14/the-things-i-hated-most-about-china/

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