The people of Beijing are hardy stock–everyone perfectly dressed and coifed despite the frigid temperatures, a street life, food vendors included, that is not hampered by the dry cold that froze me immediately. Needless to say, one of the best cures for a half-frostbitten fingers is to hold something warm, something comforting, something delicious, between my hands. To heat my belly with the fire of spicy, delicious food fresh from the nearest bundled up cook on the sidewalk.
The man above is making the snack on the left, a thin, crispy egg wrapper filled with two kinds of sauce, one of the optional and spicy, lettuce and a giant crispy fried cracker-like thing. The version on the left is a softer, doughier example, with all the same fillings plus the addition of cilantro, chives and black sesame seeds. I remember only eggs being use to make the first one, while a batter was used in the second, though B insists the only difference was that the stone on which they cooked was spinning at the stand we bought the first one. Either way, after extensive research into this snack, my favorite of the street foods, I chose the one on the right as my favorite. And by extensive research I mean I ate a shit-ton of these. It’s a difficult task I take upon myself. You’ll notice that in neither of these examples did the camera beat my mouth to crepe.
The photo to the left shows pretty much exactly that typical food. This is a flat bread, which is fried on a griddle with an egg, smeared with hot sauce and stuffed with lettuce and your choice of meat: options often included what we later found out was donkey and something that appeared to be the Chinese version of a Slim Jim. I’d show pictures, butwe opted out of the Slim Jim. Below, however you can see our Donkey McMuffin. We didn’t know that this was what we were eating at the time, it came up later in a conversation with my friend N. “Have you had donkey before? They sell it on the street, sort of a reddish sauce, they put it in bread with an egg….” Yup, Yup, we have.
Each day, as we set out to stroll the streets, we grabbed just about anything that caught our eye to eat. Even if we happened to be two blocks away from lunch. Or dinner. Which we were when I decided I might just need each of these.
We were on the way to dinner when I first picked up one of the fruit skewers on the right. I don’t know why I waited so long before trying one of these ubiquitous Beijing treats. Various fruits–this one has kiwis sandwiched inside a sort of small apple are surrounded by a crunchy candy coating. Each bite is a satisfying crackle as you break through the coating, followed by a refreshing feeling of cool, softened and sweetened fruit rushing into your mouth. Totally crave-able. In fact, I’d have to admit that writing this is making me crave one right now. Once I discovered these I bought them about every time I saw them, with various different types of fruit. The textural transformation from regular fruit is really exciting. Texture was also my reason for loving the bread pictures above on the right. This snack looks like a giant pizza when you see it being pulled off the griddle on its cart, but then they slice it all up and pass it over in a brown paper bag. Topped with a tasty sauce that does double duty, supplying a subtle flavor and also keeping the chives from flying off, the bread itself has that magical texture that manages to be both crunchy and chewy at the same time. It’s hard to describe it with out comparing it to the texture of cartilage or tendon, the slight crunch that gives way to perfect chew, and I know that doing so is a little gross, but keep in mind, the flavor was distinctly that of a type of bread–though no bread I have had before. B had to confiscate the bag when I was about three slices in, as we were on our way to a hefty lunch. I pouted.
Luckily you’re never far from your next delicious street food in Beijing, and I’m easily placated, especially when we run into this fried, meat stuffed bread, my very favorite. We ran into our first example of this when a window on the side of the street opened and a young cook shouted to us “Beef Bread” and then repeated it as we squinted at this odd sight. But then we bought “beef bread” (maybe it was beef bun? I’m doubting my memory now). These are made in similar fashion to the scallion pancake you get at most any Chinese restaurant, by rolling beef into a round, flat dough, then making it into a spiral and rolling it flat again, followed by a quick, shallow bath of hot oil. The dough is thin, crispy, flaky and extremely savory (I’m guessing a well honed hand in a combination of salt and msg), the meat is somehow perfectly spread between the various coils, each bite as flaky and meaty as the last.
And much like when I finished eating from a street vendor, as I reach the end of this post, I’ve completely forgotten the numbing cold and warmed myself from the inside out with thoughts of amazing, quick and dirt cheap food.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on hole-in-the-wall semi-restaurants and various regional foods found around Beijing!