June 2018 was definitely not a good month. Three titans of their respective fields passed away: Kate Spade (fashion designer), Anthony Bourdain (chef and food travelogue host), and Charles Krauthammer (political analyst).
Bourdain’s unexpected death was a complete shock to his many fans. TV channels attempted to numb the pain by running marathons of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations.” What these Bourdain reruns confirmed was that the New York chef was an intrepid consumer and unabashed champion of street foods. There is nothing more vital to a city and a city’s health than good street food and more of it,” he said. “Street food makes traveling interesting.”
In fact, he had spent the past two-plus years working on Bourdain Market, a major food market on the Hudson River. The market was based on Asian night markets where he had spent many occasions eating and drinking amidst the locals. His ambitious food project was to include approximately 100 retail and wholesale local and overseas food vendors, butchers, bakers, cheesemakers, fishmongers and food stalls. He was hoping to bring the experiences from his shows to the market’s visitors, connecting them with authentic delicious foods and rich culture. Sadly, the project was canceled in December 2017 because of the many challenges, including obtaining visas for international food artisans and vendors.
One of Bourdain’s “must-try” street food in China is bao luo fen (抱羅粉).
A Hainanese specialty, this rice noodle dish is both sweet and savory. Soft and translucent, the rice noodles are tossed in a fragrant beef broth and corn gravy, and topped with sliced, lean pork, beef jerky, and roasted peanuts. The dish is named after Baoluo, a town in northeast Hainan Province.
Other popular Chinese street foods include:
Thin fried egg crepes filled with a handful of chopped scallions, a dollop of (spicy) hot chili sauce, a lettuce leaf and a crunchy fried dough (薄脆). Roll it, up, bag it, serve it, eat it! The fried crepe is a popular breakfast snack for Chinese and best found in early hours when vendors get busy on street corners with their portable hot plates. They can be eaten with “extra pickled long-beans,” chili garlic sauce, or extra hot sauce. The perfect start to a day of Chinese street foods
Dough sticks (油條)
Golden deep-fried dough sticks look a little like churros or bread sticks but are puffier. They are made out of wheat flour and soda. They are also a popular breakfast food in China and are usually eaten as a side dish with congee (similar to gruel) or eaten after dunking in soy milk.
Chinese “hamburger” (肉夹饃)
Another popular street snack is stewed meat, chopped, stuffed in a pita-like bun and drizzled with meat gravy and chili paste. The secret to this snack is in the stewed meat. Each vendor blends his/her own secret spice mix (chili, cumin and the mouth-numbing Szechuan pepper). While pork is the popular meat of choice, in Muslim areas it’ll be mutton and beef. This “burger” is believed to have originated from Xian but is now popular throughout China.
Steamed dough dumplings filled with various vegetables and/or meat are ubiquitous snacks. While the perfect dumpling is said to have thin , translucent dough wrap and full of juice, the Chinese street dumpling come in a thicker skin (wrap), and includes more filling. Splash some soy-vinegar on it for a hearty on-the-go snack. These may be steamed or fried in a pan for a crispy bottom.
Pieces of marinated meat on bamboo skewers coated in dry chili flakes and a ground cumin mix are grilled over flaming coals. Kebabs are one of the most popular street foods in the whole of Asia, not just China. In Muslim regions, the meat of choice is lamb, but they can also come in the form of fresh whole squids, chicken and spirals of tofu. They are one of the easier to find variety of Chinese street food.
Stinky tofu (臭豆腐)
As it name implies, stinky tofu’s odor takes some getting used to. But if you can brace yourself and get past the smell, you’ll enjoy the crispy skin and the fresh soft tofu within. The three cities for which this street food is famous are Changsha, Nanjing and Shaoxing. However, you can easily find (or smell) it in any city across China.
Candied haws (糖葫蘆)
Hawthorns skewered and dipped in a sugar syrup then left to harden is a Beijing favorite. This snack is for those with a sweet (and sour) tooth. They are comparable to mini candy apples, but with a sharp sour bite. If this sounds like something you’re interested in trying, make sure you go for the seedless variety – that is, ones where the vendor had removed the pits from the core. There are other candied fruits on skweres in addition to hawthorn. Some even come stuffed with bean pastes and other fillings.
Noodle soup (板麵)
Soup noodles are big in China. The noodles are in broth flavored with chili and Szechuan peppers. They have meat toppings of minced pork or beef, sausage or chicken. “Fixings” to add to the noodles include pickled long-beans and, what else? More chili sauce and red pepper flakes. Just keep a look-out for the giant soup kettle.
Fried scallion pancakes (葱油餅)
Diced and spicy scallions are embedded into layers of dough then deep fried in a giant wok. These greasy, but tasty, pancakes are usually found in the breakfast hours and is a less-healthy alternative to the jianbing (crepe). These should be eaten immediately because they are no good cold.
Steamed dough buns with delicious meat and/or vegetable fillings. The thick leavened doughy bun has no flavor of its own, so the flavor depends on the filling within. They can be of different sizes. The big ones, dabao (big buns), are the most common from street vendors. The most popular one is the BBQ pork bun (char siu bao), both as street food and at dim sum. – the Chinese brunch. They are a quick and inexpensive option to fill up on the go.
Fried bee pupae (油炸蜂蛹)
Bee pupae is high protein and low fat and a common ingredient used in cooking in southeast Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. However, the most common way to eat it is deep fried to a golden color, steamed, or as a crispy bee pupa cake.
Hot pear and date juice (熱梨和棗汁)
In winter, when temperatures drop, the perfect “hand warmer” is a hot plastic cup of Asian pear, red date juice mixed with rock sugar. Believe it or not, this is one of the most common drinks at Chinese street food, stalls! Of course, there is always the more common jasmine tea.
And for the really adventurous or Andrew Zimmern wannabes, there are much crazier selections that Andrew Zimmern has presented in his “Bizarre Foods” program: fried spider, black beetle, centipede, scorpion and grasshopper on a stick. These are plentiful in ethnic regions and snack streets of popular tourist cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou.
Scorpions on a stick
Grasshoppers on a stick
In a May 2017 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Bourdain said the world needs more street food because it makes the world better. “One of the joys of Singapore and Hong Kong … is the vibrant, democratic, affordable fresh food culture made by hand available for a few dollars!
No matter whether you are daring enough to try the insects or just want to settle for the tamer dough sticks, next time you visit China or any other country, make sure you seek out the street foods. Keep Bourdain’s street food spirit alive!