Article By Serena Runyan
My friend made a comment recently that made me think: “You can tell who’s going to hack it or not in China by whether they’re willing to eat street food.”
I thought back to my first few months in China. I had avoided street food like the plague, because I thought it was going to give me food poisoning. Despite the fact that all of my friends were fully on board with it and had suffered no consequences, I still listened to the words of warning from travel guides and my college’s China advisor: be wary of food of the “street” variety.
My friend was right. The point at which I threw caution to the wind and embraced the wonders of street food was a turning point in my relationship with China. I asked myself: was I going to be comfortable in the lace I was living, or tiptoe around in fear, dreaming of cheese and the FDA?
If you’re new to China this year and you’re like me, you might be avoiding street food as well. This is a mistake. Why? Four things make street food special: it’s hot, it’s cheap, it’s delicious and it’s made to order.
You probably have a caravan of street food carts within 5 minutes of where you live. If you’re like I was, you walk by every day and eye it with both intrigue and suspicion. Dispense of all thoughts about sewer oil that you heard from your friend who read an article one time and seize the opportunities at your fingertips. If you’re in a hurry, tight on cash, or both, street food is a great option. And like I said, it’s made to order. It’s a lot easier to get what you want out on the street where you can see your options, at least if your menu-reading skills aren’t up to snuff. And yes, they take payments through WeChat Wallet.
Many of us are given warnings about food, guidelines to follow, things to avoid, but things are much simpler than they might appear. Here are my two rules for you:
1. Trust your instincts. If it’s hot and appetizing, it’s probably safe.
2. If other people can eat it, you can too. Follow the crowd if you’re unsure.
Great, so I’ve successfully convinced you that street food is up your alley (sorry). Now what? Once I finally realized street food was a blessing and not a danger, I still didn’t fully embrace it. I stuck to what I knew, and was too shy to try the rest. So I made myself go out and try everything I had always thought about trying but never had. These are my findings.
The label of street food can stretch far and wide in China, but here I’m speaking strictly of the mobile street food carts, and I’m leaving out Muslim Street altogether. Still, there are far too many types of street food to talk about here, so I’m sticking to some basics and personal favorites. The rest is for you to discover. I’ve got three categories: breakfast, snacks, and dinner.
Here are some more rules:
1. You’ve probably learned this if you’ve been in China for more than an hour: if there are options, just point to what you want. If there don’t seem to be options, just say “yi ge” or just stand there until someone gives you food.
2. What you see is basically what you get. No big surprises.
3. When in doubt, awkwardly stand by and watch someone else order to see if the end result is something you want. You can always point to whatever they just got if it looks good.
4. Don’t be like me: be brave and try new things. Worst case, you’re out a few yuan. Most of the time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you haven’t noticed, food is good here.
5. Most of this food will be handed to you in a plastic bag or on a stick to be eaten on the go, but for food where this isn’t viable, like for something soupy, there are tables and stools. In this case, they’ll probably ask you if you want to eat there or get it to go (“to go” often involves a plastic bag), or you can specify.
Nothing is easier and more motivating for getting out of bed than a warm, cheap breakfast on the street. These are definitely more exciting that the yogurt, hard-boiled egg or oatmeal you might feed yourself at home. Start your day off right with one of these breakfast classics:
The quintessential Chinese street food, at least in my mind, is the jianbing. It’s a popular breakfast, but is eaten all throughout the day. They’re even catching on in New York City. Luckily, we live in Xi’an, not New York City, and only have to pay 5 yuan.
So how do you find this thing? Jianbing stands always have a big circular flat-iron, so if you see one of those, you’re probably good to go. They take a scoop of batter and spread it out over the surface to make a super thin crust. Then they crack an egg on and smooth it around as well. They put sauce, lajiao, chives, cilantro, pickled things, lettuce, and a thin fluffy cracker. Roll it up, and you have jianbing. Easy for eating on the go.
There are variations on a theme here: Sometimes there’s peanuts, or carrot or potato shavings, sometimes the egg goes on the outside. They’re all good.
You’ve probably heard of roujiamo the so-called “Chinese hamburger.” This is the vegetable (菜 cai) version. Choose your veg (cold, for a change), some tofu and spice. Again, you can find caijiamo at all times of day, but I think it’s best for breakfast or as a snack. It seems healthy, too.
The ease of street foot really shines when you’re out and about and need a snack. Why walk into a store for yogurt, fish flavored crackers or an unknown meat substance in plastic when you could get something hot out on the street?
Corn and sweet potatoes
You find corn and sweet potato carts everywhere. There’s really nothing special here, just some plain corn and potatoes. A healthy, warm snack. I’ve always been enticed by the potatoes, so I finally got one. Unsurprisingly, it’s exactly that: a sweet potato. In a bag! BYOButter.
You’ve probably seen these carts with sticks of fruit. Again, for some weird reason, I’d never gotten one even though I was thoroughly intrigued. There’s a theme here: turns out, it’s really good. I was surprised to find that the fruit tastes really fresh. It’s just fruit on a stick with a sugar glaze. Juicy and sweet. On a stick!
Sure, in America, you might pop popcorn in the microwave or, if you’re fancy, on the stove. But why not take it a step further and make it out on the street with an explosion loud enough to set off a car alarm? If the person making popcorn yells out something to everyone on the street, you know to brace yourself.
More sticks (chuan chuan)
I don’t know why, but I was always wary of the “sticks” carts. So I made myself order some. Turns out, sticks are great. Why eat something out of a bowl when you could eat it off of a stick? Grab the things you want and put them on a tray, then hand them over. They’ll cook them in a little oil and put spices on. Delicious, and you get only what you want and nothing you don’t. There are all sorts of vegetables, tofu and meat.
As you’ve probably realized, there are a lot of different kinds of noodles in China, especially in Xi’an. The same is true for noodles you can find on the street.、
A personal favorite is the chao mian cart. You can pick the kind of noodle you want from a wide variety, and they’ll fry them up for you in a minute.
Other stands boil their noodles. They put your noodles in a container and stick them in a huge vat of boiling broth for a minute or so.
A lot of noodle carts provide small tables and stools so you can sit and enjoy your meal. Of course, you can always ask for your food daizou (to go), but there’s something about squatting over hot noodles outside among the bustle of the street food scene that I really enjoy.
Like I said, there’s a lot more out there. Go take advantage of your many tasty, cheap options!
Serena is an oral English teacher from Boise, ID.