By Joan Aragone
Travel is about taking chances. Call it intelligent risk-taking. And with a little research, the risks are worth it.
I learned this when I lived in Beijing in the late 1980s and on my first bike trip alone through the city I stopped to sample street food–a major “no no” then for travelers in Asia.
My plan had been to ride on Christmas morning from the foreigners’ compound in northwest Beijing to the Roman Catholic Cathedral 10 miles across town and stop “somewhere” for breakfast.
What was I thinking?
For the Chinese, this was a regular workday, the streets mobbed with cycling commuters in heavy, dark parkas. And, as I rode, I found no cafes, only long stretches of dusty lots, drab storefronts featuring electrical wiring, and blocks of ugly cement high-rises.
Until the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, “private enterprise” had been as much a part of Chinese life as firecrackers on New Year’s. But in slumber mode under Mao’s rule, such ventures were only beginning to reappear.
Hunger pangs were strong by the time I spotted by the side of the road a ragtag group in heavy padded army coats and fuzzy-lined wool hats gathered around a battered tin oil drum. They were barbecuing meat on tiny bamboo skewers. Others sold tired-looking vegetables from tables or plopped into their mouths pieces of steaming hot yams that had been roasted in another drum. It was a neighborhood market. Perhaps here I’d find my brunch.
“If street food is going to be safe anywhere in China, it will be safe in Beijing,” locals had joked when we discussed the topic. “So many secret police and government agents work under cover, vendors wouldn’t dare sell unsafe food for fear of being arrested.” A student had also advised me: “Only eat in a restaurant that’s crowded.”
So I headed for the long line of mostly male customers, wrapped in thick navy-blue jackets, waiting in front of a wooden stove on wheels, reminiscent of hot bagel stands in the USA. Behind a glass window, an intent young man in a greasy apron stood at a griddle made from a flat stone heated by hot coals. Nearby, happy customers chewed on what looked like huge crepe sandwiches, filled with egg and dripping hot sauce and oil.
The cook made each other on the spot, ingredients in plastic cartons lined up in front of him: eggs, oil, chopped scallions, salt, hot sauce and fried bread. For each order, he moistened the flat stone griddle with oil from a plastic bottle, then brushed a beaten egg mixture over the surface. As the egg began to harden he flipped it with a spatula, brushed the soft side with spicy hot sauce and sprinkled it with salt and fresh scallions. Speed was essential. He flipped it again, then grabbed a strip of the twisted, seasoned bread and placed it in the center of the crepe, folded it around the bread like an envelope, and “voila”! A hot meal for 75 fen or about three US cents.
After what felt like a long time, I joined the line, the only foreigner in sight.
“One,” I ordered, using the universal sign language: fingers. Ditto for how many eggs. He broke the egg and brushed it across the hot stone griddle, forming a large thin crepe that filled the flat stone. In seconds he turned it over, brushed it with sauce and sprinkled it with salt and fresh green onion. The crowd watched, clapping gloved hands together to keep warm.
As he placed the fried bread in the center of the crepe, he asked again in sign language if I wanted more hot sauce, “Yes,” I said. “Hot or extra hot?” “Extra.”
He gave a wide grin and with a flourish dipped his brush into the second jar of chili and ran it over my bread. Then he folded it up, wrapped it in brown paper and handed it to me. The crowd grinned. “Thumbs up” all around.
“Hao chi,” they called. “Good food.”
I remember biting into a hot, steamy mouthful of soft egg and slightly salty bread imbued with smoky, spicy chili and bursts of tart green onions. Hot, spicy, light and fluffy, the flavors exploded in my mouth, soothed my stomach and filled my cold body with warmth.
As I grinned in pleasure, oil dripping down my cheeks, the crowd gave another “thumbs up” sign. I devoured the huge concoction, wiping my face with my gloves and the paper towellette I had brought from the US. Thumbs up, indeed.
I had eaten my first “jian bing,” or fried crepe. After topping it off with water from my plastic bottle, I got back on the bike and headed downtown, waiting apprehensively for the muscle cramps and nausea to begin. They never did.
And so began my investigation of Beijing street food. I learned that food cooked in boiling water or oil is probably safe; to avoid raw vegetables; to follow crowds. For jian bing dining: check for cleanliness. Did the cook work alone or with a partner who handles the money? If alone, avoid. Did he wear gloves? Check which cooks are generous with ingredients, which offer extra-hot sauce. Some cooks gave foreigners only mild sauce in the belief that the so-called “big noses” were unable to withstand real Chinese heat.
I applied the lessons everywhere. In Beijing winter, barbecued mutton and warm flat bread baked in a steel drum in the Moslem Uighur neighborhood; sweet potatoes roasted over coals; candied haw berries, cooked, dipped in sugar and served on sticks like flowers. In summer, fresh watermelons that cascaded from street stands in streams of green and pink, a sweet refreshment to the millions of bicycle riders pumping through Beijing streets in temperatures hovering at 90 degrees.
Sometimes entire Food Streets would appear, block-long rows of vendors selling scores of foods, soups, noodles.
Available in Beijing all year round—but absent from restaurant menus–“jian bing” became a frequent, favorite meal.
I never got sick from street food. To the contrary, it often set me smiling. In Sichuan Province, cilantro-flavored chilies on freshly rolled noodles opened nasal passages and sent rockets to the brain; in north China a light, fried dough dipped in sugar tasted delicious in the cold. Hot noodle soup near a frozen Beijing canal. “Jian bing” everywhere
I remember street food with delight. The food was part of a carnival and the carnival was part of why we travel —a joyous celebration of everything out there, strange, odd, weird, and often, unexpectedly, delicious.