Our travels to China were in the winter months when temperatures sit in constant minuses and Chinese street food is more of a necessity for us to keep warm. Arriving we have few expectations of street food yet our first destination, Xian, Shaanxi province proved to be one of the best street food cities we’ve come across, by far the best during our travels in China. In contrast to the rice and noodle dishes expected we find flatbreads to be more of the staple in Chinese street food. When photographing we do find Chinese street food vendors less comfortable with the lens, many covering faces and one poor fella sprints down the street just to avoid us. To be less intrusive we resort to a big lens, holding back to photograph and for closer images we ask (point) to the vendors for permission. Anyway here are some of our favourite Chinese street food found during our travels in China (expect regional variations).
1. Chinese Crepes (Jianbing, 煎饼)
Thin fried egg base, a scatter of scallions, a smudge of rich chilli sauce, lettuce leaf filling and a crunchy centre of crisp fried dough (Baocui, 薄脆). Wrap it, bag it, serve it. In China the Jianbing crepe is a popular breakfast snack best found in early hours when vendors get busy on street corners with their portable hot plates. My first Chinese Crepe was down in record time and a second quickly ordered “extra pickled long-bean please”. The perfect start to a day of Chinese street food.
2. Chinese Hamburger (Rou Jia Mo, 肉夹馍)
Stewed meat, chopped / cleavered, stuffed in a pitta bun and perfected with a drizzle of meat gravy and swab of chilli paste. The secret to Chinese hamburgers is in the stew as each vendor blends their own secret spiced mix; think chilli, cumin and the mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper. While pork is the popular meat choice, in Muslim areas you’ll find more mutton and beef (Halal). Chinese Hamburgers originate from Xian but are now popular street food in all of China.
3. Dumplings (Jiaozi, 蒸餃)
Steamed dough dumplings with various fillings of veg and/or meat; a snack many will be familiar to. While the perfect dumpling is said to be thin-skinned and full of juice the Chinese street food dumplings tend to be thicker skinned, meatier (or vegy) and ultimately easier to eat on the go. Perfected with a splash of soy-vinegar. For a less healthy alternative try them shallow or deep-fried. Note dumplings are common in China and Asia so again expect regional variations.
4. Kebabs (Chuanr, 串儿)
Meat pieces, skewered to bamboo sticks, coated in a salt, dry chilli flakes and ground cumin spice mix before barbecuing over flaming charcoals at roadside grills. Chuanr is the Chinese street food variation of one of Asia’s most popular street foods. With obvious Muslim influences, the popular meat of choice is the lamb kebab (Yang Rou Chuanr, 羊肉串) but they can also be found as all sorts from fresh whole squids to spirals of tofu. Kebabs are one of the easy-to-find options of Chinese street food.
5. Candied Haws (Bing Tanghulu, 糖葫芦)
Chinese Hawthorns skewered, dipped in a sugar syrup and left to harden. One for the sweet (and sour) tooth; Tanghulu are like mini candy apples only with a sharp sour bite. I advice unless you want a pocket full of pips look for the seedless option where haws have been cut in the centre. While haws are the preferred (and best) fruit option you will find all sorts of candied fruits and many variations of stuffed haws with bean pastes and fillings. Tanghulu are one of the most common Chinese Street food in central Beijing.
6. Noodle Soup (Banmian, 板麵)
In China I find an exciting new world of noodle soups, the meals surprisingly filling with meaty toppings of sausage or even chicken drum sticks, soups come laced with chilli and Sichuan Peppers, I also stumble on my new favourite topping of pickled long-beans. There are so many variations of noodle soups in China you will never be bored. While more common at street-side noodle shops they occasionally appear as Chinese street food; the giant soup kettle (pictured below) is one of the coolest street food vendors I’ve come across.
7. Deep Fried Scallion Pancakes (Cong You Bing, 葱油饼)
Layered dough flatbreads with a spiced scallion centre, deep-fried in giant woks at China’s street sides. Found in the breakfast hours this not so healthy Chinese street food offers a greasy start to the morning and an alternative to my preferred Jianbing Crepe (no.1 above). Better to hold off for the later hours.
8. Chinese Sandwich (Bing Jia Cai)
I don’t know the name of this Chinese street food (update: it’s bing jia cai) but I do know it was seriously delicious. The Chinese sandwich (as I will call it) pictured below was easily one of my favourite street food finds of all time. Fluffy fried flatbread (similar to Indian Paratha) wrapped over a stir fry of shredded cabbage, carrots, daikon and chopped fresh chillies cooked in chilli oil. Amazing flavours. The Chinese Sandwich makes for a good vegetarian alternative to the Chinese Hamburger.
9. Boazi Buns (Baozi, 包子)
Steamed dough buns with delicious meat and/or veg filling. Baozi is prepared similar to Jiaozi Dumplings (no. 3 above) only with a thicker leavened dough which makes them more bun-like, more filling and in honesty not so delicious; I will always opt for Jiaozi given the choice. While different sizes are found the big Baozi buns (Dabao) are the most common at Chinese Street Food and my personal favourite filling is stuffed with red barbecued pork “Bao Char Siu”. A quick and cheap option to fill up on the go.
10. Hot Pear and Jujube juice
This was more of a necessity than a preference, when temperatures hit as low as -12’c the perfect hand warmer is a hot plastic glass of Asian Pear, Red Date (Jujube) and rock sugar juice. While it was the most common at Chinese street food, the locals’ preferred method of hand-warming was flasks of jasmine tea and as always my preferred method to keep warm was the local booze (Baiju rice wine 白酒) available at your closest convenience store, 50% alcohol, costs next to nothing. Enjoy.