China

Beijing Street Food

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. – JRR Tolkien

Aside from the views and outdoor recreation, food is definitely my favorite thing about traveling. When city-traveling, it’s all about the food. In the countryside, food takes a backseat to the activities, but it’s always an adventure planning the next place to eat. I’m not a foodie—I have no desire to taste quail eggs or snake venom—but I want to get a feel for a place through the food.

Our last day in Beijing was a hedonistic journey through the narrow, ancient alleyways of the central part of the city. We were on a mission to eat some street food.

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We took the metro into the old part of the town. When we climbed out from underneath the ground, it was as if I stepped into every movie and every picture I had ever seen about China while growing up. It was so “Chinese”! I felt it in the colors, the smells, the people, the sounds, everything.

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Red lanterns covered the streets. We were clearly in the busy part of town, where the socializing, the eating, and the shopping happens.

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We found what seemed to me like a cross between a gourmet and a traditional grocery store. It was a tiny market with aisles of whole grains, spices, dried herbs, noodles, rices. Rice was pretty much the only thing I could identify. Ice bought two kilos of walnuts; they were cheaper and better quality than what we can find here in Phnom Penh.

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Lining up to purchase meat for supper.

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This is a traditional Beijing sweet. It is caramelized sugar that coats things like grapes, cherries, and oranges.

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Then we came across fresh yogurt. For 3 RMB ( fifty cents), you get a fresh pot of yogurt and a straw that you stick through the paper on top. You stay at the shop until you finish the yogurt, and hand the pot back to the vendor when you are finished. I paid them an extra ¥2  to take the pot with me. It now houses our toothbrushes.
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Then, we got to the Hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys that reach upwards of 400 years old. It was my favorite part of our whole trip. Many of the hutongs had converted store fronts to house cafes, pubs, or accessory shops. It was a walker’s delight!

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Fresh oysters with garlic paste, roasted over the coals for you. I had one to go. It was delicious!
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For the past three days, I had been smelling something foul on the streets of Beijing. It was somewhat sweet smelling, but also smelled, honestly, like feces. I didn’t really believe people were defecating on the street, so I thought it better not to bring it up to Ice. When we were in the hutongs, she pulled me over to a street vendor, and immediately I smelled the fecal smell again. Believe it or not, it was tofu. Ice told me I would like it, and she was right. It’s a form of fermented tofu, or “stinky tofu”. I really can’t do the explanation justice, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

Stinky tofu (   in Chinese, Pinyin: chòudòufu): A soft tofu that has been fermented in a unique vegetable and fish brine.The blocks of tofu smell strongly of certain pungent cheeses, and are described by many as rotten and fecal. Despite its strong odor, the flavor and texture of stinky tofu is appreciated by aficionados, who describe it as delightful. The texture of this tofu is similar to the soft Asian tofu from which it is made. The rind that stinky tofu develops from frying is said to be especially crisp, and is usually served with soy sauce, sweet sauce, and/or hot sauce.”

I can’t wait to go back and get some more stinky tofu!

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A Starbucks in  a converted hutong.

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This was a delicious treat. She’s making a savory omelet, which will then be placed on the crunchy discs on the left.

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It’s then folded up and you munch on this delicious, salty, savory omelet sandwiched between a crisp, oily fried crust.

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Later on, in the bathroom….

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A very popular bakery, which is apparently endorsed by some very famous people.

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We kept eating. I had deep fried vegetables on the left, and Ice had cow stomach, on the right.

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The doorway of a cafe.

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Looking down food street of the hutong.

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Just like China town in the States…

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Cotton candy.

And that was it! At 10:00, we were ready for bed. We had to fly out bright and early the next morning, so we headed back to our hotel.

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In the Hong Kong airport, where we had a layover, I spotted Astronomy magazine! My dad has an advertisement in there for his business, Obsession Telescopes, and a great friend of ours is a columnist in there. All the way in Hong Kong, a memory of home!

In the end, I really loved China, and not just for the food. The people were friendly, there was so much history, and the city felt almost like New York. I’d love to go back, next time with Sean. I never even got to see Tiananmen Square or the Great Wall!

Check back soon for more Cambodian rainforest adventures!

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Categories: China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beijing In October: Part One

One of the perks of international teaching is the conferences. Our school is an IB school (International Baccalaureate), which means they prescribe to a philosophy and practice that is shared in all IB schools worldwide. Not only is it a great program, but they offer first-class conferences in every corner of the globe.

It’s my first year teaching Language B, which is English as a second language; normally I teach traditional Western “English” class, where you read novels and write essays and such. This year I do both, in grades 8-10. So, I was sent to Beijing to attend an IB conference on teaching Language B.

I couldn’t have been more psyched! China! I have read about it all my life, seen it in films and the media, and certainly obsessed over the Americanized version of their food. (General Tso, I’m talking to you.)

I handed my passport over to my school, who set me up with a Chinese visa. It took about a week or so, and I think the price tag wasn’t cheap. Americans have more detailed paperwork to get into China; as my Chinese friend told me, “Two big countries who each think they’re the most important.” Even when Sean and I had a layover in Guangzhou, the American passports took a lot longer to process for our transit hotel. At least it wasn’t like the Sri Lankan border guard, who told me Americans like to start wars, and we should stop picking fights with so many people. (I told him I agreed, and could I please have my passport stamped, sir?)

But really. China. Beijing, no less. The capital. With only four days to spend, and  a full-time conference to enjoy, I had my hands full with anticipation and possible plans.

I went with another teacher from school, Ice, who is actually from Shanghai. She has lived in Cambodia for the past 20 years, and is married to a Cambodian. She speaks Mandarin (Chinese), Khmer, and English. She also teaches Language B like me, but for Mandarin. We went to the same conference together—I had a great time traveling with her.

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Unfortunately, when we woke up the first morning, the sky was a bit, um, “foggy”. The pollution was bad. I was bummed out—I knew China had pollution, but seeing it out of a ten-story window made it seem all the more real. Luckily, of the four days we were there, this was the worst. The rest of the days had vibrant blue skies, no joke. It was really gorgeous. And, even on this bad day, when we were on the street, we forgot all about the gray-tint of the sky.

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The school where the conference was held had an AMAZING lunch. I mean, look at this! This is their school lunch! I would enroll as a student here just so I could come for lunch every day. I really loved their salads; none of them were with leafy lettuces like we’re used to in America, but instead with seaweeds, diced vegetables, tofu chunks, and amazing savory dressings. They did have a lot of deep fried things, as you can see. Just look at this picture I can count four different deep friend foods: sesame-crusted sweet potato, fried shrimp, fried fish, and fried chicken in a sweet and sour sauce.

After our conference Ice had made plans for us to meet up with her friend who works at Phoenix TV in Beijing. It is one of the few private broadcasters that is allowed to air in mainland China. We went out to a really nice Chinese restaurant, where I never even opened a menu. Ice and her friend ordered everything. And, man, did they order.IMG_8122

The craziest part for me was that everything came at a different time. After the first dish arrived, I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s a lot of food.” Then, the second dish came, and I thought, “Whoa, I shouldn’t have eaten so much of that first dish.” Then the third, fourth, and fifth dishes arrived. And we sat there, for three hours, until we ate all of it. Oh my goodness was it divine. We had mushroom salad (on the plate with the cucumbers on the left), a salad made entirely out of different mushrooms I had never seen before in my life. We had deep-fried tofu (so much better than any I’ve had in the States). We had an entire fish, with the head intact (Ice ate the head so I didn’t have to worry about tackling it myself). We had pepper chicken baked in a clay dish (with whole chunks of marinated ginger and garlic). Also, not pictured, was a giant hot-pot of cabbage and pork soup. There was so much soup in the hot-pot, man, that Ice’s friend sent it back to be warmed up about ninety minutes through the meal. Sometimes, weeks later, I dream about that night.

And if we weren’t stuffed to the seams, I had smiled when we passed the Starbucks earlier in the evening, so they decided it would be great to polish off our meal with a decaf latte.

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See, we don’t have Starbucks in Cambodia, which isn’t a big deal, but the novelty of seeing different Starbucks around the world is always cool to me. We sat for another few hours and talked about American customs versus Chinese customs, and whether or not Starbucks is as popular in America as it is in China. I said, “Maybe, but it certainly isn’t how people traditionally drink their coffee.” Then I explained to them the concept of the diner, and bottomless coffee.

The next morning, we struck out at 7am for the second day of our conference.

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Breakfast on the streets of Beijing. So much meat, so early in the morning! This was the city of food, I tell you.

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Donuts? (Notice the heavy coats; we were there mid-October, and it was chilly! Around the 40’s or 50’s. Look, when you’re coming from the 90’s of Cambodia, that’s cold!)

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It reminded me of New York City.

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More delicious street food.

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I loved all the bicycles everywhere. Every major road had a bike lane, and we saw people on bicycles everywhere.

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It wouldn’t be China if there weren’t the ultra-modern in immediate juxtaposition with the traditional.

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And then we passed a McDonald’s.  (Something we also don’t have in Cambodia!) I have to admit, I did get a McFlurry one night. And in case you were wondering, it looked just the same on the inside as an American McDonald’s does. What was different about it? If you remember, Kuwait had the McArabia, but here China has the “McExpress”. It’s that window on the left side, where you can walk up to the counter and order espresso drinks, ice cream, or apple pies.

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Here was the school where our conference was held. It seemed really large to me—especially in comparison with NISC, which only has 490 students! Our school is teeny tiny next to this giant.

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Here I am outside the gates of the school. It was the “High School Affiliated To Renmin University of China”. I still haven’t figured out how they abbreviate it…

The second night, Ice and I had plans to meet up with a girl I met through the conference who lived in Beijing and worked at the Canadian International School of Beijing. Ice and I took the subway to another part of the city, and walked around for a bit.IMG_8144

We ended up in the fancier, shopping mall area. I loved the balloons you could buy in between stops at H&M and Ray Ban.

We accidentally ended up walking through the embassy district, which was devoid of any street life whatsoever. We were pretty bummed out, and had to meet up with the girl from the conference. Honestly, if Ice wasn’t Chinese, I would have starved that night. She was able to find a minuscule sign hidden behind some trees that said, “Soup House” in Chinese. She pulled me inside, and we warmed our frozen bellies with delicious 75 cent soup. IMG_8145

Ice had hers with beef, and I just had noodles, vegetables, peanuts, and egg. Sounds weird, I know, but I ate it all!
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You eat it with both chopsticks, to pick up the whole bits, and a spoon for the liquid. Honestly, it was simple, it was unexpected, and it was delicious. Finding those out-of-the-way places on accident is what makes good memories. Ice and I had fun  in the back of that noodle shop!

The next day, the final day of the conference, I had to take another photo of my meal…IMG_8149So what? I’m a little obsessed with food. Again, look at the amazing salads. On the left next to the broccoli were gigantic black seaweed pieces that were delicious. I swear, if I tried to cook any of this at home, it would turn out a disgusting mess. But in China, magic happened in the school cafeteria. (Check out the whole shrimp in the top right!)

I do have one more post for you about China, and it was the final night of our stay. We went to the city center, where the hutongs are. The hutongs were narrow, winding streets and alleys over 400 years old. Many of the store fronts now house restaurants, take-away food, cute shops, with live musicians on every corner. Many of the streets are closed off to cars and only allow foot traffic. Men are engraving names on pieces of rice. People are doing magic tricks. You can buy a silk dress at one store, and a t-shirt of Mao Tse Tung at the next. It was a riot, a party every night. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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