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.
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.
Red lanterns covered the streets. We were clearly in the busy part of town, where the socializing, the eating, and the shopping happens.
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.
Lining up to purchase meat for supper.
This is a traditional Beijing sweet. It is caramelized sugar that coats things like grapes, cherries, and oranges.
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.
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!
Fresh oysters with garlic paste, roasted over the coals for you. I had one to go. It was delicious!
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 (臭 豆 腐 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!
A Starbucks in a converted hutong.
This was a delicious treat. She’s making a savory omelet, which will then be placed on the crunchy discs on the left.
It’s then folded up and you munch on this delicious, salty, savory omelet sandwiched between a crisp, oily fried crust.
Later on, in the bathroom….
A very popular bakery, which is apparently endorsed by some very famous people.
We kept eating. I had deep fried vegetables on the left, and Ice had cow stomach, on the right.
The doorway of a cafe.
Looking down food street of the hutong.
Just like China town in the States…
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.
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!