Where to find the best food in Beijing? On the streets. Airbnb’s Experiences & local food tours can help you navigate them and find Beijing’s best street food.
Beijing, my friend Fiona and I queried anyone we met who was from, visited, or had even passed through the city as to what we should be eating while there. As restaurant professionals and food enthusiasts, we were admittedly seeking insider secrets. Adventurous foodstuffs. Someone who knew someone who owned some small, exemplary restaurant where tourists never go; where we’d be armed with some hand-drawn map and a message inscribed on a napkin in Mandarin to serve as key for entry. The answer to our queries, however, from travelers to natives alike, was invariably, “the street food.” But how does one begin to navigate the jungle that is Beijing’s street food scene? Where does one start when you cannot speak, nor even attempt to read the language? (And even when armed with a few polite phrases, take heed: a simple mispronunciation of the words for “thank you” can result in hilarity at best, offense at worst.) Which street’s food do you choose when you can hardly interpret a map?Prior to our trip to
Over a plate of mozzarella sticks at Newark Airport (a temporary farewell to dairy), on the precipice of a 13-hour flight over the North Pole to the other side of the planet, a decision was made. We’d be landing at what would feel like the middle of the night for us, but would be early evening in Beijing. We’d just need to fill a few hours before we could easily justify sleeping. What better way to shock ourselves not only into the timezone, but into the culture, by taking on the street food quest with aplomb? As with any jungle, a good approach is on a safari. And so before we took off, we committed ourselves to Danny’s Street Food Safari, a local tour offered through Airbnb Experiences, as the next meal we’d eat outside of an airplane, and the first thing we’d do upon arrival in Beijing. We took everyone’s advice seriously: bring on the street food.
Beijing’s Best Street Food: What to Eat
If the thought of Chinese street food gives you angina, take heart: what we found was hardly shocking, more snacking, as we joined Danny and many locals of Beijing for an evening among the counter-service stalls most common for quick but hearty meals that even the most weary Western travelers could take comfort in.
QingFeng Steamed Dumpling Shop
Dumplings, for example, are an excellent intersection of street food and comfort food. Also comforting: our guide, Danny Chang, boasts credentials not only as a restaurant reviewer but as a food scientist. While QingFeng is a popular chain with more than 300 locations in China, this particular merchant in Beijing’s Hugousi district takes the popularity prize as “the most famous steamed dumpling restaurant in Beijing, maybe all of China,” according to Chang, for having been recently visited by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. While in China I sent postcards to more than one friend whose kids had an obsession with the country that could be credited to love of dumplings, and for good reason. I can imagine little better as a first bite of Beijing than the pillowy, savory packages offered at QingFeng, where we tried a vegetarian option called “Three Delicious” studded with various mushrooms (three: confirmed, delicious: confirmed), and another bursting with shrimp and vegetables.
Even in something as simple and familiar as a dumpling, you begin to understand what makes Chinese food in China something meticulous and extraordinary: the particular tenderness of the dough, the filling whose components remains toothsome and heterogenous, the seasoning that sings without being salty. Further to the comfort vibe, a bowl of millet porridge was also provided, which is a common, simple soup to accompany any meal in China. If out-of-comfort-zone is more your speed, proceed with caution into the readily available bowls of chili paste that adorn every table.
Try This at Home: Get our Steamed Vegetable Dumplings recipe.
Xibei Muslim Canting: Lamian Northwestern Muslim Hand-Pulled Noodles
The tradition of wheat-based, hand-pulled noodles in China is one that originates in Lanzhou, an area in the northwest where it is a staple of the Hui Muslim population. In a country known for its rice and pork-based dishes, this was somewhat of a surprise to us, though a quick Google search shows that the Muslim population of China is over 10 million people. “Northern China produces more wheat than rice so wheat flour made food is more popular than rice made food in southern China,” explains Chang. To maintain the halal nature of the dishes, beef, lamb, and vegetables play the supporting roles to the starchy stardom of the noodles.
Hearty plates of stir-fried noodles with bright strands of cucumber, glistening from the quick sauté and resting in an unctuous beef sauce similar to gravy began to lull us into something that kind of felt like a food coma, except that we’d actually been up for about 24 hours at that point. Under the bright lights I started to get a sense that “street food” as we knew it in the U.S. was not a useful parallel in Beijing, where “street food” is an all-encompassing term to mean stalls, snacks, and convenience counters rather than food trucks and carts. It’s the food “of the street” rather than literally from the street. And according to Chang there is a reason for this: “Street food culture in Beijing has changed a lot due to the urban development and also government regulation. It is illegal now to sell food on the street as a street vendor. In general, street foods have been moved into indoor spaces.”
Fatty Wang Donkey Burger
If the name “Fatty Wang” made you giggle, then you’re doing it correctly. To the best of my understanding this is indeed a bit of a prank, indicative of the irreverent nature of Beijing, meant to evoke something along the lines of “fat ass”—apropos for a restaurant serving donkey meat. Here’s where we finally crossed the line into unfamiliar proteins, but before any anxiety sets in, consider the following Chinese saying: “In heaven there is dragon meat, on earth, donkey.” We didn’t try any dragon, sadly, but the donkey burger was indeed heavenly: a bold, brisket-like, robust red meat spiked with peppers, and served on a crackly, freshly baked roll. Imagine a cheese steak, hold the cheese. (We’d already bade farewell to dairy for the trip.)
As with many elements of Chinese cooking, the popularity of donkey is a matter of practicality: “Donkey is mainly popular in certain areas just south of Beijing where there used to be a big donkey trade center,” says Chang. “Donkeys are used in many ways such as dragging ships on the Grand Canal.”
Every burger, even donkey burger, needs its sidekick, but in place of fries we had a silken tofu with “thousand year egg.” (Which didn’t taste a day over 100 years!) “Thousand year egg” or sometimes “century egg” is merely a lyrical name for a process of preserving egg in clay or ash.
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Hugousi Snack Restaurant
The word “snack” enters the picture rather often in Beijing, which even boasts an entire alley known as “snack street,” and is most indicative of Beijingers’ love of quick and comforting foods. (Snack Street? Maybe this is the heaven where dragon meat is to be found!) Our final stop on the street food safari had all the trappings of a bakery—piles of rolls, cakes, and jellies—could it be time for dessert? Well, sort of.
Dumplings, noodles, and burgers are one thing, but the slightly savory edge to the snacks and “sweets” here was perhaps the first indication that culinary culture shock would indeed be had during our trip. A riotous magenta jelly made of goji berries was similar to cranberry sauce with slightly more texture. Yellow pea cake was a starchy paste with a hint of sweetness and not too much discernible vegetable character. A fried sesame bun with a hint of honey called “sugar ear” was a safe bet, but nothing could prepare us for the finale: a cold, grey broth of fermented green beans or “bean juice.” It tasted like…nope. Three months later and I am still struggling to describe it. I’d have to have been born in China, perhaps even in a previous generation, and drinking it since childhood to appreciate it, Chang suggests. “That is my father-in-law’s favorite drink. He could finish one bowl in one or two minutes while I am still drinking a bottle of Diet Coke slowly.” While much that preceded it this evening could qualify as comfort food regardless of origin, the “bean juice” was the “made in China” wake-up call: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.
Header image courtesy of SiYi Qian/Getty Images.