If you travel to Beijing, you must visit Wangfujing Snack Street—here are five reasons why (including both fanciful ice cream options and scorpion on a stick).
The directions for finding Wangfujing Snack Street were already promising: once in the bustling Wangfujing Commercial Shopping District, find the KFC and make an about-face. (Good life advice, really.) Enter the alley under the paifang—that is, traditional decorated archway—and merge into the gathering throng. The skewered scorpions should herald to you that you’ve arrived. Get ready for an experience that is less about Chinese tradition and authenticity and more about spectacle, and frankly, one of the more Instagram-worthy food experiences of your life. I’ve had plenty of international travel shenanigans among food stalls, street vendors, and local markets, but Wangfujing Snack Street topped them all for its sheer volume of ballsy audaciousness.
Local Beijing guide Martina Wang summarizes it well: “It’s become an iconic street for tourism. Most local people don’t really go, but you’ll see travelers there from other countries and also from other (smaller) areas in China. But when you are here you can try it if you can appreciate the busy commercial atmosphere and are curious about the weirder side of Chinese food!”
As if the name “Snack Street” weren’t enough (how have I even lived in a place without such a thing?), I offer a summary of reasons to visit Wangfujing Snack Street if your travels take you to Beijing. Or else feel free to file under “reasons to go to Beijing.”
A majority of that which is available on Snack Street is organized into dim sum-sized bites. Among a small selection of familiar-looking items, such as bao, crab legs, chicken feet, and steamed rice balls, exists a world of things unfamiliar: fermented mung bean juice, deep fried whole ducklings (I think?), and strands of a picturesque, seafood-looking item that turns out to be cow stomach. Down some of the side corridors of Snack Street exist stalls of noodle vendors that will hustle the American traveler hard-core to have a seat in front of their particular establishment, though one quickly realizes that they are all part of the same operation. The noodles themselves may be unmemorable, but the experience is decidedly not, and any excuse to pile on some of the ubiquitous chili paste that is available on just about every table in Beijing is a good enough reason for me to have a seat. (Plus, while stationary, you yourself may become part of the “spectacle,” as described below.) I can also say that two foods that were invariably excellent in China, from Snack Street to high end restaurants to meals in private homes, were sausages and mushrooms, if you’re seeking universally safe bets.
Because no “snack street” the world over would be complete without acknowledging that a good number of the population, myself included, snacks on sugar. The sweeter highlights of Wangfujing include neon-glazed, candy-coated, mystery globes: depending on your ability to communicate, could be strawberries, goji berries, or cherry tomatoes. Scores of roasted chestnuts put Western-style holiday markets to shame. Waffle cones with the size and texture of industrial-grade bubble wrap. Or sip one of the syrupy, multi-colored libations straight from Professor Snape’s laboratory, garnished with dry ice for the full potions-class effect. For something on the more traditional end, look for wan dou huang: innocuous slabs of a paste-like cake made from yellow peas or yellow pea flour that qualify as dessert in China but that definitely challenge the Western palate’s definition of “sweet.”
Try This at Home: Get the Split Yellow Pea Cake recipe.
If you opted for a 15-minute sit down for noodles, you won’t want to waste any more time keeping stationary when you can’t get enough of the eye candy that a repeated stroll up and down the alley affords. (Fear not: skewered insects are one thing, but I never saw any candy made from actual eyes.) Fortunately, you can get just about anything on a stick for maximum snack portability. Corn, sausage, squid, and delightfully slinky-like stacks of hasselback potato chips are tasty but for the faint of heart. For “when in China” bravado mixed with “weirder than I expected” flavor, go for a skewered, deep-fried starfish.
In addition to the snacks, when on Snack Street you can take in a good deal of performance. While some food vendors will aggressively forbid any photo or video-taking, others will put on quite the show: figuring out which is which is half the fun. Artisans blow glass-like animals from hot sugar, and a small stage off to the side features occasional acrobatic performances. The real spectacle, though, is the people-watching: non-stop shrieks from those witnessing the scorpions for the first time, and the off-kilter English expressions that are highly popular emblazoned on Chinese street clothing were at their most concentrated on Snack Street. Still trying to solve this mystery: “I am going to fairwhale. That fair whale is so hot.” Wang also explained to us that Beijing is a popular destination for Chinese people from less populated areas of China who “aren’t accustomed to seeing foreigners,” which may explain why, when seated for noodles, my travel companion and I became the subject of a most-enthusiastic photo shoot by a Chinese woman who returned to take selfies with us no fewer than three times.
As for the scorpions and other creepy crawly fare? “These are just for fun,” says Wang, in response to whether skewered insects are routinely part of the Beijingese diet. I don’t know how much fun I instinctively consider eating something that creeps and crawls with the best of them and has a reputation for a fatal sting, but since I was already there and they were unimaginably cheap…I will say that the scorpions were actually the easiest to swallow. (Literally and figuratively. Turns out it’s entirely possible to choke on a beetle wing.) The texture of deep fried scorpions was no more gastronomically intrusive than puffed rice, and dusted with a spot of a salty, almost curry-like powder, the flavor was on par with corn chips. Also you can spell “scorpions” from the letters in “corn chips.” Coincidence?
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For a small taste of the Snack Street experience.
For a more authentic taste of China when you are in Beijing, visually and gastronomically, try Martina Wang’s Great Wall Encounter complete with home-cooked dinner.
Header image courtesy of Getty Images/anzeletti.