Donghuamen Night Market
Throughout our time in Beijing, Sarah and I have been unwittingly drawing comparisons to Tokyo. Where Tokyo was expensive (a ride on the subway usually cost a couple of pounds) Beijing is cheap (20p gets you anywhere.) While free and affordable things to do in Tokyo seem relatively thin on the ground, Beijing heaves to the extent that we decided to extend our visit by two days. And whereas Tokyo is a a street food desert, Beijing has Donghuamen Night Market.
Donghuamen Night Market is probably best known as the place where you can get almost anything on a stick. It’s a photogenic playground where one can chow down on black scorpion, nibble on snake or munch your way through a sheep’s penis, and then eat testicles for dessert. It’s also home to a plethora of tourist-orientated street food, and whereas in the past I may have gone there in search of adventure, on Sunday night I was just looking for dinner.
I found it. Several times. First up I opted for a beef skewer. These long substantial kebabs cost about 50p each and came grilled and dusted with ground cumin and chilli powder. Having tried the lamb and chicken versions on the nearby Wangfujiing Snack Street, I knew what to expect. The meat was tender and well cooked, while the seasoning not only added flavour but also gave the skewer a wonderfully dry, powdery texture.
A couple of paces later I hit upon some Liangpi, spicy fried noodles. These thick, round noodles had been wok fried with bok choi and soy sauce, then topped with a liberal helping of lajiaojiang (chilli paste.) The noodles were good, red hot and possessed of that curious dry stickiness that seems to be the hallmark of Chinese fried noodles.
Next I found myself transfixed by a massive grill of oysters, The oysters had been halved and topped with diced green chilli, garlic, and what looked liked breadcrumbs. I ordered one, and it made a brief but memorable encounter, with the oyster sea-taste shining through above everything else.
Finally, I settled upon a variation on what the locals call a Beijing Sandwich. These thick pita rolls filled with chopped lamb, garlic and coriander were the subject of many fantasies for Sarah and I prior to coming to Beijing, and we’d almost given up on finding them! I’m glad we did. I’m not the biggest fan of coriander, but in this instance the herb breathed life into what could have been a heavy stodge-wich, while the chilli gave it a little fire to boot.
That was me for the time being. I didn’t get to try lobster dumplings, steamed crab, barbecued squid, stir-fried beef wraps etc. I could have eaten a beetle on a stick, but with so much else on offer, why the hell would I want to do that?
Driving into Beijing I was a little apprehensive. Vast, drab buildings gave me the impression I was entering some sort of post-communist desert, while the thick, impenetrable smog that blocked out the sun put me in mind of the industrialised Victorian London so savagely described in my current doorstop of choice, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
Yet beyond the motorway off-ramps and tower blocks, an entirely different world awaited. The ancient alleways and thoroughfares that characterise Beijing’s hutong districts (in one of which our hostel is located,) abound with activity and so far have proved a fantastic introduction to Chinese life.
In Nan Luo Gu Xiang Hutong, the sights and sounds are many and varied. Shirtless and potbellied old men stand around smoking or playing games. Bikes and motorized rickshaws careen through haphazardly. All around, people seem to be engaged in either tearing things down or building them up.
Somewhat surprisingly, a modern vibrant edge to the city is also present here in the small independent boutiques and trendy speciality shops that sit easily among the traditonal craft shops and tea houses.
Included in the chaos (happily) is street food. I found these guys (what I assume to be pork spine) curled up and smoking on a one man grill, when we ducked into the side of the road to avoid a monsoon downpour.
The pork spine had been coated in a spicy and sweet spare-rib style sauce that was charred in some places and sticky elsewhere. The meat came off easily and in substantial chunks, but nevertheless encouraged the kind of cheek-smearing bone-gnawing that makes one’s girlfriend stand a few paces away.
This was one grill, in one street, in one block of a thouroughly massive city. Tonight we’re off to Wangfujing snack street in search of lamb kebabs and flat bread.
I honestly feel like I’m in heaven.
So it turns out Tokyo isn’t much of a street food town. I came here expecting to see stall after stall of vendors selling everything from takoyaki to sashimi, but so far I’ve yet to lay eyes on a single solitary pushcart or portable grill. As such, my dream of eating cheaply in Tokyo whilst filling post after post with lurid descriptions of food I can only dream of, looks like it might be over before it even began.
Still hungry, I then moved on to a standing-only takoyaki place I’d spied round the corner. Here, four substantial octopus balls were of a reasonable price and came covered in Japanese mayonnaise and katsuobushi. The balls were crispy on the outside, mouth searingly hot and possessed of a substantial pearl of octopus in the middle.
These things are as versatile as they are delicious. Fighting the temptation to tear it apart and eat just with the accompanying sachets of mustard and salt is always hard. I’ve had this with potatoes and vegetables as part of a mini-roast, wrapped in tortillas with a spicy tomato sauce, and just last week in some chicken sandwiches on the way to Seoul (the last image our fated camera shared with us.) The chicken is usually super tender, falling of the bone and possessed of just the right amount of lip smacking greasiness.
It worked. The chicken plumped out the leaves and toms perfectly, taking on the flavours of the dressing without losing any of that rotating-on-a-stick goodness. This probably could have served as a meal in its own right but instead I opted to match it with some other salad-y stuff I somehow got possessed into making.