Eating makes up such a central part of Chinese culture, but that doesn’t always mean sitting down at a table in a well-lit restaurant. Instead, a taste of traditional culture can often come down to simple roadside vendors cooking up fragrant, savory, and utterly unforgettable xiaochi, or street food. For less than 10RMB and a sated appetite, these quick bites are the best bang for your buck by far.
A product of Western Xinjiang Province, kao chuan’r – or chuan’r for short and in the Beijing accent – is the capital’s quintessential snack food. While it can mean any kind of meat (and sometimes veggies) on a thin skewer, it usually refers to seasoned lamb and chicken wings for Beijingers. Vendors emerge during the early evening and remain into the late hours of the night. To find them, just follow the scent of cumin seeds and dried pepper flakes. Chuan’r comes cheap, ranging from 4-8RMB per skewer. Head to Ximen Kaochi (西门烤翅), where you can sit down and have some!
If there’s one reason to get out of bed in the mornings, then it’s for this famous breakfast food. Jianbing, which literally means “fried pancake,” hits all sorts of notes: savory, spicy, salty, thin, or crispy. It’s a thin crepe-like snack fried on a griddle with an egg cracked into it and then coated in sweet bean paste. The game-changer is the layer of baocui, a kind of crunchy fried cracker. The whole process takes 2 minutes tops and costs no more than 10RMB. Addicted? Luckily this snack can be found during the late nights as well. P.S. jianbing are best to have on the go.
This time-honored staple of Beijingers harks back almost 1,800 years, and it remains as delicious as always. Baozi, or steamed filled bun, allegedly dates back to the Three Kingdoms when it was eaten by soldiers to cure the plague. While pork is the most common stuffing, the variety today can suit vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Small, filling, and cheap, they are perfect as a grab-and-go snack. Make a pitstop at the popular Qing Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop (庆丰包子铺), which has several branches all over the city.
Roujiamo, colloquially nicknamed “the Chinese hamburger,” is Northern China’s answer to that classic Western dish; some even argue that it predates burgers. History aside, the recipe to success sticks to the basics: shredded, seasoned meat filling (commonly pork) between mo, or a soft, doughy bread. Alternatively, Muslim vendors will serve lamb instead. Flavors will vary by vendor, since each one might have their own distinct spice mix and preparation styles. A single Chinese hamburger won’t run you over 10RMB. Yellow River Shaanxi Excellent Snacks (黄河水陕西名优小吃) serves up a delicious one.
By now, you might have realized that most of the capital’s street food is fried. Youtiao is no exception, especially as its name literally means “oil stick.” These strips of dough are made fresh, twisted into a crueller-like shape, and then fried in hot oil until they puff up into golden, crispy, light deliciousness. If you want to do as the Beijingers do, enjoy yours for breakfast with a bowl of doujiang, soy milk; the two often come hand-in-hand.