By Ernie Diaz
There’s so much to see, and eat, in China that it’s a shame to waste too much time in big, fancy restaurants. The fawning wait-staff and death-sentenced fish in their tanks will take the edge off the keenest appetite. Instead, make yours a movable feast, on the snack streets running through any Chinese city that merits a large dot on the map.
Beijing – Wangfujing Night Market
Wangfujing Street is a mandatory stop for Beijing visitors, the one place in the city where pedestrians need never fear the blithe, self-entitled motorists who terrorize them. Stick around til the sun sets and the stalls are set up, a city block’s worth. Every niche of China represents at the night market, so in theory you could spend a few nights eating here and have sampled Harbin to Hainan.
Newbies are best advised to start out with the fried jiaozi (“Look, pot stickers, honey!”) and various noodle dishes. Many a fried cake and stuffed pastry could delight a gym teacher from Peoria, but just as many have fillings that would make him hear backwards violin music. Unless he has a beer or four, after which frogs on sticks might not seem such a bad idea. Silkworms on a stick? Maybe next time. Fried scorpions? Only on a dare.
Shanghai – Lao Cheng Huang Miao
The “Old Town God Temple” snack street is only a ten-minute stroll from the South Bund area, done up in gaudy faux-Qing style that actually provides relief for eyes overwhelmed by early and late 20th century mega-structures.
Light and sweet are the themes of Shanghai snacking, though of course the smorgasbord on OTGT street rivals Wangfujing’s for variety. Fluffy vegetable buns, crab pastries, fragrant rice soup with sesame balls, all will do wonders to quell the shame of that Big Mac you had for lunch, because all the restaurants on the river looked too intimidating.
Guangzhou – Liwan Gourmet Street
Congratulations: you’ve crossed the Rubicon to the land of extreme cuisine. Unless you have a date to impress, you might be better off fasting and just soaking up the sights, sounds, and smells. Let the 99% humidity relieve you of two or three liters of toxic sweat, for even if you play it safe and buy a circlet of shrimp dumplings, a surprise visual may well kill your ability to swallow. Caged dogs, pans full of writhing snakes, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, social mores and Jungian archetypes alike take a distant second to the prime Guangdong directive: hack it to bits with a cleaver and wash it down with tea.
Chengdu – Wuhouci Street
Sichuanese don’t feel hunger pangs, so much as their rear ends stop burning, signaling dangerously low blood-levels of red pepper and capsicum. Most of the dainties to be found on Wuhouci Street, from the boiled chicken feet to the lantern-skin beef, will give off vapors of spice, and a fiery sheen. What most foreign-devils don’t know is that the antidote sits on most every table: vinegar. Douse everything with it first; your snacks may taste a trifle tart, but the faces you make will be less disturbing than the scene you’ll create if you get an unadulterated dose of Sichuan pepper, shocking nearby babies into spitting out their chili pacifiers.
To be fair, Chengdu does have treats entirely devoid of pepper. The mushroom soup, a stew of fungi at once earthy, pungent, and umami, will make up for a dozen fire eating contests. The braised rabbit heads, not so much.
Wuhan – Hubu Lane
Breakfast is traditionally China’s forgotten meal; deep fried dough and bean juice is usually as good as it gets. Not so in Wuhan, where residents don’t call it “breakfast” but “spending the morning”. For those with a long morning to spend, and a capacious belly, Hubu Lane will leave you fuller, wiser, and not much lighter of pocket. Shipopo hot noodles with sesame paste provide a good base. Wash them down with some Xusao fish soup, then on to some Xieja flour slurry and Liji tofu skin, all as delicious as they are terrible-sounding. Want to play it safe? Very well, you can’t go wrong with some wonton soup ( you want to say “hundun” to the stall vendor, though) or any of the steamed buns, which come in more flavors than ice cream at Baskin Robbins.
Kunming – Green Lake Park
Green Lake Park and its environs are an opium eater’s dream of China, placid waters reflecting blue sky where black-headed gulls dip and dive, willows draping graceful dancers and mellow flute players, ornate pagodas where elders contemplate weiqi boards, and everywhere smiling, light-hearted Yunnan faces. On the peripheries of the park, descendants of the hundred Southwest tribes, subjugated by the Yuan and Ming, cook their native viands, far jollier than those who have inherited the earth.
Their Chinese burritos, a big, hearty flour bing wrapped around all manner of savory fried vegetables and barbecued meat, will dispel forever the “one-hour” myth about Chinese food. Braised pheasant wings, eight-treasure cakes and cured-ham bread rolls are all more rewarding than Crossing the Bridge; you’ll find naught but mushy noodles covered in scorching oil on the other side.