Strictly for strong stomachs

Entrance to the exotic food street in Beijing, China
After an energetic climb on the Great Wall and a brisk walk around the Ming Tombs in my Beijing tour this morning, I’m looking forward to winding down for the day but as I scanned the itinerary, my interest is spiked in anticipation of our next stop at Donghuamen Night Food Street.  It’s also known to tourists as Wangfujing Snack Street, a food haven for exotic Chinese street delicacies.  On the way there, our guide spoke in Mandarin before translating his spiel in English and I notice how he carefully chose his words to explain the Chinese tradition of eating particular foods to stimulate and strengthen healthy and vitality. 

A vendor arranging strips of beef tripe
He did not quite spell out the quintessential Chinese quest for elixirs of love but we know that traditional Chinese medicine does link some ingredients to a healthier libido.  I soon learnt that this street maintains its traditional fame as a centre for certain food for men who are seeking a little boost in the bedroom but now it’s a major tourist attraction for a variety of exotic food to entice people with adventurous palates.  Our guide encouraged us to capture many photo mementoes but gently advised to refrain from sampling any unfamiliar food if we do not have stomachs made of steel!

Sights and Smells

I mentally brace myself at the entrance to the snack street before I plunge into the crowd that was swelling by the minute as after-office people arrive in search of a tasty treat.  Easily identified by their office attire, these locals are familiar with their favourite food and have no qualms about slurping down scalding bowls of noodles while standing in a crush of people.  Oops!  It’s not noodles after all because when I look into their bowls, I realise the springy strings are beef tripe that have been cut into ribbons!

Dishing our stinky tofu!
I laugh at myself for such a silly mistake and make up my mind to look closer before deciding what the foreign food is.  Most of the stalls that line both sides of the street have signs in English with prices listed in Yuan but food like dumplings, spring rolls, deep-fried crabs, barbecued crayfish, roasted quail and fried pancakes, really needs no introduction.  The aroma of freshly fried food does something to my senses and I start to salivate, following my nose to check out the appetising items sizzling on the open griddles.

Just as I’m drinking in these delicious flavours, my greedy nose is suddenly assaulted by the most disgusting smell of something rotten.  I wince in horror, baffled by what can smell so horrible in a food street but the pong gets even stronger as I approach the stall with a large wok busily deep-frying and trays filled with obnoxious stinky beancurd cubes.  I do not hesitate to hurry pass that queue of chou tofu connoisseurs, waiting patiently for the vendor to serve their order of freshly fried stinky tofu drizzled in sauce, in a bid to escape from that foul smell!

Sticks and Skewers

To save time and to control portion sizes, most of the snacks and ingredients here are served on skewers or sticks.  At some stalls, soups are on the boil or woks of heated oil are ready to give the customers’ choices of skewered ingredients, a quick hot dip before serving.  As I check out some unfamiliar items and animal innards on the skewers, I must say that one of the most eye-catching skewers must be the ready-to-eat candied Tang Hu Lu skewers stuffed with colourful cut fruits and haw berries or san char coated with caramelised sugar.

Guess what are on these skewers...
Despite the fact that there is very little medical evidence that back-up aphrodisiacal claims, the Chinese still embrace the belief that certain food can improve one’s libido.  These traditionally include animal genitalia or food that resembles a phallus and some of the most bizarre creatures for general health and longevity.  I remember seeing dried seahorses and geckoes sold for their medicinal value in traditional Chinese herbal shops but nothing prepared me for the sight of sticks topped by fried seahorses, starfishes, silkworm cocoons, scorpions and lizards!

Wriggly baby scorpions on skewers!
Exotic food in many Asian countries often includes deep-fried six-legged insects and grubs but I stood dazed for a moment as I process the thought of anyone eating these creatures as it must take a great deal of courage and determination to reap the desired effects of its promised positive effects.  As I move on to the next stall, I wonder if the vendors display their wares to attract and shock tourists and I guess they succeeded with me.  I’m swiftly distracted by an imperceptible movement on a fan of sticks and following a perverse curiosity to look closer, I shudder to discover that the sticks are impaled with rows of wriggling baby scorpions!  Aargh!
A crush of people throng the street in search of exotic street snacks
Fast Facts

Donghuamen Night Food Street is located off Wangfujing Street, a broad shopping street close to Beijing’s best hotels and famous sites like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  From 3.30pm, vendors will set up their stalls for business which starts around 4.30pm till 10.30pm.  Prices here start from 5 Yuan and are higher than traditional street food stalls but it’s still inexpensive to have a satisfying meal.  Be prepared to be jostled in the throng and keep an eye out for stray skewers to avoid getting impaled by one!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 29 August 2013

1 comment:

  1. Very beautifully written, this was a pleasure to read.