>> Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Sweet potato chips - about $1.30 USD for a huge bag
I have this thing for snacks.
I've never been a "three big meals" sort of person. If it were up to me, I would just snack my way through the day, never really sitting down for a proper meal. My favorite ways to enjoy an actual meal is in the style of dim sum or tapas, where I get to sample many tiny bites of a wide variety of things.
shao bing - sesame layered biscuit - about 10 cents each
As you may know, I've been doing this extensive series on China. I actually visited China twice this past fall. The first trip was a vacation that Bryan and I had planned months ago. We did all the touristy things - visited the Great Wall, saw the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xi'An, and explored Shanghai and the World Expo.
The second trip was completely unexpected. Bryan found out last minute that he needed to go to China and Japan for business. Since I had several vacation days left to spare, I decided to come along with him.
Going on a trip where one person needs to work most of the time is really really different from a normal vacation. I found myself alone most days (and certain nights!). In some ways it's a bit lonelier, but in other ways, it's rather freeing as well.
I took these opportunities to do something I love that Bryan always hates - skipping meals in lieu of snacks!
Opened in 2006, "Jiu Men Xiao Chi" is named after the nine gates surrounding old Beijing in the Forbidden City. It's a building that houses many of the most famous street vendors in Beijing. Many of these vendors are actually descendants of imperial chefs and have been making their signature snacks for generations.
For decades, dozens of these vendors sold their famous snacks at Menkuang Hutong, an old alleyway right outside of Qian Men. In 2006 the area was demolished to make way for shiny new high-rises in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics.
There was a huge outcry as people responded in anger at the loss of such storied favorites. Fortunately, the government invited eleven of the most famous vendors to move to a new indoor enclosed area built to mimic the original outdoor alley next to Qian Men.
Though "Jiu Men" does not have quite the same atmosphere as the original street market, many of the vendors are still the same and, more importantly, the food is still the same.
I spent an entire afternoon in Hou Hai, the touristy lakeside area where this foodstall restaurant now resides. I had tons of fun ordering various different snacks. I only wish I were with more people so I could have tried more things. Nevertheless, here are a few of the classic Beijing Street snacks that I tried.
Candied Sweet Potato Chips
These candied chips are sweet, sticky, and more chewy than crunchy. They are pretty good, though I prefer the simple crunchy salted ones (pictured up top) that I picked up from another street vendor a few days later.
Dou Zhi - fermented mung bean juice
It doesn't sound appetizing; it sure doesn't smell appetizing; and . . . it tastes awful! Nevertheless, Beijingers slurp up this sour watery soup that sort of reminds me of dishwater that's gone bad. They think it's cleansing and good for your body, full of probiotics and fermented goodness, perhaps? It boggles my mind, but as a fearless and adventurous food enthusiast, I had to try it.
In the original area around Qian Men, there was a specific Muslim section where Muslim type snacks were sold. Inside Jiu Men, they have converted a special section into the old Muslim "street". There is even a sign warning you not to bring meat into the special area.
I tried a bunch of Muslim snacks, which were pretty good. The fried rolled up swirls (above) tasted sort of like egg rolls. Light, crispy, with just a hint of some Indian spices.
More Muslim Snacks
I mostly just pointed at snacks I wanted to try, since my Chinese reading skills are quite elementary. Most of the snacks were fried, like the doughnut-like fried ring, which I think I was supposed to dip into the fermented mung bean water above, sort of like a twisted version of you tiao (fried cruellers) and dou jiang (soy milk). The other circular pretzel-like snack was sugary and sort of gummy and chewy. All of the snacks were reasonably tasty, though I did not love any one to order again.
One of my favorite savory items was this stir-fried mung bean jelly cake. It was a bit greasy, but I just loved the addictive flavors of the spicy hot sauce she used in the dish (maybe there was some MSG in there?). The dish was satisfyingly hot, savory, and spicy. The little bean sprouts throughout gave just the right amount of crunch to the dish. Loved it.
Stir-fried Mung Bean Jelly with Bean Sprouts
Don't Forget Dessert!
Nai lao - rice wine yogurt with red bean
Nai lao is a light and delicate milk-based yogurt that hails from imperial times. In fact, Wei Hongchen introduced this dessert to the general public in 1888, using the secret nai lao recipe he had obtained from the Qing imperial kitchen.
I really love this stuff. It's much lighter and more delicate than a traditional American custard. In fact, it's just made with just rice wine, milk, and sugar. There's no eggs. Instead, all you taste is the pure essence of milk, with just a hint of the sweetness. The texture is extremely delicate, like a very unstable custard that could break at any moment.
Overall, I had tons of fun exploring my way around Jiu Men Xiao Chi. I would definitely recommend checking this place out if you want to experience some traditional Beijing snacks! It's pretty clean, and the food is very fresh due to the popularity of the place. If you are adventurous, you can even try some of the more interesting dishes they have, such as Feng's boiled beef stomach or Chen's boiled pork intestines and lungs.
But even if you're a bit squeamish, there are plenty of delicious "normal" snacks to try! I would highly recommend ordering the stir fried mung bean jelly cakes (if you can take spicy), try a few random snacks just by pointing to what looks good, and end with a light and creamy cup of nai lao.
Who needs a fancy sit-down meal when you can have such good food right off the "street"?
You don't pay directly with cash. Instead, you purchase a card at the front entrance on which you put money (fully refundable). I would recommend spending around 100 RMB ($15 USD) if you don't want to run out of money. You are required to keep a 10 RMB minimum on the card, otherwise, no one will accept your card. I think I ended up spending around 60-70 RMB total - by far not the cheapest prices in China, but still quite reasonable by American standards.
I took a taxi here (since I didn't know how to get here by myself), but I ended up finding a subway nearby that took me home. The subway is reasonably close by and much cheaper (subway rides typically cost around 2 RMB a ride, about 30 cents).
Usually Jiu Men is packed and lines can get long. However, I beat the crowds by showing up around 3PM (Yes, I realize the signs say they are not open at this time, but I swear, that is when I went). I had the whole place to myself, with the vendors actually hawking at me, trying to get me to buy their foods.
1 Xiaoyou Hutong, north side of Houhai (next to Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling)
Opening hours: 10:30 am-1:30 pm, 5 pm-9 pm.
This is part 12 of the China Series detailing my recent trip to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.