Since most readers of my blog know my husband, John, they understand that nearly 20 years of marriage means I am nothing if not adventurous. And, when it comes to food, I am, in my humble opinion, the most adventurous in my family. The Vogels don’t back down from a steaming cauldron of mystery meat just because we don’t speak the language and might not be current on our vaccinations. I may dress suburban but my taste in food runs to the exotic. I am that person who says they will try anything…. and backs it up.
In June I visited the famous Donghuamen Night Market on the north side of the Wangfujing neighborhood of Beijing. Though it sits on the edge of the central Beijing shopping district and is on every tourist’s itinerary it does not fail to impress.
It is rich in history and was founded at the onset of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The original market sat within the Imperial City and immediately outside the Eastern Palace Gate, an entrance to the Forbidden City. Though not inside the innermost sanctum of the Forbidden City, the market served the elite courtiers, aristocrats, government officials and their staff of the time. Re-opened in 1984, the market became a cultural showcase during the Beijing Olympics. While offering an astonishing array of Chinese food, from the predictable to the outlandish, it is said to have high standards of cleanliness and hygiene; not an unreasonable stipulation when mostly feeding intestinally challenged westerners.
I have always loved street food with its sweet and pungent smells. It is an intimate cultural experience whenever I belly-up to a food cart, point out my selection and hunch over a flimsy plate while shoveling some concoction into my eager mouth. The food cart purveyor is invariably fascinated and watches with great anticipation, possibly wondering whether this tall white woman has actually bitten off more than she can chew. They always under-estimate me, yet they smile with delight when I slurp or chew my way through it all. Very rarely am I defeated by food too challenging for this well-traveled Jersey Girl.
My capacity for street food pre-dates my time in China. When I lived in NYC after university I would sit beside the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel and eat a hot dog with grilled onions while watching the break-dancers and street performers. In Paris I ate lemon and sugar crepes and sandwich saucisson by the bateau-load while wandering around the 7th arrondissement, my neighborhood. It is a matter of selective memory that prevents me from describing the weight gain that I endured during this period. I ate from carts for the same reasons that the majority of people in the world do… it’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s delicious and it’s there.
Although I am fortunate to experience great restaurants with decadent frequency, I remain committed to my street food. In Singapore I gorged on kebobs in the Hawkers food mall. In Oaxaca Mexico I devoured green tomato soup. In Uzbekistan I consumed yellow carrots and walnut nougat. In Korea I ate honey candy and fried dough while in Vietnam I enjoyed frothy bowls of noodles. Given the human capacity to recollect tastes and odors it is no surprise that certain foods serve as postcards from past travels.
My trip to Donghuamen presented an extraordinary mix of sights, smells and tastes. There were men stirring huge pans of Bao Du (boiled tripe) that smelled truly repugnant (and I actually like tripe) and cauldrons filled with Yang Za Sui (soup made from lamb offal), both Beijing specialties. Another stall offered kabobs, which after some confusion during translation were, in fact, a choice of dog or cat. Apparently I am a dog and cat person as I chose the soft-shelled crab. After all I have never had a crab snuggle on my lap.
Another stall offered an impressive assortment of penis kabobs, mostly beef and sheep. I note that after recounting this particular tale to a few friends I received more than a few questions about the relative cost and merits of various varieties of “Peking Dick” (so adolescent, but couldn’t resist). You will have to discover the answer for yourself as I already had a mouthful of dumplings…. and that is not a euphemism for something else!
Then there were the trays and trays of bugs – centipedes, both long and short, spiders the size of a child’s hand, water beetles, silkworm larva, crickets and bees. I am well aware that insects are a wonderful and abundant source of protein. I am also aware that the indigenous people of every continent enjoy them, but, sadly, my food bravery has its limits. The same goes for snake and skinned frogs. Put them in a pot with some diced veggies and rice noodles and I am game, yet when impaled on a stick, I just couldn’t. The little seahorses and starfish were less intimidating, in part because it was not evident how I was expected to eat them. Deep-fried I expect.
For all my declarations of street food cred and capacity for culinary exotica I barely avoided a potentially embarrassing defeat. With a gaggle of tourists peering over my shoulder I offered the equivalent of $2 and received a stick with two fried scorpions and a generous sprinkle of spicy salt. No, it didn’t taste like chicken and yes, snake does. With tourists (and a few locals) snapping photos I enjoyed a few bites of what tasted like the chewiest, saltiest and oiliest potato chip ever encountered.
Even though I have been in China for less than two years and my Chinese is barely useful, I think my scorpion snack allows me to declare myself as resident foreigner, an important and distinguished elevation above tourist. Peking Duck devouring tourists may think they are eating like locals, but few do as I do…. And back it up.