Guide to Popular Street Food in China

Guide to Popular Street Food in China
Dec 10, 2010 By Fred Dintenfass ,

Sure it’s the time of year for turkeys and mashed potatoes and apple pie, or, if you’re of the Jewish persuasion, fried potatoes and apple sauce. No doubt many readers will be going to hotel buffets on Christmas to gobble as much food and free drinks as possible. But what’s one to do between these massive feedings? Say you do a Christmas brunch and have plans for a Christmas dinner but find yourself hungry in the afternoon? Well, it’s a perfect opportunity to grab a snack off the street as you try to walk off the morning’s excesses and prepare for another feast.

The options for street food will depend on where you’re living. Some people say the best street food is in the south of China while some prefer that of the north. There are foreigners and Chinese who for hygiene reasons refuse to eat street food but there are legions more that dive in whenever and wherever they can and are still around to tell you about their favorite foods.

The Classics

Jian bing | 煎饼 | jiān bing

Most everybody loves jiān bing, and with good reason, they’re delicious. You can find them sometimes in little food stands on small streets but usually they’re made on the backs of specially modified tricycles. A coal briquette heats an iron griddle. The griddle is greased and the batter ladled on. An egg is cracked and spread over the surface and after a moment two metal spatulas are used to flip the crepe. Sesame seeds and cilantro are spread across the bread and then the sauce and, if you want it, làjiāo (chilis) are painted on.

A crunchy wafer is placed in the middle and the whole thing is folded together. Sometimes a piece of lettuce is added before folding. It’s plopped into a little plastic bag, sometimes with a piece of newspaper or rough brown paper to protect your hand from the heat. It all costs 2-3 yuan and will keep you full and happy for a while.

Ma la tang | 麻辣烫 | má là tāng

In the little má là tāng restaurants, often barely the size of a bedroom, that pop up all across China you can choose what you want to eat before it’s cooked from the rows of trays and baskets full of meat balls, tofu skin, seaweed, spinach… an endless list of delights.

On the street, however, má là tāng often comes in the form of a big metal trough divided into several sections, full of hot spicy soup, with the vegetables and meat already cooking. You take a plate – covered with a plastic bag for sanitary purposes – a pair of chopsticks, and grab the ones you want. Do not be shy and definitely do not wait your turn as you’ll end up hungry. It’s a communal experience as everyone stands around the trough plates in hand, asking when new things will be put it, wiping noses running from the heat of the chilies and chattering away.

Má là tāng is, in essence, spicy hotpot and there is sometimes sesame-based sauce to be ladled on. Usually you pay by the number of skewers left on your plate, which are then tossed as the plastic bag is pulled off, replaced by a new one, and given to a hungry new customer.

Yang rou chuan | 羊肉串 | yáng ròu chuàn

Yáng ròu chuan, or as it’s called in Beijing - yáng ròu chuànrrr - is a perennial favorite among expats and Chinese like. Chinese is often a very logical language: yáng (羊) means sheep – check out the two little horns on top; ròu (肉) means flesh or meat; and if you look at the character for chuàn (串) you’ll notice it looks a whole lot like pieces of meat on a stick, which makes sense since put all together it means lamb kebab.


Originating from the Muslim parts of China – mainly Xinjiang province – where lamb is the preferred meat and pigs run around unharmed –yáng ròu chuan is often made and sold by Muslim men wearing circular white caps. The spices are also different from your usual Chinese food and it seems like 9 out of 10 foreigners list yáng ròu chuan as one of their favorite things about China.

Chou dou fu | 臭豆腐 | chòu dòu fu

Not so popular with most foreigners, but delicious nonetheless, chòu dòu fu is an acquired taste but one definitely worth working on. The name literally means ‘stinky tofu’ and no matter how vividly I describe the odor it’s still not going to touch the real thing. If you can get past the smell, chòu dòu fu, most often deep-fried and served with cilantro or a mild chili sauce is soft on the inside, chewy on the outside, and good all over.

Unfortunately, the preparation methods are about as gruesome as the smell suggests. The tofu is marinated in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables, and meat for a period of two weeks to several months. But look on the bright side, Chinese people have been eating it for thousands of years and they seem to be fine. I suggest ignoring the smell and the story and diving right in. Grab a toothpick and give it a taste, you might just like it.

This brief guide to Chinese street food is just the tip of a culinary iceberg. Hidden in alleys, along popular thoroughfares, and clustered around bus and subway stops there is a wealth of food out there for the trying. Let the odors tempt you and join the group of eaters huddled excitedly around the grill, the trough, and the deep fryer. If the place is popular and the vendors look healthy enough themselves then the food is probably safe to eat. If you’re not used to eating less than Grade A hygienic food then you may want to work up to full meals slowly. But soon enough you’ll find yourself taking detours so you just ‘happen along’ your favorite má là tāng vendor or sweet potato salesman.

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