On top of the wide variety of of questionable food items China likes to pride itself on, there also exist the hidden gems. I'm not talking about dumplings, fried rice or beef noodles, I'm talking about the other stuff. The food bits that get you really excited because, even after living in China for nine months, you probably still haven't come across them.
Wangfujing is a famous shopping street in Beijing, with a tangential street consisting only of food vendors. Here, they line both sides of the streets, selling an eclectic mix of Chinese food. Starfish, scorpions, and intestines, sure, but plenty of other tasty bites as well! Like candied hawthorns and walnuts, for example.
I truly fail to understand the Chinese palate. As a cocktail bartender, it is my job to be able to understand the taste buds of the people drinking my drinks. And it's something I like to think I'm generally quite good at. However, even after the months I've spent bartending at Beijing's highest-rated and most well-known cocktail bar, the Chinese palate still eludes me.
In regular Chinese foods, the things that should be sweet are never sweet enough, and the things that shouldn't be all that sweet are always, for some reason, doused in sugar. Snickers bars are too sweet for most Chinese people to eat, yet somehow, these candied hawthorns are entirely acceptable. They were so sweet to the point that my face cringed, my brows furrowed and my taste buds ran screaming into the back of my throat. But they look delicious, and the concept is solid, so I've chosen to include them.
What does draw the Chinese, though, is aesthetics. In my experience, the drinks that taste amazing are not the most popular. Drinks don't get ordered because of appreciation for fine ingredients or creative flavor pairings. They get ordered because of the way they look.
The Chinese have a penchant for flash, and I'm not talking about the nouveau riche who park their Maseratis next to the front door of the dirty nightclubs that Beijing is so famous for. I'm talking Starbucks, with giant whipped cream hats, chocolate sauce and sprinkles. I'm talking LED ground kits on mopeds. I'm talking bright green drinks with dry ice that bubble and steam as you drink them.
Yes. I was serious about that last one. And, despite my rant about the Chinese palate, and my expectation that this would taste exactly as it looks, this green apple surprise was rather well-balanced, though sugary by nature. It was cold, refreshing, and held a delightfully unique flavor. I was impressed.
Now, as we know, following sweet with salty isn't always the best idea, but what I found next had to be eaten.
Despite the fact that it looked like a giant penis.
Am I right?
I closed my eyes and took very difficult bites of this giant, greasy potato, while my friend looked on, making the exact type of jokes you'd expect her to make as it entered into my mouth. But it was salty, crunchy and delicious. And I loved every moment of it.
So, feeling a little unhealthy by this point, I was happy to find a vendor selling fresh fruit kebabs.
Pineapple, melon, kiwi and dragon fruit all on one stick! Now that's a combo worth mentioning.
But the health kick didn't last for long. It's China, after all, where everything is bathed in MSG and dripping with oil.
Just the way we like it.
It was like eating a giant fried dumpling. Some were meat based, some were veggie based. And these below, reminiscent of a pierogi, capsuled a scrumptious mix of the two. Imagine eating a fried, stuffed, meat pancake. But a really tasty one.
I ran the idea through my head and, in every permutation of the story, there was just no way that this much fried food and chili could pass through my visual field without ending up inside my belly. I loosened my belt, readied a couple napkins and a bottle of water, and dove right in.
At this point, though, feeling full enough, I decided to pass on the stuffed eggs. Essentially deviled eggs with meat, vegetables and beans, these looked decidedly delicious, but I just wasn't up for it. Eggs are almost a staple food in China and I wasn't in the greatest of hurries to consume even one more.
And so, with a full stomach, I continued in search of something sweet, knowing that whatever I encountered would likely be sitting on the wrong end of the sweet spectrum.
At first, I chose a bowl of blue jello with cherry tomatoes, but I retreated at the last moment. I knew I could do better.
And of course, I did.
Fried ice cream with crystallized sugar was obviously the dish I was looking for. Fresh out of the fryer, these hot treats were plated and served. My lips quivered with excitement. It was a fried pastry with an ice cream filling.
This was heaven in a plastic takeaway container.
Not entirely thinking this one through, I bit off half. But only half. The other, very melted half, fell out of its shell in one giant ooze of disappointment and onto the dirty streets of Beijing. But don't worry–I still had two left to eat. Which, of course, I did.
And then something strange happened. A woman began powdering what appeared to be a handful of hair extensions.
This dish, aptly referred to as “horse's tail,” used to be reserved for the emperors. It's a royal desert which I simply had to try.
Given my royal status, of course.
It was chewy and stringy, and floury and sweet. It took a solid minute to chew the whole thing, as it melted into a giant glob of caramel in my mouth. Confused by what had just happened inside my mouth, and slightly concerned (and flattered) by the saleswoman's suggestive advances, I decided to trot on.
But I had reached the end of the road. So, on the way out of the Wangfujing Food Street, feeling both quenched and satisfied, I decided to end the day as all good days should be ended: with an ice cream cone.
But not just a regular ice cream cone, of course. Please, don't be so silly. It was green tea frozen yogurt.
What did you expect? This is China, land of all that is bizarre.