- Food & Drink
2 weeks after we left Moscow on the Rossiya, DJ, Leonard and I arrived triumphant, excited and on time in Beijing. On the flight to Moscow we’d discussed which bit of the holiday we were looking forward to most. ‘Beijing,’ we all answered. The possibility that we should have just got onto a flight to Beijing rather than waste our time riding trains around Russia was then raised.
In the end, the crisp light and friendliness of Siberia and the meaty masculinity of Mongolia had won us over, but we were in Beijing, our final destination and the city we were all looking forward to most. In particular, after the meaty masculinity of Mongolia, we were really looking forward to the food.
In the enormous queue for the taxi we talked about the dumplings we would eat. In the long journey to our hostel, we talked about the dumplings we would eat. As we unpacked, we talked about dumplings some more. And as we foolishly walked through Dongcheng to meet friend of a friend Beijing Barry, we talked about dumplings and then, eventually, we talked about the amount of time we had been walking.
Beijing is staggeringly huge. Even walking at London Pace, the couple of blocks between our hostel and Bejing Barry’s apartment had taken an hour and a half. By the time we met him, we were blank-eyed and staggering, moaning the word ‘Dumpliiiings’ over and over, like particularly unfrightening, badly dressed zombies.
Demonstrating the wisdom and perception that has got him far in life, Beijing Barry whisked us up to his apartment, poured us some beer and steamed up a few plates of delicious pork dumplings. Little did we know that this was to soften us up for Wangfujing Snack Street.
Wangfujing is a shopping area bordered by gilded brick and marble hotels. It contains a reassuring mix of the familiar and the exotic and in amongst the glitz and the neon sits Wangfujing Snack Street. It’s decked in red lanterns and decorative arches and offers Things On Sticks to the hungry and the adventurous.
Most of what is on offer is chuanr, a type of Things On Sticks barbecue that originates in Xinjiang. Strips of meat (or insects, slices of vegetable, baby crabs, tiny birds, still breathing fish, anything really) are grilled and then brushed with the magic chuanr sauce that makes everything taste exactly the same – mostly of cumin and chilli. In some parts of China, you can then have your chuanr dipped in chilli flakes. In Wangfujing, they missed out the chilli entirely.
Beijing Barry is an adventurous chap and I am a bold lady, so we started with a stick of cicadas. For an insect they are surprisingly meaty. Having been quickly grilled on a hot plate, they were crisp and the crunchy outside yielded up steaming mouthfuls of chuanr flavoured flesh.
Crickets, on the other hand, are just crunchy. Each membrane and exoskeleton filled mouthful screamed insect and I ended up eating my share too fast to get through it. A tiny cricket leg became lodged in the back of my throat, occasionally scratching its presence when I swallowed. Three days later, in a quiet corner of the Summer Palace, I finally forced most of my right hand into my mouth and fished out the hairy little blighter. Always chew your food people, even when it’s not very nice.
We tried sticks of lamb, which tasted just like the crickets and cicada but without the crunch of wings and antennae to distract our tastebuds. Beijing Barry had been told that the baby scorpions aren’t very nice (no, really?) so we skipped those, which I’m glad of. They are pinned, still alive and wriggling, on the sticks and then slammed onto a hot plate to frazzle to death for hungry sadists. I don’t know much about karma, but I suspect that torturing baby scorpions to death like that damages your chances of achieving Buddhahood.
We finished with a box of banana fritters – deep fried clods of dough with a lingering banana essence. It was a mish-mash dinner that was eaten more for thrills than for satisfaction. We ended our night back by our hostel, eating an indifferent meal in a Sichuan restaurant that had apparently forgotten the chilli and the peppercorns. I say indifferent, but because this was China it was still the best meal we had eaten so far. It was good to be in Beijing.