China has a vibrant street food culture – all sorts of snacks, treats and meals can be found outside for anyone adventurous enough to try them.
Many visitors to China are understandably concerned about the safety of street food. Some people have gotten sick from eating improperly prepared food so it is important to watch a street vendor make the food to ensure that it is done in a sanitary way. In general street food is perfectly sanitary and will not cause health problems.
One of the most typical types of street food, especially in northern China, is the jianbing. This consists of a piece of fried dough with a fried egg, garlic, scallions, cilantro and sometimes potato shreds. The dough is rolled up and served as a wrap that can be easily carried in one hand. Jianbing vendors often install their cooking equipment on the back of a bicycle so they can easily ride to where the customers are.
Throughout Chinese cities you’ll easily spot large metal tables with bowls of bubbling, red broth attached to them; this is a malatang stand. Inside are various pieces of food – meat, fish, tofu and vegetables – stuck to wooden sticks boiling in the spicy soup. Vendors will provide you with a small plate and you can help yourself to whichever stick you like and pay when you’re done.
The broth is quite spicy and has small balls called maqui that cause a numbing sensation in your mouth. A sesame dipping sauce often accompanies malatang.
Barbeque stands (called shaokao) are a common sight on many streets. Vegetables like eggplant, pieces of white fluffy bread called mantou, pieces of tofu and beef, chicken and pork are all placed on a grill and cooked. The food is pieced with a thin wooden stick and cumin and spicy sauce is often added.
Originally from the Muslim areas of western China, kebabs (known as chuan) have become wildly popular throughout China in recent years. Skewers of meat (usually lamb) are placed on sticks and grilled over a coal fire. Spicy sauce and cumin are usually added. Many restaurants also serve kebabs and sometimes have a small grill outside just for this purpose.
Tang hu lu, or fruit skewers, are pieces of fruit placed on a wooden stick and covered in a thick sugar syrup glaze. Banana, kiwi and hawthorn (similar to a small, sour apple) are all popular choices for fruit skewers. Sometimes chocolate and sprinkles are added on top of the sugar coating.
Noodles can be found in many street stalls and range from fried noodles (chaomian) or soup noodles (tangmian) to cold noodles (liangmian) that often include a sesame sauce. Chicken, pork, eggs and vegetables can be added.
Also known as bubble tea or boba, milk tea (naicha) is a sweet, thick tea that contains chewy gelatine balls and sometimes chunks of fruit. An oversized straw is usually used for sucking the balls and fruit along with the tea. Milk tea comes in a variety of flavors, from various fruits to chocolate and coffee.
Not technically street food, milk tea is usually sold from small street side shops. This type of milk tea shouldn’t be confused with Mongolian milk tea that is served in some parts of northern China and is very salty.