Apart from the Great Wall of China, another crazy idea that tickled our mind every now and then during our Beijing trip was to take a peek into the unique world of exotic Chinese dishes. Exotic and Chinese in the literal sense. Dishes, ummm… well, we failed miserably at our first attempt 😉 . Having seen it countless times on Nat Geo & Discovery food and travel shows, we really wanted to browse a Chinese food menu that had spiders and snakes instead of Hakka noodles and Schezwan chicken. And we hit the bull’s eye while exploring Wangfujing food street in downtown Beijing.
Exploring Wangfujing Food Street
Conveniently located in the city center, the numerous glittering stalls in this one-mile long street offers practically everything that you can imagine on the wilder side of a food menu, from fried centipedes and crickets to fried spiders, to scorpions and seahorses dancing on barbecue skewers. When I say dancing I mean it. Both of us literally freaked out when a skewered scorpion decided to wiggle its legs to say Hi! to us. I was trying to take a close-up shot of a bunch of crucified scorpions and seahorses when the seemingly dead thing sprung back to life and scared the hell out of us. Stuti almost screamed to the delight of the old shopkeeper. From his expression I could tell, we were not the first ones to do that.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness – Mark Twain
Exploring Wangfujing food street taught us something about the huge cultural diversity that can exist on a mere platter of food. Ordering a duck doesn’t mean just a spicy breast fillet here but everything from the beak to the bones to the toes unless you decide to discard the rest. The whole concept of “Authentic Chinese” from India was nuked one stall at a time while exploring Wangfujing food street. Meat in India almost exclusively means either chicken or lamb. Beef been officially banned now and pork delicacies only prevalent in some corners. We were even prepared for fried scorpions and seahorses. But Beijing kicked us on a totally different level with drunken shrimps (live freshwater shrimps bathed in alcohol), birds nest soup (yes, you guessed it right, an actual birds nest in a soup), chicken legs (a delicacy), variety of beetles and what not.
As we approached the golden yellow archway of Wangfujing street market, the first thing to greet us was a strong stench in the air (vaguely your local fish market stench multiplied by 5). Now that’s a clash of cultures right there. What we perceived as a stench might be normal to a local because we saw people merrily moving around the shops. We limited ourselves to just window shopping this time and photographing the exotic dishes.
We spent about an hour here before walking to the other end of the street. Wangfujing Street is not all about the exotic dishes. The food stalls span about the first 100 meters of this pedestrianized street after which starts the myriad montage of a bustling night market selling local home decors, souvenirs, and curios.
Let’s explore some history
After our brief stint at Wangfujing Street, it got me thinking without being condescending – why on earth should someone make such weird food choices. Is there a history behind it or is it just for fun? This led me to do some quick research on the internet. Although there’s nothing conclusive but I found three theories floating around, out of which one sounded logical to some degree.
Before I go out on the theories let me tell you something else. Spiders, centipedes, scorpions, beetles and snakes are not the usual Chinese diet. They are just exotic dishes highlighted mostly by the tourist world. You really don’t want to annoy your Chinese friend by asking him – Do you eat snakes? Trust me I have a lot of Chinese friends and just like any one of us they too hate being stereotyped. One thing I can tell you for sure about the Chinese diet is that – it’s one of the healthiest. Rest all is a matter of perspective. If you have a travelers heart you will love every shade of a food palate.
So coming back to the theories – the first one relates to survival instinct. China had big famines in the past. The food supplies dried up pretty quick because of the large population leading to widespread starvation. Hunger forced people to change over to weird eating choices when the usual source ended. But there’s a flaw in this theory. India too had big famines and a population at par with China. The famines didn’t force any major changes in the eating choices of the mainstream Indian population.
The second theory shifts the gear to the richer part of the society and relies on the basic assumption that Chinese food focus on exotic taste. The rich people in the society got bored of eating the regular diet and every once in a while decided to try something exotic. Thus came the tradition of weird choices. Personally, I found this theory funny.
The third theory is logical to a certain degree in my opinion and also corroborated by one of my Chinese friend. This theory links the unusual food choices to the lack of religious commitments in the Chinese society. The Chinese society is particularly not very religious and hence there’re no religious sanctions on eating anything. A standing example is my Chinese friend herself. Neither has she any religion nor any god to worship. Sounds very strange from an Indian standpoint. But that’s what traveling teaches you. If we think back for a moment and consider the first theory to be correct than religious sanctions could have played a major role on why the dreaded famines could not change the basic eating habits in the Indian society. And the same reason why you don’t find beef or pork in majority of the Indian restaurants. Although there’s no proof that this theory is correct but I am personally more inclined towards this one.
Exploring Wangfujing Food Street – A Must Do
Draped in a cultural blanket so starkly different from the rest of the world, exploring Wangfujing Food Street is a quintessential part to experience Beijing in its entirety. We’d say it’s a “must-do” if you are in Beijing. I must admit, we did freak out in many instances but at the same time, we enjoyed this exotic culinary display to our heart’s content albeit visually this time.
We left Wangfujing Food Street with a broad smile, tons of amazing memory, and few fading goose bumps. There was a nip in the night air and no stench to bid us farewell.
How to approach
The best way to approach Wangfujing Food Street is to take the metro to Wangfujing station. Exit the station and search for the bustling street with an archway entrance.
Don’t miss out on buying some nice souvenirs while exploring the Wangfujing Food Market. You can bargain to around 70% on the said price. And don’t forget to speak calculator 😉 . Before leaving your hotel ask the front desk staff to write the destination name in Chinese. In the unlikely event of getting lost, that little piece of paper can turn out to be your life saviour.
Signing off for now………