By Brian Spencer
I like that few Beijingers speak English, just as I like that many Tokyoites also speak very little English (or at least pretend not to, which I also like). It’s inconvenient, but I like when English-language signage is minimal, and that menus at local restaurants are often exclusively available in the local language. The understandable, yet somewhat unseemly global proliferation of English sometimes induces pangs of guilt when I hear it freely spoken by locals in lands where you wouldn’t expect it. Of course, that guilt is expounded by own embarassing lack of even semi-fluency in another language, but I’m working on it.
Pantomiming and pointing and garbling a few butchered phrases of the local tongue is usually enough to get you by, though in places like Tokyo and Beijing the language barrier can prove frustratingly tricky when eating out anywhere but in malls, fast-food chains, or hotel restaurants. It’s easier when you’re not a pescetarian, but I am, which severely shackled my spontaneous, non-guidebook-guided food ventures into Beijing’s local specialties during a recent visit. One centrally located spot where you can browse and point and eat like a local without the aid of shared spoken or written language, however, is Wangfujing Snack Street.
Marked by a large, colorful paifang at its entrance off the wide pedestrian street lined with malls and shops, Snack Street winds through a narrow hutong packed with souvenir stands, candy shops, and food vendors hawking an interesting variety of local snacks. You’ll see the familiar, like roasted chestnuts, grilled corn on the cob, and Chinese-style dumplings, as well as local specialties such as…
… tanghulu, thin skewers of fresh candied fruits coated in layers of congealed sugar syrup. I think these are available all year long, but every other person I passed on Wangfujing seemed to be chomping on one during my recent winter visit.
A few of the hutong‘s alleyways are packed with all sorts of
junk knick-knacks and souvenirs, from nude playing cards to ornate Chinese knock-off china. Much of the stuff bears the likeness of Chairman Mao, but some of it is stamped with that winning cha-ching smile of Kobe Bryant or ambiguous scowl of Osama bin Laden.
Accompanied by a video demonstration and narrating the entire process through a microphone headset, this hairstylist worked his magic on a mannequin’s beautiful brown locks. It was mesmerizing theatre, to say the least, broken only by the nearby distraction of…
… these crisp, crunchy little morsels.
Now, to be clear, I generally find the idea of “ewwwww, that’s so gross!” exploited by people like Andrew Zimmern to be ten times grosser than anything people put in their mouths. As someone who’s lived in Thailand and on numerous occasions been forced to explain through gritted teeth that yes, some Thais eat some bugs but that no, it’s hardly a staple of the common everyday diet, I’ll say here too that in Beijing, this is one of the rarer, more… exotic snacks you’ll see. In fact, you probably won’t see them at all, which is in part why I was surprised by these skewers of fried beetles, grasshoppers, centipedes, cockroaches, sea horses, scorpions, and geckos available at Wangfujing Snack Street.
Gross? I wouldn’t eat one, but let’s just call these delicacies of note, just as we might call the decks of Osama bin Laden playing cards for sale around the corner souvenirs of interest.