China: Our Food Paradise (and Mystery Allergy)

by Elizabeth

I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for street food.  A common conversation between Michael and I while traveling goes something like this…

Me: Ohh… what’s that? (pointing to random street food/drink)

Michael: I dunno.

Me: I’m going to buy it.

When we first emerged from the subway stop near our hostel in Beijing, all that I could think about was how much amazing-looking street food I was seeing.  It’s been awhile since we’ve had street food of any kind and we quickly made up for lost time.

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Caramelized crab apples on a stick (~$.60-$1.50 depending on type/vendor).  Yum!  I remembered these fondly from my first visit to China.

Our days in Beijing were filled with dumplings for breakfast from the steaming baskets that filled our streets in the morning.  For lunch we would walk into a random little restaurant that appeared popular with locals and point to whatever the person next to us was eating (since there was no English menu).  Same for dinner when we weren’t indulging in hot pot or Peking duck.  And obviously lots of snacking in between 😉

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The tofu man whose little shop was a couple blocks from our hostel.  There was a long line outside his shop, so of course we had to know what all the commotion was about.

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Mmmm…. the tofu was delicious (~$.75).  Obviously we had to stop here several times.

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Pounding out sheets of nut/seed treats that reminded us of perfect little granola bars.  We developed an obsession with these later in Xian — they make the perfect on-the-go snack (or meal).

One of my favorite treats in Beijing I discovered in a little shop on the street that we were staying on.  The end-result (which I forgot to get a good picture of) was basically a thin rectangular cookie that was reminiscent of a crisp, delicate fortune cookie.  You buy them in stacks, with your pick of a number of flavors.  My favorite was sesame.  Of course, watching how they were made was a treat too!

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The man in the foreground is peeling up the thin, hot sheet of dough.  In the background, you can see the stacked sheets of dough being cut up into rectangles.

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Quickly folding the hot dough before it sets and becomes crispy goodness.  In the background you can make out a stack of the folded and cut cookies (~$1.50 for pictured stack).

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Even when the menu was in English, it wasn’t always helpful.  China is in desperate need of Google translate… which is blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

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Yogurt drinks were super popular in both Beijing and Xian (~$.65).  Michael had the drink version in Beijing that he described as tasting “interesting,” whereas the one that I had in Xian was eaten with a spoon and tasted like a decent vanilla yogurt.

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Scorpions and seahorses on a stick.  They tasted like… no clue, I’m not that brave.  We only saw these “delicacies” at the very touristy (with westerners) night market in Beijing.  I don’t recall ever seeing any Chinese eating scorpions.

No trip to Beijing would be complete without dining on Peking duck or trying out hot pot.  We looked into going to one of the famous Peking duck places near us where people start lining up at 4pm to catch a table for dinner, but instead opted for going to a very budget friendly (and tasty) spot next door to our hostel (De Yuan Roast Duck Restaurant).  Our order of a duck with all the fixings and beers came to about $25.  While the place doesn’t do table-side carving like many fancier spots, they have a couple guys up front carving non-stop to keep up with the high demand.  The duck was delicious and ended up being way too much food for the two of us.  We felt no pressure to order a dish in addition to the duck, which I understand some of the fancier places may try to convince couples to order more.

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Carving our duck.

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The first plate of duck was deliciously crispy and fatty.

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Yum!  The duck with fixings (plum sauce, scallions, cucumbers, and pancakes) were delicious!  Not pictured: an additional huge pile of duck meat that we didn’t even touch because it was way too much food.

The street that we stayed on (Dashilan Street) seemed to feature a hot pot restaurant as every third storefront.  It was a perfect treat for a cold, rainy evening even if our selection of sliced potatoes as one of the components was a poor (slippery and elusive) choice.

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The remnants of our hot pot…

The great food continued when we arrived in Xian.  As Michael already mentioned, we became obsessed with the freshly pulled biang biang noodles served in the Muslim quarter.

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So good.  I think we ordered these four times during our stay in Xian… (~$3)

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Xian’s Muslim quarter was filled with street food and took on a festival-like atmosphere each evening.

 

Even with all of the amazing food on offer in Beijing and Xian, by the time we got to Xian we were starting to crave foods from home.  I hate to admit it, but even though I never go to KFC at home (I literally can’t remember when I last visited one), I ventured into the KFC in Xian in search of chicken wings to satisfy a craving.  We also splurged and spent way too much on a fancy ice cream cone from a joint that had the chunky ice cream flavors that I love from home that you just can’t find on the road.

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Rice crispy treat covered waffle cone topped with Chunk O’Funk ice cream — caramel ice cream with Oreos and chocolate covered pretzels.

Even when the food around us is awesome, after six months on the road sometimes all we want are the tastes of home.

My Mystery Food Allergy

I’m a strong believer that eating street food is often safer than eating in a restaurant.  With street food, I can see how the food is being prepared, how clean the food prep station is, whether the food is being cooked to order, etc.  When a street food vendor has a long line of locals, you know it’s a sure bet — the food will be fresh because everything is being prepared on the spot and it’s probably delicious.  Neither of us got sick while eating copious amounts of street food in China.  But, we did both experience what I think was an allergic reaction that I’ve never previously experienced (myself more so than Michael).

During our first dinner in Beijing, I ordered a string bean dish that at first impression seemed like it was nicely salted.  Partway through the dish, my tongue started tingling pretty badly and I couldn’t eat any more.  I figured maybe it was too salty, which seemed weird because it’s not like I follow a particularly low-sodium diet generally.  The same thing happened to me the next day at lunch and again while snacking on a peanut mix at a Great Leap Brewing. (Michael’s Note: the beer was pretty good)

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The peanut culprits.

I started actively avoiding anything that might be salty.  Michael was able to finish up both dishes and the peanuts with no difficulty.  After a couple days, I figured that the issue must have passed and started eating whatever I wanted again.  Then, in Xian, the tingling returned in full force on my first bite into some potatoes from a street vendor.  This time, even Michael started to experience the tingling partway through the snack.

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Tingle-inducing potatoes.

My cursory googling suggests that the tingling is indicative of a food allergy.  I’ve never been diagnosed with a food allergy before or experienced these symptoms, so it’s hard to say what it might be.  Each of the dishes was salty, but they all had other spices that I can’t identify so maybe that’s the culprit?  Has anyone experienced anything similar or have any ideas of what it could be?

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