The Best Beijing Street Food--A Local's Guide
If you are a foodie who loves getting your grub on in the middle of the road, then you’ll be excited to hear that Beijing is a Mecca for street food! And, it’s some of the best local food in Beijing!
Whether you’re a vegetarian or prefer meat; whether you like spicy, sweet, fried, or steamed snacks, Beijing street food is so diversified it can satisfy even the pickiest eater. After all, Beijing cuisine, like Chinese cuisine, uses many more ingredients and protein sources than many others, so there’s bound to be something for everyone.
An interesting thing about street food in China is that most of the better-known ones qualify as whole meals. They are not only sold on the streets but are also on the menus in some Chinese restaurants. The best thing about street food in Beijing is that it costs next to nothing!
Beijing Street Food, The Early Days
When I first came to Beijing, you could find Chinese street food literally on every street. However, after a while I began to catch on to a rather amusing game of cat and mouse. Every now and again I would witness a stampede of Beijing food vendors scrambling to pack up their tricycle carts and peddle off as fast as they could, sometimes in mid-order.
Moments later a group of street guards would arrive. Some of the vendors would only come out at night to avoid confrontations with the guards. They would set up around 10 pm, which is when the local authorities usually get off work. That’s when I would watch in stunned amazement as the same guards that were chasing them off earlier would place their orders.
There are so many wonderful things about Beijing, but the street food was one of the most memorable aspects of my time as a student in China.
I first came to Beijing as a student 12 years ago, which is when I discovered my favorite Chinese snack—a salty crepe called jianbing. We would have dinner in the university canteen around 5pm, and later at 10 pm when the street vendors showed up at the south gate of the university, we’d take break from studies and get a second dinner.
You could find every Chinese food your heart desired: from pancakes, lamb kebabs, to seafood, all of which paired nicely with a bottle of Beijing’s local beer, Yanjing. At the time a pancake and a beer would only run a little over one US Dollar. Beijing street food matched our student budget, and we never felt hungry.
My obsession with jianbing was such that I remember getting my vendor’s phone number and calling her during the day. If she was in the area, she would come undercover, and meet me in a back alley. My hands would shake and sweat as I watched her work her magic. I’d pay her in crumpled notes; she would hand me my jianbing and hurry off quickly before either of us were spotted. Then I would scurry off to some dingy corner to enjoy my fix.
Beijing Food Culture, Nowadays
China developed rapidly, and so did the Beijing street food scene. Food safety became a huge concern, so the local authorities started cracking down on Beijing street food vendors downtown to the extent that they became almost nonexistent.
However, this doesn’t mean that it was the end of selling these popular foods in Beijing. It simply took on another form.
Street food vendors had to invest in a legitimate brick and mortar store if they were serious about the continued existence of their Beijing food business. Or, find a place in a Beijing street food market like Naluoguxiang night market, or on a famous Beijing food street like, Wangfujing, Qianmen, and Jiumen Snack Street.
Just like Taiwanese street food in Taipei, you can find all of the most popular Chinese street foods at a Beijing night market. They are also famous tourist sites, so make sure to stop by Naluoguxiang night market or Shuang'an night market when you visit Beijing and taste the flavors of the local Chinese cuisine.
You also must visit at least one Beijing snack street Wangfujing snack street sells all the weird stuff that locals don’t really eat. If you are visiting China and would like to show off how you “immersed into local culture” by eating scorpions, snakes, bugs, etc, then this is the place to go. Even if it is just for the shocking Beijing food photos.
Those of us that have been here a while but are past the stage of visiting tourist spots now have the option to get Beijing street food delivered straight to our doors. China’s delivery business is flourishing, especially during the pandemic. It is quick and cheap, so we get our favorite snacks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I am so grateful that I don’t have to cook.
Let me share with you the traditional food in Beijing that you must try when you visit.
8 Best Beijing Street Foods + One for the Brave
1. Jianbing—My favorite Beijing Street Food
Jianbing is a savory crepe and is number one on the list of most delicious Beijing snacks. Also, it is fascinating to watch the ritual of making a jianbing. Since this is my favorite snack, I made an attempt to do it at home, so I’ll even tell you how it’s done.
There a quite a few ingredients to go on both the sides of this delectable pancake.
All the jianbing vendors in town have a special round shaped crepe maker attached to their tricycle. The first step is adding the crepe batter and use a tool to spread it over the pan thin, so the crepe gets a round shape. Then they crack an egg and using the same tool, spread it over. Next come black sesame seeds, cilantro, and scallions.
After It’s cooked up a bit, it’s time to flip the crepe. On the other side, they add two kinds of sauces, one dark and sweet, the other resembling hoisin sauce, followed by a thin, fried crispy cracker.
Then they put all the sides together and its ready to eat.
Jianbing is one of the most famous foods in Beijing. It can be enjoyed as breakfast lunch and dinner, it is that delicious trust me!
2. Jiaozi and Baozi—Beijing Breakfast Dumplings and Buns
These dumplings and steamed buns respectively are probably the most popular Chinese breakfast.
The only difference between them is the shape and the way they are cooked. Baozi are steamed round buns, while jiaozi (dumplings) are made of thinly rolled flour skins that can be boiled or fried. There isn’t a particular difference in the inner fillings, they are both usually filled with a mixture of meat and vegetables. There are vegetarian options as well, which are basically different kinds of vegetables mixed with eggs. The chives and egg combination tastes really good.
This is the most convenient Beijing breakfast option that you can pick on the street and finish on the way to the office. They usually sell as a portion of 10 and are ridiculously cheap.
Both dumplings and buns taste really well when dipped in a mixture of Chinese black vinegar and spiced beans.
3. Youtiao—Chinese Breakfast Treat
Youtiao, or Fried Dough Sticks, is another Beijing street food that is a favorite breakfast in China.
As the name says, it is a fried dough, and it tastes delicious. Think of a doughnut without any sugar. What makes youtiao so special is its golden color. It is crispy on the outside, soft, fluffy and moist on the inside. Youtiao makes a really delicious breakfast, especially when paired with rice porridge, soy milk, and a tea egg (which is exactly what it says on the tin).
Youtiao is really hard to resist. Though the fact that it’s deep fried makes it what Cookie Monster would refer to as a “sometimes snack”.
4. Jidan Guan Bing—Beijing Egg Filled Pancake
Beijing Egg Filled pancake is another popular Chinese breakfast. It is a kind of a pastry that is much smaller, thicker and easier to make than jianbing.
As the frying processes begins, the pancake starts to get puffy. This is the part when they gently make a hole in the center of the dough and add a beaten egg. After both sides are cooked, the egg filled pancake is flavored with chilly bean sauce and topped with a piece of lettuce. It is optional to add some kind of meat, usually chicken or sausage.
5. Lamb Chuanr—Chinese Food on a Stick
Lamb Chuanr are Lamb Skewers. Technically speaking this Beijing street food belongs to a whole category called chuanr (that’s pronounced “chwar”), but lamb is pretty much synonymous with the whole of the skewered meat category, part of the larger food on a stick category.
As seen on Netflix’s Street Food Asia, many of the best Asian street foods are on a stick! For example Hong Kong’s numerous street foods on a stick include fish balls, siu mai, and squid tentacles, and there are boiled eggs and pig intestines on a stick in the Philippines. And I could go on and on!
This delectable late-night treat is exactly what it sounds like, small bits of lamb on bamboo skewers, seasoned with cumin and other spices, then roasted over an open flame.
Street food vendors serving chuanr used to be ubiquitous, and some would even pop up seasonally in the middle of parking lots during the summers. Ever since the city government flagged them as a leading cause of air pollution, chuanr stands are hard to come by. If you can find one though, you’re in for a treat.
Grab a tiny, tiny stool and order up several skewers with a pint of the local brew. You’re guaranteed a memorable night.
6. Tanghulu—Delicious Chinese Dessert
If chuanr are the seasonal snack for the warm months, tanghulu or hawthorne berries, is its sweeter winter cousin.
Yet another Beijing street food on a bamboo skewer, the Beijing dessert tanghulu are candied hawthorne berries. Coated in a glass-like shell of sugar, these sour fruits look as though they’ve been frozen. Sometimes they comes alongside other fruits like dragon fruit, orange slices.
If you find yourself in Beijing during the winter months, go ahead a grab one of these Chinese desserts. Just be careful if you have fillings in your teeth!
7. Malatang—Traditional Chinese Soup
Malatang (Spicy Soup) is another Beijing snack that holds a dear place in my heart. All things told however, it took a while before I found a taste for it. Malatang is a spicy soup that is mixed up with Sichuan Peppercorns. It was this little spice that took me so long to come around to the dish.
Sichuan Peppercorn, sometimes called Prickly Ash, leaves your mouth with a numbing sensation whenever you eat it. I found this traditional Chinese soup to be an acquired taste, but eventually I did just that.
When you get into a malatang shop, you’ll be faced with a plethora of raw vegetables and meats. Make your selection, hand it over at the register, and be rewarded with a spicy treat a few minutes later. Malatang truly is a lovely Beijing street food!
8. Liang Mian—Popular Chinese Street Food
You might look at the title of this Beijing street food, Liang Mian meaning Cold Noodles, and think it’s no big deal, but Liang Mian is not something to pass up if you get the chance. It is one of the best Chinese snacks!
Liang Mian stalls normally offer a few noodle choices, and which one you pick is largely irrelevant. It’s what goes in this popular Chinese street food afterwards that counts.
Freshly shaved cucumber, peanuts, sesame paste, chilli powder and a few choice sauces make this simple treat a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
9. Chou Doufu—Stinky Tofu
Here’s a snack that’s only for the brave!
Those that enjoy stinky tofu love it, those that don’t love it generally have words for it that don’t belong on family friendly blog sites. I could go into hyperbole about this stuff and tell you I’d rather spend my day overseeing a vet clinic for skunks with anxiety disorders than be around stinky tofu, but it’s already in the name.
This stuff is fetid to say the least. So, if you find yourself wandering the streets of Beijing and a pungent aroma suddenly jumps into your nostrils, beats them, and searches their pockets for loose change, there’s a 90% chance that a chou doufu stand is in the vicinity. If you’re feeling brave, or just want a story of a weird food to tell people about when you get home, maybe give this Beijing street food a try.
Final thoughts on Beijing Street Food
Now you know what to eat in Beijing! You have many choices for an awesome Chinese breakfast, traditional Chinese snacks, and even Chinese dessert.
Use this list of the Best Beijing Street Food as you stroll through a Beijing food street, like Wangfujing snack street, and a Beijing street food market, like Naluoguxiang night market. This is where you’ll find the best street food in Beijing!
We’d love to hear from you in the comments below! Have you visited Beijing? Where did you find the best food in Beijing? What are your thoughts on stinky tofu?
About the Author
Katerina is an expat that has lived in Beijing for the past 12 years. During her time in The Big Dumpling, she has studied much about Eastern health and wellness practices. She started her blog, The Hobbit Hold, to share her love of health and wellness, great food & tea, and comfortable surroundings. All photos without captions are courtesy of Katerina.