Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Donghuamen Night Market

Donghuamen Night Market

Throughout our time in Beijing, Sarah and I have been unwittingly drawing comparisons to Tokyo. Where Tokyo was expensive (a ride on the subway usually cost a couple of pounds) Beijing is cheap (20p gets you anywhere.) While free and affordable things to do in Tokyo seem relatively thin on the ground, Beijing heaves to the extent that we decided to extend our visit by two days. And whereas Tokyo is a a street food desert, Beijing has Donghuamen Night Market.

Donghuamen Night Market is probably best known as the place where you can get almost anything on a stick. It's a photogenic playground where one can chow down on black scorpion, nibble on snake or munch your way through a sheep's penis, and then eat testicles for dessert. It’s also home to a plethora of tourist-orientated street food, and whereas in the past I may have gone there in search of adventure, on Sunday night I was just looking for dinner.

I found it. Several times. First up I opted for a beef skewer. These long substantial kebabs cost about 50p each and came grilled and dusted with ground cumin and chilli powder. Having tried the lamb and chicken versions on the nearby Wangfujiing Snack Street, I knew what to expect. The meat was tender and well cooked, while the seasoning not only added flavour but also gave the skewer a wonderfully dry, powdery texture.

A couple of paces later I hit upon some Liangpi, spicy fried noodles. These thick, round noodles had been wok fried with bok choi and soy sauce, then topped with a liberal helping of lajiaojiang (chilli paste.) The noodles were good, red hot and possessed of that curious dry stickiness that seems to be the hallmark of Chinese fried noodles.

Next I found myself transfixed by a massive grill of oysters, The oysters had been halved and topped with diced green chilli, garlic, and what looked liked breadcrumbs. I ordered one, and it made a brief but memorable encounter, with the oyster sea-taste shining through above everything else.

Finally, I settled upon a variation on what the locals call a Beijing Sandwich. These thick pita rolls filled with chopped lamb, garlic and coriander were the subject of many fantasies for Sarah and I prior to coming to Beijing, and we'd almost given up on finding them! I'm glad we did. I'm not the biggest fan of coriander, but in this instance the herb breathed life into what could have been a heavy stodge-wich, while the chilli gave it a little fire to boot.
That was me for the time being. I didn't get to try lobster dumplings, steamed crab, barbecued squid, stir-fried beef wraps etc. I could have eaten a beetle on a stick, but with so much else on offer, why the hell would I want to do that?

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Saturday, 25 July 2009


Touchdown in Beijing: Pork Spine
Driving into Beijing I was a little apprehensive. Vast, drab buildings gave me the impression I was entering some sort of post-communist desert, while the thick, impenetrable smog that blocked out the sun put me in mind of the industrialised Victorian London so savagely described in my current doorstop of choice, Charles Dickens' Bleak House.
Yet beyond the motorway off-ramps and tower blocks, an entirely different world awaited. The ancient alleways and thoroughfares that characterise Beijing's hutong districts (in one of which our hostel is located,) abound with activity and so far have proved a fantastic introduction to Chinese life.
In Nan Luo Gu Xiang Hutong, the sights and sounds are many and varied. Shirtless and potbellied old men stand around smoking or playing games. Bikes and motorized rickshaws careen through haphazardly. All around, people seem to be engaged in either tearing things down or building them up.
Somewhat surprisingly, a modern vibrant edge to the city is also present here in the small independent boutiques and trendy speciality shops that sit easily among the traditonal craft shops and tea houses.
Included in the chaos (happily) is street food. I found these guys (what I assume to be pork spine) curled up and smoking on a one man grill, when we ducked into the side of the road to avoid a monsoon downpour.
The pork spine had been coated in a spicy and sweet spare-rib style sauce that was charred in some places and sticky elsewhere. The meat came off easily and in substantial chunks, but nevertheless encouraged the kind of cheek-smearing bone-gnawing that makes one's girlfriend stand a few paces away.
This was one grill, in one street, in one block of a thouroughly massive city. Tonight we're off to Wangfujing snack street in search of lamb kebabs and flat bread.
I honestly feel like I'm in heaven.

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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Up until now, my Tokyo food experiences have largely consisted of the the sporadic grazing mentioned in the previous post, and a few excellent tonkatsu sanwiches from the convenience store. As such, I was beginning to think I was being priced out of the bulk of Tokyos food hotspots. A trip to the tourist mecca of Asakusa on Sunday changed that however, as I came across some unexpected street action and got a glimpse of Tokyo life into the bargain.

As one of Tokyo's oldest areas and the site of the Senso-ji shrine, Asakusa positively heaves with tourists (and the kinds of businesses designed to cater for their every need.) Here you can buy everything from Kiminos to rides in people drawn rickshaws (jinriksha.) To cater for the hungry masses, numerous Japanese restaurants line the narrow streets, and the area directly in front of the shrine is home to a small collection of street carts and food tents.

It was in the later that the fancies of my over-active imagination finally began to take physical form. Trays of roughly hewn takoyaki stared up at me from the carefully arranged cart of one vendor, while skewers of sliced scallops, chicken and pork begged an introduction to the grill at another. Further on, a hotplate heaved with a writhing mass of yakisoba noodles, and an old man fried up a heavy batter of what I guessed to be okinawaki, the thick heavy pancake not dissimilar to my own beloved pajeon.

Yet despite everything on offer something held me back. Amid the trinkets and the touristsm, the food seemed somehow laboured, a way to spin a couple of hundred yen from the passing temple trade rather than anything authentically Japanese. With a hefty price tag starting at about a quarter of my meagre budget for the day per item, I made an executive decision to walk on by and see if I could score something else instead.

I'm glad I did. No sooner had we left the temple area did we stumble upon devotion of an entirely different kind - directly in front of us hundreds of Japanese men were congregated in a large hanger-type building, cigarattes drooping from their mouths, faces upturned towards tv screens blaring the frenzied excitement of a horse race. In an alleyway branching away from the main building, smaller groups hunkered around countertops and tvs, drinking, smoking and eating yakatori straight from an outdoor grill. It was at one of these that, after showing a mere flicker of interest, I was graciously made way for, and my first genuine street food experience of the trip finally began.
Sandwiched between a large Chinese man and a friendly Japanese guy called Nokiyoko, I ordered two skewers of chicken yakitori at 100 yen a piece. Our companions then topped up our order with a tall cold bottle of Asahi beer from Nokiyoko, and a trio of shrivelled pink berries from the Chinese man (the impending consumption of which sent him into convulsive fits of laughter.)

The chicken was good, smoky from the grill and boasting a pleasantly sticky teryaki sauce. The berries for their part delivered a salty kick, followed by a jaw twisting sourness that can only come from an extended period of pickling.

The beer was cold.
Sarah and I sat awhile shooting the breeze woth Nokiyoko and taking a welcome break from the sun and blisters of a shotgun Tokyo visit. While the yakatori wasn't the best I've had on this trip, the atmosphere certainly was, reminding of the supreme value of food and the reason I'm investing so much time into writing up the littlest details of my daily curbside travails.

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Tokyo Grazing

So it turns out Tokyo isn't much of a street food town. I came here expecting to see stall after stall of vendors selling everything from takoyaki to sashimi, but so far I've yet to lay eyes on a single solitary pushcart or portable grill. As such, my dream of eating cheaply in Tokyo whilst filling post after post with lurid descriptions of food I can only dream of, looks like it might be over before it even began.
But that's not to say I haven't been eating well. Since arriving yesterday afternoon we've spent a fair portion of our time peering and gesturing our way into some of the most interesting meals I've had in a long time. Tokyo heaves with little nook and cranny eating joints and food halls, and though they may not be strictly street, I think they nevertheless deserve a write up.
Freshly checked into our traditional Japanese inn (i.e. expensive and lacking in amenities) we popped our Tokyo cherry by ducking into one of the many ramen joints that line the main street of our new hood, Takodanababa. These places have a novel way of keeping human contact to a happy minimum by requiring you to purchase a ticket for your meal at a vending machine. As everything is in Japanese, this could easily have turned into a hit-it-and-hope situation save for the friendly cook who came out to give us a helping hand.

When the smoke had cleared, I ended up with a crispy tempura of onions, carrot and potato on a bed of thick round noodles (not shown in picture.) Surprisingly, everything on the plate was cold, which perhaps has something to do with how everything there seemed to be focused on a speed - a few customers came and went in the time it took for Sarah and I to fumble through our own meals.
Later that night, we decided to hit Shinjuku and Kabuchiko on the the hunt for food and sleaze. Unfortunatley, Kabuchiko didn't turn out to be the all-out assault on morality we'd been hoping for, but foodwise things went a little better. Our first stop was a small beer and yakitori izakaya close to Shinjuku station. I ordered a skewer of chicken thigh, another of crispy chicken skin and one of pork cheek. The meat was tender, flavoursome and daringly pink, coated with a slightly sweet/spicy "Japanese sauce" and infinitley morish.

Still hungry, I then moved on to a standing-only takoyaki place I'd spied round the corner. Here, four substantial octopus balls were of a reasonable price and came covered in Japanese mayonnaise and katsuobushi. The balls were crispy on the outside, mouth searingly hot and possessed of a substantial pearl of octopus in the middle.
We kicked off Saturday in the upmarket district of Ginza for a cruise of one of the many upscale department store basement food halls called depachikas. My search turned up a couple of free samples and an exceptional olive, anchovy and cheese calzone that cut me to ribbons with a sharp/salty edge that made me think I'd momentarily left Asia.

Later, we rounded off the day with a Tonkatsu, the breadcrumbed pork cutlet closely related to the Korean doncass that used to brighten up my Friday lunchtimes. The cutlet was thick and juicy, covered with flaky golden breadcrumbs and swimming in a curry sauce that reminded be fondly of my teenage half-and-halfs (half fried rice, half chips and curry sauce at the bus shelter)
That's it so far - hopefully I'll see some street food soon and really get the trip started!

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

I feel it closing in...

You know the bit in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta's cooking dinner, transporting coke and dealing with his family while off his nut and getting tailed by a helicopter?

Well apart from the hard drugs and felony, that's kind of how I'm feeling at the moment. This week we're pretty busy with clearing our apartment, getting our travel details in order and preparing our jobs for the next teachers to take over from us. On top of that I'm trying to switch Street Foodie to Wordpress without losing everything I hold dear, and the rainy season has just hit BIG TIME.

As such all I've got to show for myself is the above photo of a dukbokki/soondae hybrid I recently discovered in Nampodong while scouring the area for a fix. This thing is swimming in so much corn syrup it looks like the creepy plastic food you get outside some restaurants. As such I had kind of expected this to be a medley of the worst features of both dishes, but something in there surprisingly worked. The soodae was a little less gelatinous than I've had it before, feeling somewhat more substantial between the teeth than previous incarnations, and the dukbokki wasn't that bad.

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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Street Foodie Domesticated!: Rotiserrie Chicken Salad.

Every Wednesday evening a guy sells rotisserie chickens out the back of a van outside our apartment complex. Despite a recent jump in price from 5000 to 6000 won, these little babies are exceptionally good value and I always find it hard to resist bagging one on the way back from school (it helps that Wednesday is my worst day for classes.)

These things are as versatile as they are delicious. Fighting the temptation to tear it apart and eat just with the accompanying sachets of mustard and salt is always hard. I’ve had this with potatoes and vegetables as part of a mini-roast, wrapped in tortillas with a spicy tomato sauce, and just last week in some chicken sandwiches on the way to Seoul (the last image our fated camera shared with us.) The chicken is usually super tender, falling of the bone and possessed of just the right amount of lip smacking greasiness.

This week however I finally paid heed to elements by getting my salad on chicken-style. I started by picking and dismembering the chicken, taking care to devour all that greasy/salty/terminally unhealthy chicken skin while I was at it. I then threw the meat in a bowl with some lettuce leaves, halved cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced spring onions, before mixing it up with my new favorite dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, schezwan pepper, sliced chili and cumin.

It worked. The chicken plumped out the leaves and toms perfectly, taking on the flavours of the dressing without losing any of that rotating-on-a-stick goodness. This probably could have served as a meal in its own right but instead I opted to match it with some other salad-y stuff I somehow got possessed into making.

Turns out the boy can cook!

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