Different from French desserts you see at fancy restaurants, the Beijing street dessert pea cake has a golden colour which reminds you of its royal past as the Empress Dowager’s favourite snack. Peas are grinded, peeled, boiled, fried with sugar and shaped into soft yellow cubes. The sweetness of the sugar taste paired with the gooey texture is like the taste of a spring breeze.
Another snack favoured by the royal families, Aiwowo appeared at the end of Ming Dynasty and was once a traditional halal food, before it was introduced to the Forbidden City. Legend has it that the imperial concubines especially loved this snack because of its “snow-white colour” and “fragrant and sweet taste”. Aiwowo is steamed glutinous rice balls which are a mixture of sugar, nuts, green plums and osmanthus flowers, covered in flour and decorated with a red dot which is usually raw jelly.
You may well call it glutinous rice rolls with sweet bean flour, but you will only confuse the salespeople at snack bars if you order like this, because the snack is more widely known by its cool Chinese nickname: Lvdagunr (meaning “Donkey Rolls”). The snack is rolled with layers of glutinous yellow rice and red bean jam (or brown sugar), and covered with soya bean powder. This powder looks like the dirt kicked up by donkeys that used to roll around for fun in the Beijing suburbs, hence why it was given this famous nickname.
You’re mistaken if you think Beijing only has sweet street food. The city is also famous for Luzhu Huoshao, a dish made of boiled pig intestines with slices of baked wheat cake and fried tofu. The dish was said to be invented during the Qing Dynasty when high quality pork meat was unaffordable for poorer families.
Stewed liver is a creative combination of stewed pigs’ liver and fried pig lungs, both folk food in the Song Dynasty. In 1900, Huixian Restaurant in Qianmen first innovated the dish, stewing pig livers before thickening the soup by adding starch. The Huixing Restaurant is now merged with Tianxing Restaurant, which has several branches in Beijing for you to try the most authentic stewed liver.
Fermented from the remnants of making mung bean noodles, Douzhi is a traditional Beijing snack with such a distinct smell and taste that only the brave are bold enough to try. But no matter how notorious its taste is, a trip to Beijing isn’t complete without crossing the infamous Douzhi.
There’s no Douzhi without Jiaoquan, the golden rings of dough that can usually be seen garnishing a bowl of mung bean milk. Frying Jiaoquan is quite an art: the Jiaoquan with the best quality has a golden brown colour and a bracelet-like shape, has a crunchy texture; and stays in its original shape and taste, even after being put aside for seven days, and smashes easily into pieces if dropped on the floor.
There’s probably no other snacks that have such a specific name. The little pastry cubes all have three lines cut on one side, a crunchy-on-the-outside texture and tender-on-the-inside honey taste. Legend has it that the snack was named by Su Tungpo, a literary giant and statesman in the Song Dynasty. He was testing his new precious sword by cutting three lines on a limestone, when his attendant served the pastry also with three lines cut on it, so Su spontaneously named it “Misandao”.
Tanghulu is one of the best childhood memories for people who grew up in Beijing and its neighbouring city Tianjin. Street vendors strung eight Chinese hawthorns one after another on a bamboo skewer and dipped them in boiling sugar before drying them on a wooden board. The taste is an unforgettable combination of sweet and sour. Though it’s rare to see vendors making the Tanghulu on the streets nowadays, you may still see people selling Tanghulu made of not only hawthorns, but also strawberries and other fruit.
A traditional snack that has been popular for generations is millet mush with sesame sauce poured delicately onto the surface. If you want to drink the Miancha like a local Beijinger, remember not to use a spoon or chopsticks, but to hold the bowl with only one hand, incline towards your lips, and suck the mush from the edge of the bowl while turning the bowl slowly (either clockwise or anti-clockwise, it doesn’t matter). This way you can make sure to drink the mush and the sesame sauce at the same time to get the complete taste.