Street food is everywhere in the world. In China, it’s a long-honed tradition that still survives despite mounting pressure against it.
The history of street food is a history of human civilization. Almost since the time we began engaging in organized trade and building cities we cooked and sold food in the streets. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Ottomans, Aztecs — probably just about every culture that attracted migrant workers, displaced people, and traveling merchants has a long tradition of cooking and selling food in the streets. Of course, as with most everything else ancient, the Chinese have been long-time proponents, innovators, and distributors of street food. Wherever they went they took the custom with them, spreading the foods they made and the street food custom itself throughout Asia and beyond.
Today, street food is everywhere, from the most far flung Amazonian village to West Africa to the Middle East to New York City. A traveler can easily make his or her way across the globe eating nothing but cheap snacks cooked on the side of the road, on sidewalks, down alleys, and in parks. This is truly a global custom.
Street food is still very common in China. Every city has streets lined with vendors grilling meat skewers, scrambling eggs, frying rice, boiling soup, and steaming buns. The types of foods that are made are only semi-localized. As street food tends to be an occupation for migrants there is often a conglomeration of tastes from all over the country everywhere a row of food stalls are set up. This blending of culture and palates has lead to a form of standardization as to what to expect when heading down a street food alley:
Fried bread sticks (youtiao)
Various types of flat bread (bing)
An array of noodle soups (miantang)
Rice stuffed tamales (zongzi)
Fried noodles (chaomian)
Fried rice (chaofan)
Roasted sweet potatoes (hongshu)
Steamed buns (baozi)
These foods are nearly always sold extremely cheaply. You can generally get almost anything for 6 RMB ($1) or less.
Though virtually ubiquitous, street food has been held in low regard since the days of Theophrastus. It’s always commoner’s food, made by the poor and working class to be eaten by the poor and working class. Almost needless to say, in the midst of China’s re-modernization (social cleansing) drive, food vendors are being removed from the streets of many wannabe posh cities and pushed into designated back alleys or locations out of the city center where the chengguan rarely bother kicking them out. Though never really having a good reputation, with the recent use and widespread media coverage of gutter oil, street food has been elevating to an entirely new level of taboo.
More on Vagabond Journey: What is gutter oil? Find out here
Though people in China continue eating at street food stalls, and the tradition is likely to continue far into the future.
The following video and photos were taken in Nanchang, Jiangxi province.
Watch a video of street food in China
Photos of Chinese street food