Flavors of the Capital

I scan a menu of snacks on the wall of a roadside eatery like a telephone directory. Here the local delicacy is douzhi, fermented mung bean milk. Douzhi has a distinct pungent smell and its grey colour may turn many weak stomachs. It's made from fermented green mung beans boiled and then strained. It is best served, piping hot. You 'drink it' with spicy pickles. I'm an omnivore and will try anything, at least once. Judging from the steady stream of customers, the place does a roaring trade.


There's lots of talk these days of the gradual disappearance of local Beijing food culture that has not become homogenize in food streets or courts around the city. And while such roadside food is an endangered species, it is not going extinct. You will still find small eateries serving up snacks of bygone days and street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, toffee hawthorns, as halal (qingzhen) dishes and snacks. Halal cuisine has lots of beef and lamb and became an indelible part of the capital's cuisine in the early twentieth century. Lamb dishes include lamb tripe in sauce (baodu), fried-lamb with shallots (congbao yangrou), lamb head's meat (yangtou rou), stewed in a large cauldron under tender, and lamb's spine called lamb scorpion (yang xiezi) because the spine resembles the tail of a scorpion.


In days of yore, head of lambs were not usually sold in restaurants, but by vendors whose calls could be heard along the capital's alleyways. Street peddlers could be heard hollering their wares and food all the year around. Samuel Victor Constant's wonderful book Calls, Sounds and Merchandise of the Peking Street Peddlers (1936) captures a past that has long disappeared. One poem from another book titled An Ode to Small Snacks in the Capital provides a wonderful snapshot of the lamb vendor:

In the tenth lunar month, the north wind is piercingly cold in Beijing
But the smell of lamb's head is everywhere.
Salt is sprinked on the lamb like flakes of snow
The meat cut thinly like paper
.

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