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China – snacks and street food

October 13, 2009

China wasn’t all multi-dish meals and dumplings, contrary to how it must seem from the previous post.  Oh, no.  There were also breakfasts.  And snacks.  Many, many snacks…


My favourite snack in Shanghai was translated as “meat cake”, which sounds rather unappetising.  Imagine a nice, juicy meatball encased in flaky pastry – that’s the best I can do by way of explanation.  They were sold streetside throughout town.

Another variation on the “meat cake” was a favourite in Beijing – the roujiamo.  It’s basically a round bread (like a Turkish bread) and is split and filled with sliced, roast meat, chilles, coriander and perhaps shredded cucumber, lettuce and onion, depending where you bought it.  The meat can be pork, mutton or beef; naturally, muslim vendors serve either mutton or beef.  It’s been described as a “Chinese hamburger” but I thought it was more like a small doner kebab.  Delish.

I mentioned the lamb skewers in the previous post and they really were something else.  Our guidebooks indicated that they were very popular in Beijing, however we saw many more muslim food stalls in Shanghai than in the capital.  I’m not sure whether we weren’t looking in the right places, or whether the centre of gravity for Xinjiang vendors has shifted.  The kebabs usually comprised three thickish strips of lamb – two lean surrounding a strip of fat.  After they were cooked, they were dipped in a spice mix, unless you requested bu yao tai la (which we didn’t).

We tried a couple of variations of breads as street snacks.  One was cooked in flat, oval loaves of around 40cm x 20cm.  They were sprinkled with sesame seeds and some contained other, subtle spices too.  They’re sold by weight – indicate how big a wedge you want and it’s bundled up in a bag to take away.

The breakfast-on-the-run we had en route to the Forbidden City (and as a pick-me-up on other occasions, too!) was a flatter bread, “filled” with egg and sliced leek.  It’s similar to a Malaysian egg roti.

Spring onion cakes are another version of a fried flat bread/pancake filled with – you guessed it! – spring onion.  They are served as snacks and were also on some breakfast menus.  Noodle Kingdom in Russell Street does a pretty good one and I’ve even found some pretty decent frozen ones at the grocery in Melbourne Central.

Glutinous rice rolls – these are densely packed glutinous rice rolled around a filling. We tried one that had a sweet bean and youtiao filling.  Interesting.  Also on glutinous rice, one of our unsuccessful snack endeavours was a glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in lotus leaf.  Perhaps it was that particular vendor, rather than the overall concept, but it was gloopy and nasty.

Steamed corn cobs.  Again – it could have been a dodgy vendor/end of day for the corn, but it was completely flavourless.  In South Africa, “mealies” are a staple and they look like corn cobs but with cream coloured kernals.  This corn was yellow, but the flavour was bland like a mealie.  I’m a huge sweet corn fan, so was bitterly disappointed!

Shanghai style shao mai are HUGE – not the delightfully dainty dumplings I’m used to.  Still, they were tasty and the size of them meant that one was a satisfying snack, while two puts you in danger of ruining your lunch.

Fresh youtiao have spoiled me for the packaged dough sticks you often get here: light, fluffy and perfect for sopping up the soupy goodness of congee. Mmmm.

Toffee fruit rods.  I was disappointed when the Fruit Rod King in Lonsdale Street closed before I’d made good on my threats to stop there and buy a fruit rod, so I was thrilled to see such a range of toffee covered fruits and fruit portions on sticks in Beijing.  I’m not sure what the fruit was that I tried – it could have been crabapple – but it was pretty good.  I was keen to try the grapes and the orange portions, but we ran out of time.



Local beers were cheap and available at convenience stores (All Days, Lawsons, Kedi) in Shanghai and little bottle shops in Beijing as well as at supermarkets.  Ordering beer at a restaurant was always accompanied by the question “ice?”.  The first time we said yes, we expected that it might be served like a bia hoi, over a big chunk of ice, but it was just cold from the fridge.  I’m not sure who orders lager and asks for it to be room temperature, but it was the same everywhere we went, so it must be a common thing.  The local beers – Tsingtao and Yanjing were the ones we stuck to – are very low alcohol and can be a bit on the sweet side, so aren’t for endless boozing.  Beers brewed under licence (Heinekin, Budweiser) were also low alcohol, so the low price might reflect an alcohol tax – imported beers could get pricey.  Having said that, the otherwise overpriced supermarket at Times Square had an impressive range of European beers and it was cheaper to buy a bottle of one of those than a 340ml can of Schweppes Diet Tonic.  Go figure.

Paulaner has a number of micro-breweries in Shanghai and they are hugely popular.  We dropped into the Xintiandi branch for a beer after dinner on a Wednesday night and the place was heaving with people (and a Filipino cover band).  Not bad, given that they were charging 75Y for a half litre of their draft.  By contrast, 75Y at the deserted Bund Brewery got us a litre each.


Yes, wine is produced in China.  Not only that, but one of the labels – I can’t remember which one – has recruited a French winemaker to spruik its product.  Good on them.  We only discovered the existence of the wine because C was intent on sampling some baiju.  The woman in the Zhapu Rd supermarket saw us looking at the lethal spirit and guided us towards a Grand Dragon cabernet sauvignon, gesturing to indicate that it was good.  It was only a couple of bucks, so we figured we could try it for a laugh and… it wasn’t so bad.

As a result, we sought out local wine in supermarkets and bottle shops throughout Shanghai and Beijing.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the Grand Dragon again, but we tried the Great Wall (not so good) and Dynasty (better than Great Wall, but no Grand Dragon) and a Dragon with a different label.  All in all, I think we managed a fairly comprehensive survey of Chinese cab sauvs, but being no wine expert, the best I can say is “we opened the bottles and didn’t pour any of it down the sink”.


Coffee at cafes is expensive relative to the cost of everything else, and thus didn’t seem to offer much value (for us, that is – the Starbucks all seemed to be doing fairly well).  We had a caffe latte at At Cafe in 798 and I felt as though I’d been transported back to early 90s Brisbane.  A tall glass; a small, strangely located handle; a vaguely tan colour but no discernible flavour; an almost impenetrable centimetre of foam on the top.  To satisfy our need for caffeine, we stuck with tea in the evenings and convenience store coffee-in-a-can in the mornings.  Mr Brown’s was the best.

Juices etc

Watermelon juice was a bit of a lifesaver in Shanghai’s heat, so I was pleased – for a change – to see so many juice bars.  Mr Donut made tasty granita style drinks and I developed a bit of an obsession with the pink grapefruit drink stocked at most convenience stores.  I’m sure it was mostly sugar, but it was still pretty good!

= = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Well, I’ve reached the limit of food reverie – now I’d better get back to sorting the Beijing photos.  Oh, I wish the imperial family had thought to use different colour schemes to more easily differentiate the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Lama Temple…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2009 10:25 pm

    I cannot believe you had time for anything else but eating and drinking. Sounds like my type of holiday. You have definitely whet my appetite for China.

    • injera permalink*
      October 15, 2009 4:21 pm

      Surprising how much time you have for eating and drinking when you’re not working and having to cook up any of it! That’s the downside of “not holidays”…

  2. October 17, 2009 8:36 pm

    Sounds so good.I need dumplings NOW! “Meat Cake” sounds very close to a meat dessert. My brother has been searching for a meat dessert most of his life. I came across one in France that was made of Foir Gras…I didn’t try it. Have you tried to re-live any of your favourites by cooking at home yet?

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