Six street food specialties in China

Savory street foods in Shanghai
Savory street foods in Shanghai
Street foods in Shanghai

Take a peek at these street food specialties in China (from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing). Would you indulge in them on the streets?

You might call us adventurous eaters, at home and when we travel, but we are also risk-aversive and only eat street foods cautiously and sparingly.

Although we enjoy trying new tastes and eating with (and like) the locals, we were forewarned by Chinese tour guides, multiple times, not to risk eating street foods in China (even though much of it looked quite delicious).

Why? Food safety standards aren’t as rigorous as they are in the U.S. A few years back, the Washington Post exposed the widespread (and illegal) practice of Chinese vendors using black market gutter oil for cooking street foods.

Most of the time, eating street foods isn’t likely to be that hazardous, especially when foods are freshly prepared and well-cooked. “It’s not that it’s spoiled or unhealthy,” said of one our local guides. “It just may upset some Western stomachs.”

Given the length of our trip, ambitious itinerary, and distance from home, it didn’t sound prudent to take unnecessary risks. Yet, some of the street foods and traditional dishes were so ubiquitous that we were able to try them out in safer settings. 

1) Tea Eggs – Cha Ye Dan

Tea Eggs – Cha Ye Dan
Tea Eggs – Cha Ye Dan

We encountered a pot of these at a buffet breakfast at the China World Hotel in Beijing and didn’t know what to make of them. Apparently, tea eggs are a popular snack sold on the streets, in night markets, and in small convenience shops throughout China. They are savory, inexpensive (about 15 cents each) and nutritious. To achieve their color and flavor, the shells are cracked (and sometimes removed) before the boiled eggs are re-boiled overnight in soy sauce, black tea leaves, five-spice powder and sugar.

2) Coffee Tea – Yuanyang

Iced Coffee Tea – Yuanyang
Iced Coffee Tea – Yuanyang
Warm Coffee Tea – Yuanyang
Warm Coffee Tea – Yuanyang

Served either warm or iced, this mid-day caffeine-rich picker-me-upper is very popular in Hong Kong. Made with a mix of 3 parts coffee to 7 parts Hong Kong Style Milk Tea (made with condensed milk), it is remarkably refreshing and palatable. We tasted it at a small café in Hong Kong, but it’s often sold by street vendors.

3) Chinese Donuts – Youtaio 

Chinese Donuts – Youtaio
Chinese Donuts – Youtaio

Also, called a fried breadstick, this breakfast treat is often served with congee (a rice porridge). It tasted a bit bland by itself. Apparently, it derives from a Cantonese word meaning “oil-fried devil.” 

4) Fried Dough Twists – Mahua

Fried Dough Twists – Mahua
Fried Dough Twists – Mahua

This sweet confection, made of twisted dough deep-fried in peanut oil, looks somewhat like a cruller. Its dough is sweeter and denser than Youtiao. We tasted this at a tea tasting at the Rosewood Beijing.

5) Green Dumplings – Qingtuan

Green Dumplings - Qingtuan
Fresh Green Dumplings – Qingtuan
Green Dumplings - Qingtuan
Packaged Green Dumplings – Qingtuan

These traditional bright green dumplings are made with glutinous rice that is filled with smashed red or black beans, and dyed with mugwort juice or barley grass. Our visit to Shanghai coincided with the annual three-day Tomb-Sweeping Festival called Qingming Jie, which takes place in early April. On that weekend, hoards of people drive to the suburbs to visit graves of their loved ones. They go to sweep out the weeds and leave favorite foods (such as Qingtuan) and fake money for relatives. The dumplings are also popular street foods.

6) Scallion Pancakes – Cong You Bing 


Scallion Pancakes - Cong You Bing
Scallion Pancakes – Cong You Bing

Some say that these savory Chinese scallion pancakes were the precursor to pizza, a claim hotly contested by Italians. The thin pancakes were sold on the streets in every city we visited and served in many restaurants. Perfect for breakfast or a snack, they’re made of dough that’s folded with sesame oil, minced scallions and salt, cooked unleavened in a flat pan or griddle. You actually might find scallion pancakes closer to home, too, because they are so popular.

What is your personal philosophy/practice regarding eating street food as a traveler?

This post is part of a linkup to Noel Morata’s Travel Photo Discovery.

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  1. Now that’s a good idea – eat the street food in a more reliable restaurant. Those Chinese scallion pancakes look delicious… We too are usually cautious about eating street food when we travel. If it’s fried in front of our eyes (so it’s fresh and hasn’t been sitting in a pot for hours) – maybe. And in Singapore, we hear the street food is very edible. But otherwise, like you say, we don’t really want to take chances and risk a day or two out of circulation.

      1. Irene, I’m glad you didn’t eat “On the street.” I totally believe the “Western stomach” thing. I’ve gotten really sick in Mexico, and that was eating hotel food. – From another “Never miss a mealer.” 🙂

  2. We’re pretty adventurous, but the “gutter oil” factoid would definitely give me pause. We like nothing better than to browse tent, alley and market food stalls and have been lucky so far when we’ve eaten among the locals in Malaysia, Fiji and Australia. The one thing that puts me off with certain Asian and Indian offerings is the vivid coloring, particularly with the sweets. It looks so fake that it can’t be good for you, right?

  3. I too, am really cautious when eating in foreign countries and even so, have become very sick more times than I can count. Given I’m often travelling alone, its scary to spend several days being completely debilitated so I’ve become extra vigilant. By avoiding chicken — even in fine restaurants- I’ve managed to stave off serious illness for several years. But street food is quite tempting, especially if you see everyone else enjoying it. Those scallion pancakes looks particularly tempting. They are available in the Asian night market here in Toronto too. Delicious!

      1. Not street food but when back when I volunteered at the HS football concession stand and saw how the hot foods were stored and handled, I never touched that stuff again. So, I would be leery of street food because it’s hard to maintain safe conditions outside of a real kitchen.

  4. Oh boy! Once I read the word “gutter oil” I was quite scared to read more! I shy away from street foods. I have a “delicate” constitution and don’t want to spend the entire trip in the bathroom! I will try the local favorites in a restaurant! The Scallion Pancakes looked yummy! I can smell them from here.

  5. Wow thanks for this post! Tea eggs are a favorite, but I have not had scallion pancakes or green dumplings. They both look very good. One of my rules is just…nothing raw or near raw.

  6. When I visited Beijing I took a morning walk before my class set off on our excursion of the day (study abroad) and each morning I saw a street vendor frying long narrow donuts. On the third morning we were leaving Beijing for Xi’an so I bought some of the donuts – the vendor was very happy that I stopped to buy the donuts, I think he was pleased that I was trying them out, they were good. The other street food I had on our first day in Beijing was at Wangfujing street, full of food vendors. I tried the scorpions on a stick. They were yummy – just crunchy little snacks with some savory spices.

  7. I too lean to eating street food sparingly, depending on where I am and how safe it appears. The scallion pancakes look delicious. And the coffee tea sounds like an odd combination, but I would give it a try.

  8. I’m a pretty adventurous eater, but don’t want to get sick either. We take fewer chances with street food in places like China and Mexico, but in Korea and Japan have enjoyed trying specialties as long as they look freshly cooked. The scallion pancakes look yummy and the coffee tea sounds interesting too.

  9. Very appetizing pictures of street food in China, although I would never recommend to anyone but a local that they actually purchase and eat food from a street stall. Thankfully, you can eat this wonderful Chinese street food in other venues!

      1. First, what great food photos. It takes real skill to get market food photos—between making sure it’s ok with the proprietor and getting a good shot. We usually don’t try the street food (especially the grilled scorpians on a stick!). (I don’t eat cray fish either, so at least I’m consistent). However, we’ve eaten in some hole in the wall “restaurants” in SE Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America that are probably pretty much the same. I refuse to attract the Evil Eye by saying I haven’t had stomach issues on the road for awhile.

  10. What no chicken feet! I wouldn’t try them either! I’m quite game eating street food that is cooked in front of me but when you mentioned that the guides advised you not to eat it, that would have stopped me in my tracks too! It’s interesting we all favour the safe choice of scallion pancakes!

  11. Hi Irene,
    Your photos are so crisp and clear, showing off the interesting and colorful foods. And thanks for the reminder — I have it on my to do list to make scallion pancakes because I thought they looked to yummy and easy to make. Such a nice addition to any meal.

    I’m with David and Veronica, (Gypsynesters), above and would try any street food as it presents the real culture and vibe of a place!

    Glad you’re having a great trip!

  12. I”m with you -don’t eat street food for hygiene reasons and ain’t nobody changing my mind about that! Of course you can get food poisoning anywhere – I got it at the St. Regis in Beijing – but you can get much worse things from street vendors. Having said that I love your pictures and the idea of trying the same things, but somewhere you can have more confidence in the cleanliness, is a great idea. And I too want some of those scallion pancakes!

  13. I write from Yangon, Myanmar where the hotel repeatedly warns against eating street food and where our cruise ship folks don’t even want us drinking water ashore. After some of the offerings I’ve seen, I didn’t need the warnings. Joel is still fighting a bug he got in Hawaii of all places, we think the poke, marinated fish is to blame. So we are most reluctant these days to try anything out of the norm. However, some of the stands in Singapore were so clean I think we could have eaten off the ground there! Fun post.

  14. Someone doesn’t eat street food for hygiene reasons? Street stalls are the one place you can see just about the entire cooking process…besides your own home. I don’t get it.

    I guess it all boils down to ignorance being bliss.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jonathan. Not sure how to interpret your last comment — my ignorance or yours:-) But I do think people have different comfort levels based on their experience, or lack of.
      Best, Irene

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