Chandni Chowk to China: A common love for street food

Beijing, Jan 4: It is middle of the night and minus 5 degrees Celsius in Jinan, a city in eastern China, but people are still queuing up at an old and famous open street food joint to grab a bite or two of grilled lamb in the freezing winter.

For tourists coming to the capital of Shandong Province, this may be an extremely surprising sight, but for 40-year-old street vendor Chia Miu, it is business as usual.

Street food

"I have been parking my mobile barbecue van here for over 7 years now, irrespective of what weather it is. People, come and ask for grilled chicken or grilled lamb or sausages even at night. I love serving food to both domestic people as well as the tourists," Chia said.

The popularity of street foods in Jinan can be gauged from the fact that even in modern malls, small ready-to-eat food items are being sold on sticks, right next to a fast food restaurant.

So, a burger in one hand and a tang hu lu - a sweet and sour round red-coloured fruit served on stick - in another is not an uncommon site in Shandong.

"Tang hu lu is a traditional Chinese snack food item and is very popular in China, especially among the youth. It consists of a candied fruit, sweet and sour in taste, and served on bamboo skewers. Everyone from Jinan to Beijing recognises this item immediately," Su Wen Qi, a Jinan-based tourist guide, said.

In capital Beijing, outside the Olympic Bird's Nest (National Stadium), a Chinese man on a bicycle is wooing tourists to try the same tang hu lu despite the language barrier, as they take photographs of his bicycle decked up with interesting food items.

To have tasted tang hu lu is popularly considered one of those essential to-do things for tourists visiting China, and people posing for pictures while savouring the candied fruit is a common sight.

James, a 30-year-old volunteer with the All China Youth Federation who recently co-hosted a group of Indian Youth Delegation to China, said, "Street foods in China are very popular the same way they are in India, especially in Delhi's Chandni Chowk."

"I have not been to India but I have heard about this place in Old Delhi called Chandni Chowk, which serves possibly some of the best food items one can get on the streets. As two countries, we may have different languages, but we both have taste for good food," James said.

Delhiite Aaayush Mehra, pursuing a postgraduation in Chinese from Delhi University and who was part of the youth delegation, said, "I felt the same warmth in the vendors as I feel, say, in Old Delhi."

"During my stay in Beijing, I went to taste some street food near our hotel. Since I could interact with them in Mandarin, I was instantly able to connect with them. Next day, when I went there, they addressed me as 'my Indian friend'. And, I had some great food there."

Beijing, also an ancient city like Delhi, with its old walls and hutongs (historic neigbourhoods) has numerous famed street food destinations, chief among them being Wangfujing, a snack street located in Dongcheng district, and a favourite haunt for tourists.

Apart from lambs grilled with onion and cilantro, one can find stir-fried pork liver, Beijing sausage, deep-fried star fish, deep-fried scorpion and seahorse on a stick, sold in shops lining up the street.

"Some of the other meat-based food items popular in the streets are yang rou chuan (mutton-dish), lou fei chang (pork item) and bao du (chicken and pork mix), rou jia mo (sandwich of pork and cilantro nestled in pocket bread)," James said, adding, "I want to go to India soon and taste the street food there."

In Delhi's old Walled City, the same love brews up in a cauldron in the street as morning joggers queue up in biting cold for a bite of 'hing kachori' or 'jalebis' along with a hot cup of tea served in small crystal glasses.

One can easily find tourists posting their pictures on social media having 'lassi' or 'gulab jamun' or a 'shahi tukda' in a street facing the landmark Jama Masjid.

Guide book and blogs abound for both Old Delhi and Old Beijing, outlining how to best explore the famed food streets in the two ancient cities, both known for their historic neighbourhoods (havelis in Delhi, hutongs in Beijing) and winding lanes that serve some of the best for the palette.

Beijing-based broadcast journalist Liao Liang, who works for China Radio Internationa's Tamil Department and visited India last year, said, "I have memories of visiting the Chanadani Chowk and also the Karim's restaurant there. But, it was the street food culture there which was so attractive and appealing, just like what we have in Beijing."

So, sitting several thousand kilometres away and speaking entirely different languages, what perhaps unites an Indian and a Chinese is the same yearning for lip-smacking street food.


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