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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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June 26, 2008 10:36 AM

Yangrou chuan'er and ludaguan'er

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Come August 8, Beijing will swarm. Its sports stands...and its snack stands. At least 17 million call China's capital home; 3.1 million more will visit during the 2008 Summer Games.

Even worse, Beijing leaders have begun to shut down curbside commerce. It's untidy and mostly illegal. Diarrhea and banana peels - an Olympic organizer's worst nightmare.

If you're a real epicure, however, squirm on. Barrel through crowded Beijing. Get your mouth round a crisp 'candy ear' (tang erduo) or a plump 'donkey roll' (ludaguan'er).

Or quick-fried tripe (baodu), or soy milk (douzhi), or stinky tofu (chou dofu), or sticky rice (aiwowo). Just follow your nose. There's no telling what fantastic snacks you'll find.

'Snacks of Beijing'

"There are so many Beijing xiaochi (snacks or 'little eats'), I can't name one favorite," a middle-aged woman strolling down Jiugulou Dajie ('Old Drum-tower Boulevard') beamed. "I just love the Beijing flavors."

Beijing occupies an odd throne when it comes to Chinese cuisine. A capital for centuries, the city surprisingly claims few famous dishes as its own. Beijing's emperors dined on the best China's far-flung food foci offered.

"Beijing...what kind of place is it? I'll tell you," a sage old man counseled. His three pals nodded approvingly, bellies bare in the summer heat. "It's a place of many people, a place of many customs. Beijingers enjoy snacks from all over China and the world."

Many of the city's most popular dishes are Sichuanese (in the U.S., sometimes spelled Szechuanese) - from Sichuan province. These are hot, spicy snacks, often loaded with enough ma peppers to turn your tongue numb.

There's mapo dofu (pock-marked old lady tofu) and malatang - a fashionable plate. Malantang refers to a boiling vat of deep red brine. Pick your kebab poison - robins' egg, chicken foot, cow tendon. Then plunge it in.

"We're waidi ren ('outsiders')," two Sichuanese construction workers apologized. "Beijing snacks? How would we know?

We're fans of food from Sichuan. Sichuanese treats are great. Malatang, hot's easy to find such dishes in Beijing. Sometimes we even cook for ourselves."

In the winter, wind-burned men on creaky tricycle carts ply Beijing's alleys, bouncing columns of candied hawthorne fruits in tow. They come cheap - like all street food - two yuan for seven-haw skewer. When Spring Festival arrives, kids clamor for 15-haw towers at the city's temple fairs. Fired sweet potatoes (check for worms) are a filling cold-weather stand-by.

There's a special food for every Chinese holiday: Spring Festival dumplings, moon cakes mid-Autumn and zongzi - sopping sticky-rice triangles swaddled in bamboo leaves - during the Dragon Boat Festival. Beijingers scarf these dishes at home and on the sidewalk.

"Know how to make zongzi?" wondered a powerfully-built man with gray sideburns, cleaning birdcages down an alley near Houhai (Beijing's 'Back Lake'). "You've got to use a special sort of rice - jianmi, and mature bamboo leaves.

Head up to Huimi Xiaochi - it's a restaurant that sells Beijing snacks. It's right next to a McDonald's and a KFC - American garbage!"

No 'Olympic Festival' snack has cropped up yet. There's still time. Perhaps five-colored shaved ices will carry the day. Maybe fresh mangos. Or cold basketball bubble tea. Popsicles sell here for 1 yuan a pop.

Where world soccer goes beer drinkers follow, and these 2008 Olympics should prove no exception. Beijingers load up on Tsingtao and Yanjing - light Chinese beers. Around midnight, they pour out of the city's clubs and restaurants in search of cumin-covered mutton kebabs – yangrou chuan'er.

Beijing boasts a ton of corner chuan'er grills, and they're unmistakable. After dark, you'll notice orange neon cords coiled and hung like a giant kebab - the Chinese character chuan'er. Often, Uyghurs - a Mulsim, Turkic ethnic minority - or Chinese Hui Muslims man the chuan'er grills.

Heavy, flaky cakes (unsweetened pastries) dominate Beijing's snack scene - set in neat rows behind cloudly glass cases. Bing - Mandarin for cake - exist in an overwhelming number of shapes, sizes and flavors.

There's jianbing, crunchy and limp, ludoubing, with green bean filling, shaobing (flat and salty), niuroubing (beef-stuffed) and dabing, plain and big. That's just the beginning.

"Foreigners love dabing because it's so big," joked one snack vendor. "So big you can't take it to-go. You have to eat it right here. And you have to share - it's a social sort of food."

Among the city's reputed 200 snacks, ludaguan'er reigns supreme. Best with a touch of powdered sugar, these rice-flour plus red bean paste lumps are fun to chomp.

"My favorite Beijing treat is ludaguan'er," confirmed a teenager, between bites of malatang and sips of beer. "Why? Because it is delicious."

"Why do we call it ludaguan'er ('donkey roll')?" the sideburned man asked eagerly. "Because you roll it up...just so. And then you cut this!"

There are stories behind all of Beijing's inexpensive treats - how they were invented, who favored them most. Finding a Beijinger old enough to remember those tales is difficult, however.

"Of course there are stories," a red-faced man with a flat-top haircut chuckled. "But I'm not the right person to ask. I'm too young. Go on - see if you can find an 'old head.'"

So grab a youtiao (fried breadstick) and consider yourself lucky. Happy Olympics and merry munching!


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