Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Taking it (back) to the Streets

Hey, Kids - I know I've been scarce on this here blog. It may have to do with getting myself halfway around the world. Here's a post-Olympics update from the BJ:

I came to Beijing without much of a plan, but I did have one thought fully formulated: “Street food.”

I’m not talking about kosher hot dogs served to you from the gloved hands of an Egyptian pushing a refrigerated five-star restaurant. I’m not talking about a cheese-steak fresh from the back of the truck on the corner of 38th and Walnut. Hell, I’m not talking about anything that would pass health code.

I’m talking about meat that has been sitting in a Styrofoam cooler for the last ten hours and pancakes grilled on coal-fired stoves propped precariously on pedestrian-pulled wheelbarrows. The closest thing here to a foot-long is a strip of chicken on a stick, reddened with spicy pepper and too hot to eat without the help of a big bottle of beer.

The problem, which I only learned about as I hit the streets in search of breakfast, is that street-vendors had been sent packing during the Olympics. I learned of this disappointing situation when I sought out a breakfast of jian bing after spending a jetlagged and drunken night craving any food at all.

Jian bing consist of a delectable compilation of eggs, pancakes, chives, cilantro, and mystery sauce. If you find the right stand, then they also might feature black sesame seeds. I have never laid taste buds to a more satisfying street food. Once upon a time in China jian bing vendors were more ubiquitous than Starbucks, but times are changing.

During my hunt for breakfast, I may have burned more calories than one pancake could replace. In a five-block radius, I did not find a single food cart. When I finally did get my snack (it could hardly be called breakfast anymore), it came from a storefront window. My hunger sated, I turned only to thoughts of disappointment at the turn modernization had taken.

Fortunately, it seems that the "improvement" to the streets of Beijing was only temporary. Already, things are going back to normal. Tonight I saw the rebirth of open-air restaurants that consist of a card table and a grill full of meat sticks. Tomorrow I anticipate the return of the jian bing. The one constant truth about Beijing is that when it changes, it changes fast.

As for my plan here in Beijing: one of my friends has a barbeque. I think I’ll start selling burgers and hotdogs outside of the Llama Temple. The going rate for a burger in this town is close to twenty dollars, so I'm sure I’ll do just fine.

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