Honey glazed chicken on a stick! Cumin spiced lamb on a stick! Bread. On a stick! These are some of the delights available to you at one of Beijing’s millions of street food carts that occupy pavements and block cycle lanes at this time of year. Whether it’s a backstreet or a major junction, anywhere is liable to become a hotbed of bustling bodies and incredible smells: traffic flow be damned!
Some hardy species of street food can be found out and about at all times of the year. The humble jian bing (an egg pancake fried with sesame seeds, coriander and spring onion, artistically painted with a smear of thick soy sauce) is an ever-present even during the depths of winter. Lettuce and a crispy cracker (called bao cui) add bulk to this delicious, decadent wrap. You can also add one of the alarmingly sweet sausages that are unaccountably popular here if your taste buds are beyond saving.
Baked sweet potatoes are also a year-round feature of the Beijing streetscape. There are few things more comforting than struggling through a bitingly cold morning and getting a noseful of the warm, earthy smell of a wood stoked brazier stacked with a dozen sweet, sweet potatoes.
As for the summer arrivals, those fair-weather BBQs that can’t offer the reassuring stodge required in winter, the most common type of fare offered is chuan. These are like a typical shish kebab: skewered pieces of generously flavoured meat flame grilled to perfection. Vegetarian options are available too in the form of sweetcorn and, less interestingly, bread. Chuan are extremely addictive. It’s dangerously easy to stop for just one or two and end up requiring a taxi to take you home, weighed down by the 2kg of grilled meat sitting in your stomach and the crushing weight of your food shame. I’m an optimist though, and I always reason that this extra weight must be partially offset by my lack of self-control.
As with all street food it is wise to indulge in moderation, although I tend to do so twice in one sitting.