After moving to Beijing this summer, my native Beijinger friend took me on a journey for all the most authentic local snacks.
“Have you ever tried douzhi?” he asked.
“Is it like doujiang (soymilk)?” I replied.
“No.” And our scavenger hunt commenced.
I mistook my friend’s enthusiasm for douzhi to be a reflection of the liquid’s exquisite taste. As it turns out, this pallid substance is as rancid as British Marmite—both tasting as if they belong in a gas tank rather than laying waste to a person’s taste buds. Dòuzhī (豆汁) is a fermented, cold soup made from ground beans that I will never allow seep into my system ever again. In fact, the more treats my friend put in front of me, the more skeptical I became of either his taste or the quality of Beijing snacks. My friend managed to redeem himself and the culinary reputation of Beijing when he took me into a Daoxiangcun (稻香村) snack shop and my eyes glazed over the dazzling variety of mooncakes, among other baked snacks, as if I were in an old-time candy shop.
Now, working at The World of Chinese, I am blessed with a Daoxiangcun that I can gaze at from the 15th-floor office window. Moreover, I suffer from a ceaseless appetite (must be the coffee addiction burning a gaping hole in my stomach), so I have taken it upon myself to sample one of Daoxiangcun’s endless array of treats per day. It’s cheaper than grabbing something from the 7-11 market, which I would otherwise do, and the mystery of what lays in wait for my palate is so much more thrilling. Below I have drawn up a list of the first set of snacks that I have sampled in case you are looking for any recommendations…
1) 枣泥做法酥 (zǎonísū—jujube paste shortbread)
RMB 1.27 per square
This is the snack my friend bought for me during our local food scavenger hunt. It reminds me of a Fig Newton built for a true American appetite (because Americans only super-size, right?). The outer layer is semi-crisp, as is characteristic of shortbread (which is a result of its high fat content—sorry dieters). Inside is a smooth jujube paste speckled with the occasional chopped nut chunk. It’s a hearty and wholesome treat that will surely tide you over if you begin to have the shakes and still have an hour or two to pass before lunch hour.
Overall rating: Love it.
Little known facts about jujubes:
The jujube originated in China where the fruits have been cultivated for more than four millennia. Jujube is used in traditional Chinese medicine to help alleviate stress. As a feature of a traditional Chinese wedding, jujubes and chestnuts are typically placed in the newlyweds’ bedroom as a sign of fertility. As homophones, the jujube (红枣 hóngzǎo) and chestnut (栗子 lìzi) are translated into the phrase, “早立子” (zǎo lì zi) meaning that the newlywed couple will soon bear a son. Moreover, the older women who prepare the chamber for the newlyweds would chant the rhyme: “一把栗子，一把枣，小的跟着大的跑” (yī bǎ lìzi, yī bǎ hóngzǎo, xiǎo de gēnzhe dà de pǎo—”Chestnuts and jujubes, the babies will follow”).
2) 早餐饼 (zǎocānbǐng—”breakfast cake”)
RMB 1.10 per cake
I’m a fan of everything but the stale sesame crust that forms a ring around this otherwise sumptuous miniature cake. The cake is capped on both ends with a thin layer of luxuriously moist cake, which delicately protects the silky filling of mung bean paste. This so-called breakfast cake is dense and probably as healthy as a cream-filled glazed doughnut. Also like a doughnut, zaocanbing pairs great with a freshly brewed cup of instant coffee.
Overall rating: Love it.
Ways to describe this cake in Chinese:
- 光泽油亮 (guāngzé yóuliàng): glossy
- 酥软 (sūruǎn): soft
- 口感细腻 (kǒugǎn xìnì): fine and smooth texture
- 豪华 (háohuá): luxurious; sumptuous
3) 金猪饼 (jīnzhūbǐng—golden pig cake)
RMB 1.60 per head
This adorable pig-faced delicacy brings me back to the day eight years ago when I was introduced to the gift of China’s mooncake (月饼 yuè bing). Just like a traditional lotus paste mooncake, this pumpkin paste pig head is rich. It may take some will to sink your teeth through the snout of this darling creature, but once the contents have snuggled up to your taste buds, you’ll know you have made the right decision.
Overall rating: Heaven! (I would be willing to gain ten pounds for this faux beast.)
Seeing the pig through a traditional Chinese lense:
Pigs are associated with fertility and virility. Actually, there are five types of pigs that correspond with the Five Elements: the metal pig (for those born in the years 1911, 1971, 2031), the water pig (1863, 1923, 1983), the wood pig (1875, 1935, 1995), the fire pig (1887, 1947, 2007) and the earth pig (1899, 1959, 2019). The metal pig is known to be proud and passionate; the water pig is persevering and diplomatic; the wood pig can manipulate others with expertise; the fire pig is courageous and intensely emotional; and the earth pig is peaceful, sensible and happy.
4) 鸡蛋卷 (jīdànjuǎn—egg “roll-up”)
RMB 0.45 per stick
Tastes like a fortune cookie. It’s a good palate cleanser, but not as fun as an actual fortune cookie. I imagine the tube is an excellent vessel for stuffing chocolate or ice cream, so perhaps this snack is better than a fortune cookie after all. Besides, I seem to receive evaluations of my character more often than I do fortunes. For example, “You are not wise in the world of business.” Yeah? Well, you’re bad at telling fortunes!
Overall rating: Meh, it’s all right.
Really—who invented fortune cookies?
As far as records show, a treat similar to the modern-day fortune cookie first appeared in Kyoto, Japan, during the 19th century. The cookies, which are still sold in some regions of Japan, contain a fortune written on a slip of paper and wedged into the bend of the cookie. The recipe, however, differs slightly. The Japanese version is slightly larger, produced with darker dough and uses a batter that contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter.
Key to ratings from highest satisfaction to lowest:
- “Love it.”
- “Meh, it’s all right.”
- “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Image courtesy of visualdensity on flickr.com