Street Food

From famine to feast: Street food Beijing

Torn between tradition and modernity, China’s customs of an ancient past compete with the convenience age of the new.

Beijing, the capital of one of the fastest growing countries and economies in the world, is also home to interesting, and sometimes bizarre, street foods.

From silk worm cocoons that are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, to eating barbecued seahorse, which is believed to be good for your blood circulation, Beijing is well-known for its night and food markets that offer a variety food.

The Chinese love their food, but dietary habits have changed rapidly in the past few decades.

In a very short time, China has gone from “famine to feast”. Today, the food in Beijing is as varied as it is plentiful: traditional or modern, Chinese or Western, China’s capital caters to all tastes and needs.

But while the narrow streets of Beijing used to be crowded with street vendors selling snacks day and night, many of these streets have now been demolished to make way for more high-rise buildings.

The arrival and expanding nature of the Western fast-food chains in Beijing now cater to the ever-growing and bustling population that eat on the go and now rather favour these foods to traditional Beijing street food.

With new-found wealth, many Chinese are also eating more than they used to and obesity rates among teenagers and children are rising.

Although the high level of obesity is a problem, that is not the only concern. According to professor Li Liu Bai, a nutritionist from Beijing University, another big concern is the danger of increasing cholesterol as diets and eating habits have changed. While the Chinese diet was mainly based on vegetables and protein-substitute legume products such as tofu, more people have started to eat meat more frequently.

“We used to eat three or four meals, mostly carbohydrates, and now people are eating more meat,” says Li.

While there are economic reasons that point to this problem, Li explains the social motivators behind teenage and child obesity: “We only have one child, and because of that, all our hopes are on his shoulders. Many parents push their children to learn more skills from a very young age. If the child then asks for any food, we will not refuse.”

Traditional Chinese food, rather known more to be fast and tasty, but also healthy, has not entirely died out. Street vendors and stalls have learned to adapt and use recipes that are speedy to make, but are healthier than that of the fast-food chains.

The food of the streets in Beijing tells the story of a culture torn between tradition and modernity, the customs of an ancient past competing with the convenience age of the new.

What will survive and what will be lost? In a China which has gone within two generations from mass starvation to obesity, what does the future hold? Can fast, healthy and tasty alternatives help the Chinese to decrease in size?

Update: Since the making of this film in 2008, obesity has gone down and recent statistics suggest that 62 million people in China are currently classified as obese. Although this shows a decrease, this still makes them the second largest obese population behind the United States.

Editor’s note: This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2008.