Donghuamen’s night market stretches along a road north of Wangfujing in Beijing. It offers a variety of traditional cuisines coming from different regions of China.
It is possible to taste spits made with insects such as scorpions and enormous spiders while grasshoppers make a good starter.
There is also larva, some types of shellfish, starfish, cuttlefish and spiced octopus. Then there are more classic dishes like jiaozi (chinese ravioli with meat and vegetables), baozi , filled with pats of butter similar to ravioli and steam cooked or cooked on an iron plate. You can have spaghetti, or tagliatelle with tasty condiments as well as pork, beef, chicken and duck.
There is no shortage of desserts and fruit. Drinks such as coconut milk are sipped through a straw and soya milk is served hot or cold, dense or less dense depending on the concentration of the residuals of the soya beans from which it derives.
It should be said that there aren’t many traditional dishes presented in this way in Beijing and they are limited to ravioli, baozi and tanghulu or tasty and colourful spits made with fruit sweetened with caramel. In fact, most of the food comes from traditional cuisines of other regions far from Beijing. They are not often eaten by locals but are more of a fascinating tourist attraction.
There is another ancient market named Sihuan that is even more traditional than those in Beijing. It is situated near Lake Houhai, in a side road of Deshengmennes dajie, where its main entrance lies. As it is almost hidden, it is frequented only by locals and it is very rare for tourists to find it. However, if they happen to do so by chance they will be stared at like aliens from outer space. The market is covered and quite spacious. It is surrounded by ancient houses of the hutong with their characteristic maze-like alleys of Peking where one can experience a fairy-like atmosphere and meet fascinating characters.
In the distant past the houses of Peking were all on one low level because they were not allowed to be higher than the Emperor’s residence or those of the ministers. A stone slab of standard size was placed immediately behind the door of the houses to protect them from negative influences and from spirits blocked by the stars. The maps of the buildings are quadruple or rectangular, indicating the courtyard in the centre and the dwellings at each side, design in accordance with a precise order that represented the universe and man as conceived by Chinese geometry.
The colour that distinguishes the ancient dwellings is a particular shade of grey, creating a beautiful contrast with the other colours like the red of the lanterns, the gold of the shutters and the picturesque frescoes that adorn the wooden beams above the doors.
Today most of these neighbourhoods have disappeared, razed to the ground to make space for skyscrapers and new buildings that continued to grow under the cultural revolution . In fact, the Peking of today has two faces: the ancient one with its temples and hutong residences; and the modern one, a western metropolis with skyscrapers, commercial centres and futuristic subways.
In the market of Sihuan, you can still find the ancient part of the city where the people have retained handed-down traditions and culinary customs of the real Peking. Here you can buy all kinds of food – fruit, vegetables, cereals, pulses, meat, eggs and herbs at very economical prices.
Duck eggs are delicious to taste and are one of the traditional dishes of Beijing. They are boiled in their shell, assuming a dark green colour, and covered with a soya sauce.
The doufu is a nourshing addition to the Chinese cuisine and of the east in general and is not to be missed. It is made from soya beans from which it is possible to create a multitude of courses. It has a neutral taste if eaten on its own, so condiments are added to make it tastier. The Chinese are excellent cooks and their cuisine, especially from the middle countries, are studied and held in high esteem by the great world chefs.
After shopping at the Sihuan market, my friend appreciated a good Italian olive oil as he prepared dinner. This consisted of crepes with splined courgettes, sweetened pumpkin, fresh tomatoes and pork cooked in a pan. The crepes are eaten with a dark, dense, sauce and little salt. It is a very good dish that all the real people of Peking know how to prepare. The sauce is the same one that goes with the famous Kaoya or Pekinese duck. There is no shortage of beer to drink as many toasts are made to friends or guests throughout the evening.
One of the most popular fruits in the autumn is the persimmon. Vegetables in season like beetroot, salad, broccoli and carrots are displayed on stands in the street. All kinds of cereals and pulses are kept in sacks. The cereals are a basic ingredient in the Chinese diet and are used in many different soups.
As people drink hot water and tea in the summer, it is not surprising that they also have soups.
Written by Alessandro Del Ben