Oh, street food vendors where art thou?
I’m losing weight. I have to be careful when I walk down the street to avoid falling through cracks in the sidewalk.
I’d like to attribute my shrinkage to some kind of fitness or diet but the simple truth is that I’m running out of places to eat. Every time I head out into my district of Beijing, it seems a place where I used to find food has disappeared.
Back in the good old days — it must have been at least three months ago — I used to love buying hot chicken sandwiches from a tiny vendor’s shop in a nearby alley. They consisted of red roasted chicken, an omelet, some salad and hot sauce, all on a delicious handmade bun. OK, it wasn’t probably health food, and the vendor’s premises were primitive, but to me and many other customers it was a treat for just 5 yuan (78 US cents). The lady who made them got to know me and started preparing my sandwich as soon as she saw me.
Then one day I went to get one of the sandwiches for lunch and the shop’s shutters were down. There was a notice in Chinese pasted on them and the vendor’s cooking equipment was piled outside. The shop never opened again.
There was another place further down the alley that sold similar sandwiches. I didn’t like them as much — I wasn’t keen on the sesame buns they used — but any port in a storm. I became a regular customer, got to like their sandwiches and the owners also got to know me, preparing my order without needing to ask.
Then, a few weeks ago, the same thing happened to them. They disappeared, never to return. I noticed a once-busy kebab place nearby had also disappeared.
Ah well, maybe it was sign from above that I should be eating more healthily. From now on it would be fruit for lunch ... but wait a minute — the fruit seller has gone as well!
Some new shops now opened in the alley. There are a couple of clinically modern bakeries selling bland-looking cakes and biscuits. They don’t look to be too popular. In fact, the alley seems to be a lot less busy these days than when the street food vendors were there.
Because the truth is, people love street food. The establishments that serve it might not have the highest standards of hygiene but these vendors are a valuable part of the character of Beijing — an intangible cultural heritage. And it’s not just the locals who miss these places. When visitors travel to China they don’t want to get off the plane and find out they’re in a similar place to the one where they boarded. They want it to be Chinese — and an important part of that is street food.
I’m told that the Chinese authorities want the food sector to clean up its act and adopt the latest modern standards. That’s all very well but when you take drastic measures like closing down vendors you have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
China is proud of its heritage and food plays a major role in the Chinese image. Forget the crummy Western franchises who seem to be creeping onto every street corner. They are the inferiors of the traditional vendors. Let’s have food with Chinese characteristics — and plenty of it.
Three monkeys see a window of opportunity to get food from the occupants of a car in Gyatsa, a county in the Tibet autonomous region, that is about 300 kilometers from Lhasa.