From famine to feast: Street food Beijing

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.


29 thoughts on “From famine to feast: Street food Beijing”

  1. A healthy dish is maybe whole grain noodle soup with plenty of vegetables (no oil). Can use a small amount of animal products to flavor the dish. Should get protein more from beans, peas and lentils. Rely more on herbs rather than salt. Can get rid of salt if use a sweet dish instead and use real fruits as sweeteners.

  2. Soymilk and Tofu are very wasteful products bec the high fiber by product soy pulp (okara)(has some protein) is often just thrown away. Tons of by product soy pulp are thrown away in asia every day. I have tried buying both fresh tofu and fresh okara from japanese grocery. Better to buy soybeans in bulk, soak them overnight and boil them for about 20 minutes (pressure cooker is not needed).

  3. The usual causes of obesity are probably refined substances like oil, sweeteners, juice, refined flour, protein powder, salt, etc. Can also reduce or eliminate animal products and take b12 supplement. All animal products have 0 fiber so they are not health food.

  4. It's ridiculous for Chinese to eat dairy, since over 95% of Chinese are lactose intolerance. I'm Chinese. After I adopted a vegan diet, my autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel disease and acid reflux are all gone! No wonder studies show vegan diet is the healthiest for us.

  5. As a Westerner living in Australia i would say that the major problems are bad education, advertising only being performed by fast food companies, the ease at which fast food is available and the absence of inspiration to start eating healthy

  6. I left the video at 1:15 because I have no interest in being subjected with the narrator be drowned out by the drum pounding accompanying a "singer artist" who couldn't voice his complaint with melody even if he were supplied with a leak proof bucket to carry the melody within. Want me to watch your documentary? STFU with all the irrelevant background noise pollution.

  7. They didn't note that all that soy and the plant based estrogen is also causing a rise in cancer among the world's population. When I went to go get chemotherapy and radiation for Stage 3C metasizing uterine cancer first thing my doc told me for food was "stop eating all soy products." and as for that new healthier rice noodle dish?? Give me a break, that needs at least 10 times more veggies in it, less rice noodles and get rid of the sugar and salt out of it. Use just herbage instead. It isn't any better than going to KFC or McDonalds.

  8. I would say that the only overweight people we saw where the children which is more disturbing. I always wonder how Asian people remain so slim even tho they consume a lot of fatty oily foods, it must be down to their metabolisms

  9. why so boring baby? are you stupid? you ban lena j and madam ost two of your biggest supporters because Ryan Rifai has a tiny fragile ego and is a homosexual? We are organizing a boycott and going to let your marketing dept know how many people you lose because you cant do your job and get rid of a moronic spammer

  10. China is not alone loosing street foods fans. Every country in Asia is invaded by western foods like KFC, Mcdonald, Pizza Hut, Starbucks etc. Global business is the direction. The business that wins the people appetite is the winner.

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