If memorable for anything other than pure commerce, smog and the Great Wall, China has great food markets where one can find anything–seriously–anything and beyond. Both on major thoroughfares and hidden in and around the back alley hutong which populate the crowded capital, the best of Beijing is not to be had in touristy restaurants, but rather, as is usual across Asia, on the street. During a recent trip to Beijing I happened on two of the most interesting, crowded and completely different markets which mark the bustling metropolis as a gastronomer’s paradise: the relatively expensive and touristy Dong Hua Men Night Market and the locals only Sihuan Day Market, both located within one kilometer of one another, yet residing worlds apart.
The Dong Hua Men Night Market is located adjacent to the Forbidden City off Wangfujing road in the heart of the tourist center, hence the high(er) prices than one might pay for a meal at any one of the great local restaurants specializing in downhome Beijing fare. Known for its relatively exotic fare it attracts gastronomers ranging from the merely curious to the adventurous. Starting at five for the simplistic silkworm skewers add ranging up to fifty yuan for the tasteless snakeskin, it is a smörgåsbord of visually interesting yet generally tasteless–due to everything being deep-fried in the same salty wok oil–exoticisms. Though fun to take part in the boisterous atmosphere of the overwhelmingly red-clad touts (whose English ranges from the straightforward “Money!” to the ubiquitous “You snake buy now!”) the enjoyment stops when realizing a more satisfying and delicious meal can be had for pennies just a few subway stops north near the Xihai lake district of Xinjiekou’s Sihuan day market.
Sihuan day market is, touristically, relatively unknown, yet situated smack in the middle of the capital, down a lonely hutong alleyway just northwest of the rear exit of the Forbidden City. It’s worth going to if only for the fact that you are unlikely to find another foreign face in the entire place. what you are going to find is a surfeit of inexpensive fruits, vegetables, teas, tofu products, noodles, meats, warm and delicious pancakes and breads, as well as an entire section of “off brand” electronics, clothes, shoes and locally produced artisanal goods. Despite the sweat and grime one might object to surrounding the market itself it is well worth a few hours of aimless wandering. I found myself laden with two heavy bags of fresh fruit, dried dates, readily edible vegetables, hot and fresh egg pancakes and a coconut milkshake, all for under five dollars. Hands down best bang for your Chinese buck.