Students at Beijing Normal University are out of the Wudaokou area, so we don’t have many international options nearby. Luckily for us we do have the Xiao Xi Tian Market (aka “Food Street”).

Even if you don’t attend BNU, these few blocks are more than worth spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in. They’re a glimpse into middle class Chinese life that you won’t find in Sanlitun or Wudaokou.

The vendors like to chat and ask questions, and you’ll even hear a few stray hellos from passersby. Just today, one of the vendors asked where we were from, and why we spoke Chinese so politely. “It’s because we’re Canadian,” we told her.

Heading south on Wenhuiyuan Xi Lu, first you’ll encounter the little snack shops – where you can get your crossing-the-bridge noodles, all kinds of flatbreads, bubble tea, and pirated DVDs. This area is most lively at night.

Then (if you come from around 4-6 on weekdays, or all day on Saturday/Sunday) you’ll see the vegetable market, my favourite section. Without the market, this area feels like a drab, boring highrise park. With it, especially on a blue-sky day, the street is transformed and full of life. Produce here looks twice as fresh as what you’d find in a supermarket.

At the end of the street, you can turn left onto Hui Jing Lu 慧景路 and find the fresh youtiao beside the goldfish vendor.

A friendly youtiao maker will ask, Ni yao ji ge? How many? One per person is enough.

A youtiao or 油条 is a piece of bread dough, puffed up by deep-frying, until it’s a crisp outer layer enclosing hot, fragrant air.

You won’t forget your first bite of a fresh youtiao. You bite down, expecting resistance, and suddenly a puff of steam fills your mouth, followed by an oily, crunchy, incredibly light dough. If you’ve only had (relatively) stale youtiao before, this will be a revelation.

This is breakfast food, but luckily the stand is open in the afternoon too. (The hours are 7am-10am, then 3pm -6pm).

There’s Peking Duck in the neighbourhood as well, but it deserves a post of its own. The restaurant is called 京味斋 and it’s on Wenhuiyuan Beilu.

Google Map (centered on youtiao street)

Click to enlarge.

Note: Best to visit on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. After walking around the market, have Peking duck for dinner, or eat in one of the hundred or so little restaurants in the area. Then, wander around the snack street after dark).