Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dòu Zhī

Walk around Beijing for a few short hours and you are guaranteed to see the characters “老北京” (lăo Bĕijīng) emblazoned on a number of shop fronts. The phrase means “old Beijing,” and it is ubiquitous in the city. In most cases it is meant as a signal to tourists that you can buy traditional Beijing foods or crafts or whatever at that establishment—an enticement of authenticity. Unfortunately, however, four times out of five it’s little more than a cheap marketing ploy. It’s the Beijing equivalent of U.S. manufacturers plastering the word “artisanal” onto a wholesome looking package to attract the eyes of well-meaning consumers susceptible to sneaking advertising tactics. In a sea of pseudo-lăo Bĕijīng products, it is always a pleasant surprise to come across something that truly deserves the title. One such example is dòu zhī (豆汁), a food with a long history in the city, a large and devoted following among elderly Beijingers, and a notoriously hard-to-acquire taste.

So what is it? A sour, fermented milk made of mung beans. More specifically, it is a by-product resulting from the preparation of cellophane noodles. Frankly speaking, dòu zhī does not come across as particularly appetizing. It looks like dirty, gray dishwater and smells like eggs and fetid gym socks. The taste is a combination of the two. It is thin and starchy, sour with a subtle beany aftertaste. Many locals say it must be eaten on at least three separate occasions before you can start to enjoy the flavor—after that, it is supposedly quite addictive. It is almost always served with two side dishes that help cut the taste a little bit: pickled vegetables and crispy rings of fried dough called jiāo quān. Dòu zhī absolutely lives up to its reputation as an acquired taste—it’s not going to be for everyone. Nonetheless, dòu zhī is a must-try for street food aficionados passing through the city. It’s an indelible part of the city’s cultural heritage, providing cheap sustenance to locals for hundreds of years. Perhaps the best endorsement comes from an old Chinese saying, which goes: “没有喝过豆汁儿,不算到过北京.” That roughly translates to “you haven’t been to Beijing unless you have tasted dòu zhī.” What more needs to be said?


Post a Comment