When travelling on a tight budget, as Jamie and I are, you learn to appreciate the spots that are easy on your wallet. As I write this, we are currently resting from a day out in Shanghai, a city that serves up some absolutely incredible food… if you can afford it. Quite frankly, we cannot. Thus, I am reminiscing about all of the hole in the wall restaurants and food stalls that Jamie and I visited while in Beijing which didn’t cost more than about $3-5 Canadian per meal. Finding such deals are not all day excursions, but rather they are around every corner. Half of stumbling upon these hidden gems is knowing where to go, and the other half is allowing yourself to eat in ways that you wouldn’t normally at home.
First of all, I’ll focus on knowing where to go. Jamie and I both swear by Lonely Planet. Their guide books are extremely reliable and have led us to countless spots that we would never have found had it not been for their suggestions. The best example of this in Beijing was Zuo Lin You She (located at 50 Meishuguan, Houjie), not too far from the Beijing Hutongs. At Zuo Lin You She, Jamie and I ordered about 12 dumplings called dalian huoshao, which are longer strips as opposed to the smaller pot-stickers we are used to back in North America. Each order included 3 dumplings, and cost about 4-6 Chinese Yuan each. These were easily some of the best dumplings I’ve ever had, and by the end of the meal (including one large Tsingtao and the spicy tofu paste, another delicious dish that only cost about 12 Chinese Yuan) we only had to fork over 23 Chinese Yuan each, or about $3.80 Canadian. Again, that’s a LARGE beer, one main to split, and 6 LARGE dumplings each for $3.80 Canadian. For anyone visiting Beijing, I highly recommend a lunch stop at Zuo Lin You She on the way to the Beijing Hutongs, which are no more than a 10 minute walk from the restaurant.
Now for allowing yourself to eat in ways that you wouldn’t normally. The Wangfujing Street Market is the most extreme example of this. Many of the stalls sell dishes such as dim-sum, dumplings, deep fried bananas, and a variety of soups for as little as 10-15 Chinese Yuan (about $1.70-$2.50 Canadian). Of course, if you’re feeling adventurous you can always try the scorpion on a stick, starfish on a stick, or bugs on a stick (I have no idea what kind of bug, I wasn’t adventurous enough to try them, but they looked like a cross between cockroaches and beetles). Rich in protein, these are sure to fill you up. I’m usually an adventurous eater, and I’m also known to be a bit of a cheap ass… but I couldn’t bring myself to try scorpion or beetle-roach. But that’s my problem, not yours. I’d recommend for anyone who visits the market to try something outlandish, and save some money in the process!
Eating food that you wouldn’t normally is one way to be adventurous, but another way to save money is to eat at restaurants that you would normally pass by due to appearance or ambiance. Wander the streets, follow your nose, and don’t be afraid to sit down in a restaurant where the chef is cooking in the doorway and only two tables are available for patrons to sit down. On the last day that Jamie and I were in Beijing, we were looking for a quick and cheap lunch before hopping on the train to Shanghai. We snuck down an alleyway not too far from our hostel (Sunrise Hostel near the Forbidden City) and caught a glimpse of a restaurant no more than 6′ wide and 10′ long. Dumplings were being steamed in the front entrance while the cook/owner frantically packed as many more as he could muster, piling them in to wooden cases and stacking them upon each other to cook multiple orders at once. What the urgency was, I’ll never know, as we were only two of three people in the restaurant. Not that I’m complaining, our dumplings were served hot and delicious at 8 Chinese Yuan ($1.36 Canadian) per 12 dumplings.
We each had two orders of dumplings and a beer (one Tsingtao cost 5 Chinese Yuan, or $0.85 Canadian) for under $3.00 Canadian. This spot was a few meters down Qihelou Jie on the right hand side, just off of Beiheyan Dajie. Head over here if you’re in the area, but I’d doubt very highly that this is the only cheap dumpling house in Beijing. Just keep in mind that they’re out there, and despite appearances, they won’t have you sitting on the toilet for hours on end. We would go back in a heartbeat, and once you visit some of these great spots for cheap eats, you would too.