Tianjin is a great place for street food! While it doesn’t have a street food scene reminiscent of Southeast Asian or Taiwanese night markets, it is home to many different local foods. You can grab something small yet delicious on the go. That’s the best part about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, you can’t always trust the stalls you see on the street. Instead, you can go to the Ancient Culture Street! That is the designated area for street food vendors. It’s a bit out of the way from the other attractions in the city, but it’s definitely worth a visit. If you bike around Tianjin, as per my recommendation, you should pass it when you go from the center of the city towards the Tianjin Eye in the north, and then again when you come back down. Even if it’s not on the way, I highly recommend some time at the Ancient Culture Street.
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The Main Courses of Tianjin Street Food
There were a couple things that I absolutely loved to eat. I didn’t try everything, but I definitely ate enough to enjoy myself. I would highly recommend trying these out:
The Goubuli Baozi (Stuffed Meat Buns)
Buns filled with all kinds of vegetables and meat are a stable of Chinese cuisine. You can find a baozi (filled bun) with basically anything you can imagine! Some parts of China substitute these buns for rice in their meals, so they tend to eat more of those than rice. Tianjin is one of those places, and the goubuli baozi are the most famous!
The name, 狗不理, means “dog doesn’t care” or “dog ignores”. Interestingly, the name does not have anything to do with dogs. There are several variations of the story, but they all involved a guy named “Gou”. (It is common in Chinese for words to have similar pronunciation but different meanings.) He moved to Tianjin to start selling his baozi, but he also didn’t care much for people. As a result, people started calling him “goubuli” because he ignored them most of the time. However, they still loved his baozi because they were so delicious.
The thing about these baozi is that, to me, they taste pretty much the same as any other baozi. It has a meat patty in the middle of the bun. I can’t complain because I really like baozi in general. They didn’t taste especially good, but they were enjoyable nonetheless.
The Chinese Pancake/Crepe (Jianbing Guozi)
Chinese people are suckers for their version of a pancake. It’s essentially a mix of the pancake and a crepe. The wrap is about half the thickness of a typical pancake but slightly thicker than a crepe. It’s filled with all kinds of goodies, but you’ll taste the egg and soy sauce the most.
In the middle of the pancake they put something fried, which you can choose. This changes the texture of the food, and I tend to like crunchy more than soft. I had two options: the fried dough sticks (youtiao) or a large fried pancake. The vendor will put the choice you make in between the pancake and fold it over so that you get a crepe-like food, and crunchy fried part giving you more texture and enhancing the flavor.
My pancake had slightly too much soy sauce on the edges, but it was really good overall. As I tend to have a small stomach, and the pancake is pretty large, it was good enough to tide me over for lunch on my second day in Tianjin. If you’re the same, plan accordingly!
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The Meat and Tofu
Because it’s typically the easiest to make, Chinese street food tends to have a lot of meat and tofu. The Ancient Culture Street has all kinds of meat and tofu snacks that you can try. The nice thing about it is that the vendors have brought in foods from all cities around China, so you can try the street food from just about anywhere in China, without having to go there.
Hot Dogs & Sausages
These are a popular part of street food snacking everywhere! You can find people selling hot dogs all over Beijing, for example, and Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street. They’re popular in 7-Eleven as well.
Squid and Tofu
Squid is one of those foods that you either love or hate. I happen to love squid, especially if it’s fried and/or seasoned well. I saw this stall at the Ancient Culture Street selling huge tentacles of it! I’ve never seen anything so large.
China and Taiwan have a special type of tofu called “stinky tofu”. Obviously it doesn’t have a name suitable for appeal, but I actually love Taiwanese stinky tofu. The tofu is fermented, which gives its distinct smell. However, it tastes really delicious (especially fried)! In all places, it’s definitely a street food specialty! In China, the most famous place for stinky tofu is Changsha, the Hunan Province capital. You’ll be able to get apparently authentic Changsha stinky tofu – though I’m not sure how authentic it really is.
Chinese people actually love eating any kind of animal intestine. It’s weird, but you get over the shock. Of course, they thoroughly clean everything. I personally like pig intestine, because it tends to be fatter (aka less healthy but more delicious). These tend to have lots of seasoning on them, and the vendor will often put lots of hot or chili sauce/powder. If you mind these, just make sure to tell them you don’t want any!
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Don’t close out your street food meal without dessert!
This isn’t strictly a street food or dessert, and I found it at the Italian Culture Square rather than the Ancient Culture Street like all the other foods. However, it is unique! I first tried these small fruits in Peru. At my first city, Lima, my AirBnb host provided cape gooseberry with yogurt. Surprisingly, it was delicious! The berries are mostly sweet, with a slight tangy sourness.
If you’re familiar with Chinese desserts at all, you will know that they are far blander than American desserts. I can go through a whole bottle of water if I eat something from a US grocery store, but I will typically end up looking for sugar if I eat a dessert from China.
Still, milk candies are very, very well known across the country. The Ancient Culture Street actually had several large stalls that sold nothing but these candies, and they are very chewy. The best kind is still handmade, and the traditional flavors include peanut, original (tastes like slightly sweet milk), and sesame. Some stores have more modern flavors that you might like better, including strawberry and chocolate, but those are not as historical or authentic as the other flavors.
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Malt Candy – DIY
Similar to milk candy, the malt candy is very chewy. The material is an essential part of many different Chinese candies, and you should be able to see stands that have samples and sell the candy in all quantities. Definitely try them out, and buy a bag for just ¥10.
There are several forms of malt candy, as it’s a very popular ingredient of Chinese candy. One kind is mostly aesthetic, where the street food vendor makes something gorgeous from the sugar. With another, they mold the melted material into a balloon-type shape. You can then shape your own candy by blowing into the opening! It doesn’t come out with those gorgeous designs. However, they can still resemble glass blowing products, kind of like a vase! I unfortunately didn’t try it, but I definitely should have.
Malt Candy – Chewy Chinese Sesame Candy
The malt candy that I had was a thin piece of malt covered on both sides with white sesame seeds. It’s also know as 牛皮糖 – or Chewy Chinese Sesame Candy. The I probably bought more than I should have, but it’s a nice snack to have when I’m hungry and just want something to eat. The nice thing is, they aren’t calorie- or sugar-rich.
If you’re craving something that reminds you more of home, you can try a stick of the cake! You can see vendors who have cut a huge cake into small sticks, selling for about ¥5 each. They have fruit on the top – typically pineapple – where the majority of the sweetness comes from.
Flour Dessert – ShouliGao (熟梨糕)
These were some of the most unique-looking desserts I have ever seen. They’re like tiny little white cupcake-like things, the size of pudding cups. You can choose a variety of different fruit-flavored toppings, from pineapple to kiwi to coconut. I hadn’t heard of them before getting to Tianjin, but the sign said they were a Tianjin street food specialty.
The making process is pretty short, and the street food vendor did it in about a minute. She had flour or millet to put onto a little steam, which helped solidify the little desserts. I had the choice of a bunch of different jam-like toppings.
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I thought they would be like little cupcakes, and the jam would be like the frosting. Unfortunately, this was totally off base. The white base of the dessert tasted a bit like sand, and the overly sweet jam unfortunately wasn’t exactly enough to overpower that sandy mouthfeel. There are a ton of better desserts. Even though this one is unique to the area, I don’t know if trying it is worth it, unfortunately!
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