Opera North - The Little Greats

Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Chuan'r, Beijing Street Food and Drunken Accents

4 August 17 words: James Kramer

Our Notts man in Beijing gives us the lowdown on food stuffs...

Few things can be said to be more a unifying glue than barbecue. It brings out the affection, the camaraderie in all of us. From the upturned iron drums of the Caribbean, to that time I gave the whole family salmonella poisoning via a pack of poorly defrosted patty slabs from Iceland, the impetus to roast hunks of various deceased animals over briquettes can be a bonding experience for us all. And while the UK has certainly flourished in its culinary expansion, the fire pits now flush with Moroccan-spiced lamb, tai-infused pork and drunken Jack Daniels ribs, there is still one international barbecue experience that has yet to fully greet the streets of Nottingham, and that is Beijing’s own: Chuan’r.

Chuan’r is the street food for all those willing to take a squat and order barbecue skewers via shouting at a man brandishing a hairdryer (more on that later) over a tray of hellishly red coals. Its distinctive neon sign can be seen in every avenue of the city, mostly found in the old, run-down districts referred to as Hutongs that take you back to a more characteristically “Chinese” city that allow you to forget for a fleeting moment that you live in a neo-dystopian metropolis where the most famous new building is mocked because it looks like (according to the locals) a pair of boxers in mid recline. Or maybe now, come this century, this is a Chinese city and we should all just climb off our touristically colonial soapboxes.

That said, a soapbox is a pretty good place to sit and take in some Chuan’r. Usually at around 5-15 rmb for a trio of scolded towers of meat (that's under two pounds a pop for a fistful of unknown meat stuffs), Chuan’r is the go-to diet for workers, locals, expats and lost, visiting foreign dignitaries. More often than not, it is the post-drinking refuge for the inebriated and the weary, and yet it can also be a place of communion, where the cleanliness of your shirt or the clarity of your speech will never be judged. It is barbecue at its most radically condensed. Go to the dogs with your infused oil, your soaking of juices and collaborative flavours. For Chuan’r, find and butcher a (hopefully) legal animal for consumption, dash it with some brief spices and cremate it until tantalizing, nothing else is required.

I should, however, be pronouncing that properly. The Beijing accent is highly distinctive from those that surround it. It is the harsher drunken uncle of its comparatively softer, more musical Southern cousins. If you’ve heard Mandarin Chinese spoken, you’ve most likely heard Putonghua, or the “uniting language of the people” as I might awkwardly ascribe it.

Putonghua is the official language of Mainland China and almost everyone speaks it, often alongside his or her own regional dialect. But as there is Scouse, Geordie, and the Midlands’ own monotone bark of Sleaford Mods, so too do different regional dialects of China carry accents with their own connotative associations, and Beijinghua is perhaps one of the most distinctive, if maybe not university loved.


I will, at this point, make clear that when I speak Chinese (and do so incredibly poorly) I converse with a Beijinghua tone, and so there is a great deal of affection from me to its raw and at times uncompromising drawl. That said, it is also the reason why my wife (who is from Southern Hangzhou) refuses to engage with me in her native tongue, claiming that I sound drunk and inarticulate, when most times I’m only half in the bag.

So what does the local dialect of Beijing have to do with its crispy, caramelised hunks of meat? Well, in order to accurately bring Chuan’r from the Middle Kingdom to the Midlands, its pronunciation is a must. It is therefore key that Beijing barbecue is pronounced: Chuanarrrr. Let that pirate lip curl roll, it all gets better from here.

Chuan’r is popular all over China, yet it’s rooted in Uyghur cuisine. The Uighurs are the Muslim ethnic minority of China, mostly found in the heavy police state that is Xinjiang. Their restaurants can be found all over the country and their diet is a combination of recognisably Middle Eastern flavours and Chinese staples. Chuan’r is therefore heavy on the cumin and dried chilli, with lingering notes of star anise and pepper.

Chuan’r can be many things, so long as it is served impaled upon a stick. The Chinese character reflects this design with its iconographic symbol 串 being found throughout every city, glowing in neonic dangling lights tucked down narrow alleyways. Chuan’r can be cubes of mutton or beef, the appendices of chicken or indeed their hearts, kidneys or cartilage. In the south Chuan’r is seafood on a stick, whether octopus, shrimp or fish. For the more discerning, there is smoked tofu wrapped in wild-stem mushrooms and the halved sides of toasted steamed buns all spiced and oiled up to make the most exotically tasting garlic bread that puts those little pre-cut squares of apologetic green butter to shame. As long as it is spiced and eaten from off a stick, you might as well call it Chuan’r.

I have eaten roasted garlic Chuan’r cooked in its skin that was as delectable as any Michelin French confit. I have also eaten a spiraling twirl of a goat’s penis that was perhaps not as interesting and more than a little sad, mostly for the goat. That all of it is eaten from off a skewer is essential, and it leaves the rubbish receptacles resembling that of a rather gastronomically aggressive porcupine as waves of the sharply pointed pine spokes plume out from discarded black bin liners until the masses are swept away the following morning. Just imagine the streets of Nottingham a throng with drunken revelers, each pissed and welding their very own set of wolverine claws, set free to poke their dining instruments through clenched fists and maul one another till their heart’s content.

For what better time is there to consume unknown and highly questionable meat snacks on a stick than after some serious imbibing? For Beijingers, Chuan’r is most commonly eaten as street food, to be consumed while perched on a pre-school sized plastic stool and taken with a lot (re: a lot) of northern beer. But how far greater thing would it be, to arm the post-nightclub masses of Notts with their own inventory or pointed projectiles to gesticulate their well thought-out arguments and to politely express disagreement with another’s respected opinion?

Many corners of the world already embrace the roaming gourmet food truck as the future of forward thinking eateries (see David Chang), so why not give Nottingham its own mobile Chuan’r van, complete with Gladiatorial spikes upon its wheels? A vehicle free to deposit suspect animal barbeque served on disposable pinewood armory.  

So how to solve the quandary of where our diligent roasters of unknown meats would come from? The answer is that there already exists a surplus of ready migratory chefs eager to satisfy the Midlandish stomach with grilled delicacies. Every year, the Beijing government blames another culprit for being the sole route cause behind the city’s astronomical pollution problem; we reached 900 pm 2.5 this year, people.

To give some perspective, +30 is considered cause for concern in most countries. Also of note, during such carcinogenic blackouts, online sales of condoms skyrocket. It seems that being engulfed in end of times disaster is akin to some good James Brown.

Over the past few years, various causes have been blamed. First it was fireworks and then it was outdoor smoking. Chuan’r karts, meaning the small, often hand-built tricycles that carry the makeshift barbecue pits around the capital were soon labeled as being behind the city’s cancerous skies. You might foolishly believe that it was the massive industrial complex that supplies the world’s desire for cheap raw earth minerals and disposable plastic goods, you may even have the gall to find fault with the scattered illegal mining operations that continue to exist with impunity due to their being funded/exploited by local bureaucrats but no! You are, as the Chinese internet meme goes too young, too simple, sometimes naïve. The real culprit is the migrant worker there, trying to scrape by enough money to live in a windowless room in the converted air raid bunker of one of the city’s many middle class high rise communities. He, my friends, is the real villain behind this ecological tragedy.

Around this time the city moved in, employing construction workers in line with police on a campaign of rounding up these small vehicles and cutting them violently in half right there in the streets, thereby dismantling the livelihoods of hundreds if not more in Beijing alone. And so it is because of this that I feel confident that given the incentive to feed the Nottingham drunk and hungry, these experts in the culinary art of carbonization would be only to happy to oblige.

Alternatively, so little is needed to make your own Chuan’r pit at home. To be authentic all you need is the upturned base of any steel/iron container, kind of a window box in length and a few old fire ready coals. If the heat starts to fade, simply keep them aflame with your own personal hairdryer, as this is the Beijing Chuan’r man’s preferred weapon of choice.

So Nottingham, what’s stopping us? Let us embrace Beijing Chuan’r with the same unbridled culinary joy that we have done so many times for so many others. Let us build our pits and light our fires, skewer our meat and spice both sides until our hearts burn with cumin. Come on in, and the first wolverine handful is on me.

Next time: The drink that cost me approximately four years of my very own personal memory.

Notes from the Middle Kingdom seeks to introduce the demon spirit of Baijiu to Nottingham bars.

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