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Variety the spice of food in Beijing

  • Story Highlights
  • Beijing's culinary offerings range from street food to upscale restaurants
  • Dongcheng district in Chinese capital offers many food choices
  • Food from China's various provinces on offer throughout Beijing
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By David Challenger
CNN
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- If there's one thing that makes Beijing an enticing city to both local and expatriate Beijingers alike, it's the food.

A plate of donkey, snake, dog and cow penis is displayed at Guo Li Zhuang restaurant.

Wangfujing Snack Street offers all sorts of exotic food, including sea horse.

China's capital offers something for everyone -- from cheap street stalls to five-star gourmet eateries. Variety is the key -- from the more obvious delicacies such as fried fish, to things that are, well, a little more exotic.

One great place in Beijing that offers both is Wangfujing Snack Street, in Dongcheng district. An ornate blue and gold archway marks the start of the street, which even at midday is already a bustling hive of hungry locals and curious tourists.

Enticing smells swirl around continuously, as colorful characters shout out invitations to try their food. One guy, dressed in a red silk robe and black skullcap, sings out an invitation while holding a fan in one hand and his pigtail in the other.

The type of food is extensive. Due to years of intermigration, almost every province is represented. There are lamb kebabs from Xinjiang, noodles from Gansu and spicy beef from Sichuan.

And it's cheap: A stick of kebabs can be had for just 3 RMB (40 cents).

There's also a lot for the sweet tooth, such as candy-covered apples in an array of vibrant colors, and whole coconuts filled with sweet water.

But while the street's food is mostly conventional, there are also plenty of snacks on offer for the more adventurous.

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"Welcome, where are you from?" asks a friendly teenager, as he dangles a skewer of live scorpions in front of my eyes. "Would you like to try? Only 8 RMB."

I'm too mesmerized by the scorpions' jiggling legs and snapping claws to offer a reply.

He quickly shows me some of his other products for sale. They include sea horse (25 RMB), cicadas (5 RMB) and starfish (20 RMB).

All are cooked by frying in oil, and can be accompanied by a variety of different sauces.

Wangfujing Snack Street is a treasure, but for those who want to try something even a little more exotic, it might be worth jumping in a taxi for a 10-minute ride to Dongsishitiao Street, also in Dongcheng.

The restaurant, Guo Li Zhuang ("strength inside a pot"), is unique in that it claims to be China's only specialty penis restaurant. It was started back in 2000 by a father-and-son team who also happen to be Chinese traditional doctors.

"They both used to buy a lot of different food products to eat, such as animal penis for good health," explains restaurant manager Nancy Lee. Video Watch Nancy Lee discuss the food offerings available »

"Then they thought, if we are spending so much money buying this food, why not open up a restaurant that would benefit ourselves and friends? So it's not so much a business-oriented as a health-oriented idea."

The restaurant is formal and divided up into private dining booths. Any preconceptions of drunken customers making lewd jokes about the food choices quickly diminish.

The menu is quite exhaustive -- and there are other choices to consider, including seafood, flowers, bean products and wild mushrooms. But there's one main focus.

"We serve the penis from nine different animals," says Lee. "They are cow, sheep, dog, donkey, horse, deer, yak, snake and seal."

They are usually prepared in a hot pot or stir-fried, and one penis, according to traditional Chinese medicine, should be shared by three people.

The meat dishes can be accompanied by assorted sauces such as lemon soy and chili soy, and any number of vegetable platters.

The food, especially in a country with such inexpensive dining prices as China, isn't cheap.

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"The average cost per person to dine here is about 500 RMB ($73)," explains Lee. "Our clientele is usually made up of government officials and wealthy businessmen."

Perhaps a one-of-a-kind experience they probably won't forget.

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