It’s a capital idea to try local favorites
Beijing, on the edge of the cold northern deserts and grasslands, did not have easy access to the fresh tropical fruits, rice paddies, and deep varieties of seafood that typifies southern Chinese cuisine. Wheat could grow in the north, and cattle had room to graze, so Northern dishes cooked by common people often evolved to use hearty noodles, dumplings, and breads; beef and lamb; and root vegetables and pickles that could be preserved and stored over the winter.
As the capital grew in size and political power, and as transportation improved, the unique ingredients and cooking styles of China’s various regions all found expression at restaurants and catered gatherings, and it became fashionable for Beijingers to seek diverse dining experiences. And as the city expanded, there was enough patronage to keep chefs of each school of cuisine very busy. So instead of flavors blending together into a common style over the past several hundred years, Beijing may well have the most variety of “Chinese” cuisine of any city in the nation.
Some dishes and snacks to look for as you tour the city include:
You can get good roast duck all over the world, but it’s a point of pride among chefs and diners that it’s done the best in the city that it’s named for. If you can’t get into the historic Quanjude (8 locations around the city) or Bianyifang restaurants, there are dozens of other choices, including street markets, to get a taste! Kids really appreciate the build-your-own-taco aspect of the dish.
It’s not just that it tastes so satisfyingly good; or that it playfully mixes the contrasting textures of smooth scrambled egg with crisp pancake and crunchy wantons; or that you get so much breakfast for so little money. It’s the theater of watching it be made for you right there on the street – they sell so quickly that there’s no way to make them ahead of time to sit under a heating lamp.
Stir-fried tomato & scrambled eggs
This is a favorite comfort food, and one of the first dishes kids learn how to cook for themselves in China, or have every night in college. Most any broad-menu restaurant in the city will be serving it.
We’ve given this food its own page to describe its history and variety – northern China loves its dumplings and you can find them pan-fried and steamed at street markets, specialty shops, and nearly any sit-down restaurant.
It’s like a baked layered bagel: sometimes with fillings like red bean paste, eggs, or roasted meat; sometimes with no filling – sometimes coated with sugar, othertimes sprinkled with salt – but always served warm. Look for them at your hotel’s breakfast buffet, at bakeries, or from street food carts.
You can tell a Northern dish by its use of wheat-based noodles, and sauces that take time to ferment. Add minced pork and fresh vegetables in a stir-fry and you get a rich, savory, chewy and crunchy bowl of home-cooking goodness. This is everyone’s meal they remember their grandma making. And as such, it’s available everywhere.
Here’s street food at its most basic: grilled meat (lamb is the favorite, but you can get pork, chicken, beef, or fish, too) and vegetables, served hot and fresh on skewers. It’s seasoned with onion, cumin, and sometimes chili powder – so Americans will find the flavor familiar like Tex-Mex (but this style came from China’s Far West of Xinjiang).
Another food-on-a-stick from the street food stalls, but this is a syrupy sticky dessert made with Chinese Haw fruit, which grows only in the north and in Korea. The fruit itself is often dried and flattened, and tastes just like an artificial “Fruit Roll-Up” – but for a snack, they take a handful of them and coat them in sugar. Like it needs the extra sweetness (eyeroll). This is a fall-and-winter snack just after harvest time.
Another winter favorite at the street markets is something North Americans haven’t seen for generations: hot roasted chestnuts. The tree and nut have been sacred in China for millennia and considered to bring good fortune; they’re added to many fancy recipes and even used in some traditional medicines. On the street, they’re quickly baked in hot woks with small pebbles or sand to transfer heat evenly and keep the nut from popping open!
Do you have other foods to suggest? Great family-friendly and accessible restaurants to recommend? Please comment below, or drop us a note on Twitter at @weninchina!
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