10 Beijing Dishes

10 Beijing Dishes

What to eat at the 2008 Olympic Games in China

By Fuchsia Dunlop

Zha Jiang Noodles
Zha Jiang Noodles

Mongolian Hot Pot

Mongolian Hot Pot

Imperial Sweets

Imperial Sweets

Beijing has long been a culinary hybrid, a place where regional Chinese cuisines, Manchu and Mongol influences, Muslim specialties, Imperial delicacies, street snacks, Buddhist vegetarian dishes, and, now more than ever, international ingredients and techniques have all been absorbed into the basic tradition of northern Chinese cooking. The 10 dishes that follow (along with recommendations on where to try some of them) give you just a taste of what the city has to offer.

1. Peking Duck. The Chinese capital’s most celebrated delicacy is an irresistible combination of crisp, lacquered skin and tender meat, sliced and then rolled up in thin pancakes with dark fermented sauce, slivers of white leek, and strips of cucumber. Go to the Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant (Number 22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District) for the full works.

2. Zha Jiang Noodles. Hand-pulled noodles, made to order by specialist noodle chefs, are one of the delights of China. They can be served in soup or with a sauce, but the most classic Beijing preparation is zha jiang mian: drained noodles tossed with a rich minced-pork sauce and a smattering of fresh vegetables. Try them at Hai Wan Ju (11 Zengguang Lu, Haidian District), a family-run restaurant that serves old-fashioned Beijing food, or at a back-street noodle restaurant, where you can watch the chef at work.

3. Mongolian Hot Pot. Known in Chinese as scalded mutton (shuan yang rou), this is the distinctive hot pot of Beijing. Cook your own thin slices of mutton in bubbling broth, along with vegetables and bean thread noodles, and then dip them into a sauce made of sesame paste, chive-flower preserve, and other seasonings. It’s more of a midwinter dish than food for August, but if this is your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Beijing, don’t miss it. The Muslim restaurant Dong Lai Shun (12 Xinyuanxili Zhongjie, Chaoyang District) is the most famous purveyor of shuan yang rou.

4. Jiaozi. These boiled crescent dumplings are comfort food, Beijing-style. At the Chinese New Year, whole families gather to make and eat them, but they are also an everyday snack, available in many places throughout the city. You might have them stuffed with minced pork and cabbage; scrambled egg and Chinese chives; or, in a Muslim restaurant, minced lamb. Cooked in a skillet rather than in boiling water, they end up as pot stickers (guo tie) with crunchy golden bottoms. They are traditionally served with soy sauce, vinegar, and chile oil, mixed to taste in small dipping dishes.

5. An Imperial Banquet. As the center of the Chinese empire for some 600 years, Beijing has a rich tradition of Imperial cuisine. Fangshan Restaurant (1 Wenjin Jie, Xicheng District) inside the east gate of Beihai Park was started in the 1920s by former palace chefs. Go there for dishes derived from the legendary Man-Han banquet, including exotica like stewed camel’s hump; the Empress Dowager Cixi’s favorite sesame buns stuffed with minced pork; and wan dou huang, a sweet made from dried peas and sugar.

6. Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts. People from all over China congregate in the capital, and they have one thing in common: a desire for the tastes of their hometowns. Exploring restaurants devoted to all of China’s regional cuisines would be a tall order, but you might start with one of the most famous cuisines, Sichuanese, by seeking out this classic dish, also known as kung po chicken. The authentic version is light-years away from that served in most Western Chinese restaurants (usually called kung pao). Try the canteen run by the Sichuanese government office (Number 5 Gongyuan Alley, off Jianguomen Nei Street, Dongcheng District) for a lip-tinglingly spicy rendition.

7. Something Adventurous. The Chinese are infamous for eating “everything,” and there are plenty of unusual foods on offer in their capital city. Curious visitors love the night market just off central Wangfujing, where you can buy deep-fried scorpions and other creepy-crawlies. Some of the old snack shops in the lanes to the east of the Forbidden City serve lu zhu huo shao (a soup of pork offal and pieces of flatbread) and other gutsy local dishes. Environmentally dubious exotica such as shark’s fin, served in high-class restaurants, are best avoided.

8. Yogurt. Because of Beijing’s position at the far north of China—not far from the heartlands of the nomadic, dairy-eating Mongols and Manchus—some dairy products have found favor in the capital. Beijing yogurt is sweet and soothing. Buy it in paper-topped clay jars from any little shop selling refreshments, and drink it through a straw.

9. Xian Bing. A cheap and cheering street snack that consists of wheat dough wrapped around any of a variety of fillings, such as minced pork mixed with chopped fennel or a vegetable called shepherd’s purse, flattened into a disk and toasted on a skillet. Another delicious snack is jian bing, a thin crêpe spread with beaten egg, fermented sauce, chile paste, and chopped scallions, and then wrapped around a piece of crisp, deep-fried pastry.

10. Shaqima. China’s last dynasty, the Qing, ruled the country for nearly 300 years. They were Manchu nomads from the north with a taste for roasted and boiled meats and sweet pastries. Some of their favorite foods, like shaqima (pronounced “shar-chee-ma”), were adopted by the Han Chinese majority. This soft, chewy sweet—which you can get in many restaurants around the city—is made from deep-fried dough strands bound with syrup, left to set, then cut into blocks.

CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.

Fuchsia Dunlop is the author of two Chinese cookbooks and Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. Photographs of Chinese dishes copyright Fuchsia Dunlop.