My foodie travel in Beijing cuisine – Beijing is a city that constantly transforms. Every year it changes; the streets, as well as the kitchens. But Beijing is also the custodian of immutable traditions: take a ride with me through the narrow streets of the Chinese capital, and experience the ancient delicious recipes and the street food stands.
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BREAKFAST IN BEIJING
I walk down the narrow streets around Nan Luo Gu Xiang. A pale sun struggles to cross the white patina that envelops Beijing just after the dawn. Caterina, my wife, is still asleep in our room. I can’t. 12 hours of jet lag is a pitiless silent alarm. So, I find myself wandering through the old city, for no particular reason except to find a way into the Beijing cuisine for my first time!
It’s too early in the morning, the shops are all closed, and there is not a chance to drink coffee until nine in the morning. But, that is no problem. I’m wide awake, and I’m looking for something else. Finally, I find what I am search for: a small stall selling baozi, a classic of Beijing cuisine. Two young boys are working to fill the steamers with these soft and tasty stuffed buns. One of the boys lat out the dough with a small wooden rolling pin, while the other boy fills the baozi with a mixture similar to the BBQ pulled pork or, alternatively, with stir-fry yu choy, a kind of asian rape. 10 baozai for half dollar is a good deal! With my bag of fluffy buns under my arm, I reach the river and follow it until the Qianhai lake. I sit on a bench and I eat my baozi, watching the fishermen fishing while the white layer thins out a little, giving way to a pale blue sky.
Beijing is a developing city. The traditional China is giving way to Western style shops, restaurants and bars. Nan Luo Gu Xiang until a few years ago was a dusty alley, now it hosts shops where you can find shirts up to 300 bucks. But, who wants to travel half the world to drink the usual Starbucks? In the following days I and Caterina, we will have breakfast only in the stalls and in the “holes in the walls”, small shops that would not pass a health inspection easily, but enclosing the taste of the real China. So we will taste tiao, fried twisted dough sticks, cha ye dan eggs marinated in soy sauce and tea leaves and Jianbing the Chinese version of crepes filled with meat eggs and vegetables.
Talking about Beijing cuisine being closed and defined is reductive. Over the centuries, the original Beijing cuisine (Mandarin cuisine) has been heavily contaminated by other Chinese gastronomic traditions. The succession of dynasties in chief of the empire and the presence of senior officials from every region of the country with trusted chefs in tow, have imported several dishes and spices in the kitchen Pekingese. Among the most important dishes of Beijing cuisine, we find: Sweet and sour spare ribs, shredded skin mung bean salad, fish in vinegar and pepper, baby pork hocks, dense and thick stews or dumplings with various dough and stuffing. It will be a surprise to many, accustomed to International Chinese cuisine, the little presence of rice due to the dry climate of the region. On the contrary, cereals are widely used; it is used in bread, such as Mantou – delicious steamed buns – both in noodles.
As Nan Luo Gu Xiang has become the new destination for young Beijingers, fashionable and Western backpackers, Guijie called in slang “Ghost Street”, is a genuine slice of Chinese nightlife, a stronghold of the Beijing cuisine. Neon lights of all colors, fragrances and fumes escaping from secrets holes, motorcycles and scooters whizzing between pedestrians: Ghost Street is a concentration of pure energy. If you end up by Beijing in the warm season, you can’t miss it! Have you ever eaten a whole grilled squid; impaled on a stick? Here it’s possible to do so! You can also sample delicacies, from the several stalls on the street, or slip into one of the numerous and crowed restaurants along the way. Homemade noodles, legs of pork, thickly stews, mountains of spicy crawfish, and candy apples: here you will have the opportunity to eat what Chinese youth eat. All sold at affordable prices and in large quantities (as large is your stomach, you’ll be amazed by the appetite of the local people!).
Street food connects us with an authentic and ancient Beijing cuisine. But while wandering around stands and “holes in the walls” I sense that something is missing … a noble dish, prohibited ranges for generations to plebian people … I’m talking about the royal Beijing kaoya: the Peking duck. To prepare this popular recipe, the ducks are washed and hung to dry for 1-2 days, glazed with a mixture of honey and spices, and baked in an oven fueled with pear wood. To enjoy this ancient dish created for the emperor many centuries ago, we choose a restaurant well known for its cuisine and awarded for its duck: the Dadong. This restaurant is in its way the transformation that is sweeping China, very famous for an ancient dish, contemporary-style furnishing, closer to a lounge club than a traditional restaurant. Just walk in; if you are not too distracted by the blue fluorescent lights, you can see the traditional ovens for cooking duck. The large menu (not only for the amount of pages) is full of delicious dishes, but we came for the duck: We order half of it. One of the chefs serves us cutting the meat expertly on a cart, specially brought next to our table. Speed and technique: the duck is deboned and ready on the plate in a few minutes. Around the main course saucers containing ginger, cucumber, leek and sauce made with fermented tofu and the cooking duck sauce. The meat is so tender, and the skin, which originally was the only part of the duck served, is incredible crispy and tasty. Our half duck ends quickly, too soon… and the temptation to order the other half duck is very strong!
WANGFUJIN – WEIRD FOOD FOR TOURISTS (BUT IT’S FUNNY!)
Can’t live a day longer without tasting a scorpion? Going crazy for a steamed starfish? Then you can’t miss the gastronomic street Wangfujing. Here and in the nearby Donghuamen night market you can give vent to all the cravings most strange and shameful… fried crickets, roast silkworms, unidentified birds… all becomes food! Here it is possible to find a kind of weird gastronomic zoo, artfully assembled for tourists: do you think China will eat anything that breathes? Here they will. Donghuamen is the gastronomic version of those markets that sell fake Rolex and Gucci bags. Here it’s difficult to find any trace of Beijing cuisine, however… it is fun! If you come around here, spend half an hour wandering around the stalls and, if you have a lot of courage, try something, but be aware that only few Chinese would eat here, it’s not a joke!
Eating around the streets, the Beijing cuisine can be scary for some. In the city there is plenty of choices of Western restaurants and elegant Chinese places, and this increases the temptation to take refuge in a “safe place”. But, can you really say that you were in Beijing without a slip into a smelly “Hole in the wall”? The Beijing cuisine was created in the narrow streets of the hutongs: Be limited to sampling only the amazing Peking duck at Dedong, will not let you in connect with the culinary culture of the city. So, the decision is up to you. Mine was getting the right range of vaccinations before going there and many samples around the stalls with the people of Beijing 😉