Eating in Beijing is a wonderful experience. There is a large range of foods and styles to choose from, including southern and northern inspired Chinese dishes, dishes from specific provinces, as well as other Asian based cooking styles – who can go past a delicious Mongolian hot-pot, or a Korean BBQ restaurant? But after a while, what you really want is a familiar taste of home, and cooking that looks like something you or your mum would cook. There is a good range of western restaurants and eateries in Beijing, including well known chains like McDonald’s. KFC, and Starbucks. These places usually have the standard international menu, as well as including a couple of dishes that are more suited to the palate of the local Chinese people.
For those of you that like to cook – and I’m one of these people – cooking poses its own challenges. The local supermarkets are well stocked with local produce, so I suggest that you are adventurous and try the fresh seasonal vegetables in your cooking. Most of them are variations of vegetables that you get at home – even if they don’t initially look like it! Meat is meat – you can buy beef, lamb, pork and chicken, as well as many different types of poultry. Coming from New Zealand, I haven’t seen many these birds readily available in the supermarkets before, so that has been an interesting experience. If you are going to cook meat, it would pay to learn the Chinese names for the various types of meat, especially if there is a type you don’t like or don’t eat.
The fun starts, however, when you get to the flavouring of the food. I haven’t managed to sort out all the herbs and spices in the main supermarkets, but they carry a range of spices. There are also many types of peppers and chilies. Curry is available, as well as stock in liquid or jelly form, and sugar and salt. The main problem with the spices is that they are labelled (of course!!) in Chinese, which if you don’t read Chinese, can be a bit of a problem. Many of the packets are starting to come out with English written on them as well, but you then arrive at the next problem – not everyone calls the herb or spice by the same name. Be prepared to do a little bit of research, or to be adventurous when buying spices.
If you really need or want a specific herb or spice, there are the international stores around Beijing, and they specialize in bringing in western foods, including the jams, herbs, spices and other things we often take for granted back home, and learn to appreciate while we are in Beijing. Of course, anything that is imported into China is more expensive.
If you come with a ‘can-do’ attitude, as well as the flexibility and willingness to try new things and new techniques or tastes, then you will do well in Beijing!