Before you come to China, it’s hard to know what kind of food to expect. The first thing you realize when you arrive is that it’s nothing like the Chinese food you get at home and that it’s much, much better! There are a vast number of Chinese dishes and types of cuisine to try and, lucky for us, most of them can be found in Beijing. Each province has its own specialty, its own cooking methods and ingredient preferences. Chinese people tend to divide the country into four areas of cuisine; North, South, East and West. Cooking from cities within each area is said to share similar characteristics but the food from different areas (North and South, for example) are quite different. In practice, it can be quite hard to pigeon hole Chinese food in this way but there are some general differences. For example, food from the South of China tends to be sweeter whereas food from the West (e.g. Sichuan) is often spicy. Some provinces and cities are more famous for their cuisine than others and this is especially the case when certain dishes have made it onto western menus. ‘Kung Pao’ chicken is a good example of such a dish. The Chinese version (Gong Bao Ji Ding 宫保鸡丁) is from Sichuan province and tends to be more strongly flavored, less sweet and less gloopy than the western counterpart. Other types of food have become famous as ‘symbols’ of Chinese food, such as hot pot. The best thing to do is be adventurous, try new restaurants in your area and go to ‘The Beijinger’ or ‘City weekend’ to find recommended restaurants that specialize in certain regional or ethnic cuisines. In the meantime, I’ve included some of my favorite dishes that I’ve never got tired of eating!
‘Dry spicy pot’ Malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅 (Sichuan province) This is a ‘must try’ dish for anyone who likes spicier food. You can pick the level of spiciness and also some different ‘flavors’ of your ‘pot’. I find this dish to have more of a ‘dry spice’ so don’t be alarmed by the huge number of chilies that come with it. You can entirely customize what goes into your dish as the menu is essentially one long ingredient list. It can be difficult to judge how much to order at first but, for two people, two kinds of meat and maybe 6 other things should be enough. If in doubt, you can ask the waitress if it’s enough or sometimes they’ll tell you it’s not enough. The menus always have pictures.
‘Hand pulled noodles’ la mian 拉面 (Gansu province, Lanzhou city) These hand pulled noodles are increasingly popular all over China and originate from the Muslim Autonomous Region of Gansu. It can be interesting to watch the noodles being made and marvel at the effortlessness skill of the chefs as they turn a mound of dough into these elastic noodles. One way to tell the more ‘authentic’ restaurants is to look at the staff working there (for example, the waitresses often wear headscarves) and you can also usually find Halal certification on the walls.
You Po Mian 油泼面 and Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍 (Shaanxi province) These delicious noodles are from the home of the Terracotta Warriors (Shaanxi province). They are handmade, cooked quickly then tossed in an appetizing concoction of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, crunchy bean sprouts and some greens (usually Bok Choi). Stir the noodles thoroughly until they’re well covered. If you ever make it to Xi’an or Shaanxi you’ll find ‘Rou jia mo’ on almost every street, in every restaurant. The name essentially means ‘meat between bread’ and it’s is sometimes translated as a ‘Chinese hamburger’. However, it’s essentially a Chinese pulled pork sandwich with slow braised meat in between a plain flat bread.
Zha Jiang Mian 炸酱面 (Beijing) Zha Jiang Mian is a northern Chinese noodle dish with a sauce comprised of a thick, sweet, salty soy bean paste and minced meat. That may sound a bit strange but when it’s done well it tastes fantastic. The noodles are usually served with shredded cucumber to give the dish some ‘bite’. You can find this dish in many places but it’s worth seeking out somewhere with good reviews to make sure you’re tasting the real deal. Either that or make a local friend who knows how to make it!
‘Big Plate Chicken’ Da pan ji 大盘鸡 (Xingjiang Province) A famous Xingjiang dish comprising of chicken pieces, potatoes, chilies, garlic and onions in a really fragrant, smoky sauce with star anise, cardamom and Sichuan pepper. Despite the pepper and chili it’s usually a mildly spicy dish. You might also find noodles buried beneath the mound of chicken and potatoes. This dish tends to come in different sizes to cater for large parties, however, if there is just one size assume that it’s quite large (enough for two or three). Da pan ji is a good example of ‘fusion food’ in that the star anise and black cardamom have strong links with Central Asia while other ingredients like black vinegar and broad bean paste are Chinese. The Silk Road did connect China to Central Asia via Xingjiang so it seems to make sense that the food from this region would take on characteristics of both regions.
This is just a small glimpse into the food that Beijing has to offer but I hope it’s sufficiently wet your appetite! Please feel free to let me know what you think of my recommendations when you get here.