When it came to food, I really had no idea what to expect from Beijing. The Chinese restaurants I’ve tried in the States never specialized in “Beijing” cuisine. Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, yes, but never Beijing. The only regional dish that comes to mind is the obvious Peking duck, but other than that, I wasn’t sure what the city was known for culinarily. Perhaps Beijing’s status as the capital makes it difficult for the city to have a clearly defined style of cooking, and instead its food is defined by the influx of movers and shakers that come from elsewhere to seek their fortunes here. I have a hunch that this might be the case, because even after spending 5 days in Beijing, I still can’t really definitively recall flavors unique to the region.
The food that I did eat was delicious, and the flavors ranged from the unexpected to the familiar. The cuisine is as dynamic and diverse as the city itself. Here’s a list of some of my favorite food memories in the vibrant capital.
Peking Duck at Duck de Chine: One of the mission critical items on my Beijing bucket list was to have awesome Peking duck somewhere. A good friend of ours took us to Duck de Chine, a trendy, high-end restaurant that prepares the traditional dish in a modern way. Think Tao or Buddakan meets Peking Duck House. The duck was perfectly cooked and not too fatty, and the skin was rendered to the right level of crispness. You have the option of using the traditional Mandarin pancake or a small sesame bun to wrap up the duck, cucumber, scallions and hoisin sauce. The duck soup made from the leftover bones and meat costs extra here, but it is well worth it. Other excellent dishes include the spicy crab and sweet and sour tofu. A meal here is expensive and will set you back more than RMB 250 per person, but with the beautiful setting and refined cooking, the experience is worth the price tag.
Duck de Chine
Address: 1949-The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti Beilu
Cooking Class at Hutong Cuisine Cooking School: I’ve always wanted to make Chinese food properly, wok, steamers and all, and what better way to do it than in the charming setting of a traditional Chinese home? Hutong Cuisine Cooking School, which is run by sister and brother duo Chunyi and Chao, equips you with the right tools to be able to master dishes from different regions in China. I chose to take the Canton cooking class, but classes specializing in Sichuan, vegetarian and dimsum dishes are also offered. The recipes were surprisingly useful and easy. Chinese cooking I learned is about 90% preparation, and 10% cooking. To set expectations, this isn’t the most hands-on cooking class. Most of the cooking you will do will be prepping the sauces, and the instructors will usually take care of the proteins. But for 260 RMB, the class is a good value, and at lunch you get to eat full-sized portions of the 4 dishes you make in the sessions.
Hutong Cuisine Cooking School
No. 35 DengCao Hutong, DongSi South St, Dongcheng District
Eating at a Local Restaurant Near the Great Wall: One of the most memorable meals I had in Beijing was at a small, local restaurant near the Great Wall. I wish I could provide a precise name and address, but the restaurant was a very regional mom-and-pop establishment with no obvious signage anywhere. One of the restaurant’s specialties was a grilled fish marinated in a cumin spice-blend that gave it a Middle Eastern flair, which was something I wasn’t expecting from Chinese cooking. There was also an excellent eggplant dish, fried local vegetables, a tamale-like cornmeal patty, smoked tofu and an intense plate of fatty pork belly pieces. I was pleasantly surprised by how new and familiar all the flavors in the meal were. The definition of Chinese cooking clearly extends more broadly than my narrow perspective.
Late Night Hot Pot at Haidilao: An epic night out in Beijing is incomplete without a late-night hot pot stop at the famous Haidilao. Nothing cures a hangover quite like boiling broth teeming with cooked meat and vegetables. Apparently the rest of Beijing’s revelers think so, because even at 3 AM this place was packed. The highlight of the meal was watching one of the workers hand-pull some noodles in dramatic fashion, a performance that seemed to be inspired by some crazy rave moves. The warm, hearty aftermath of this filling meal will lull you into a pleasant food coma, perfect for sleeping in the morning after.
2A Baijiazhuang Lu, Chaoyang district