Whether you’re headed to China for the Olympics or beyond, one thing is for sure … “authentic” Chinese food is a world away from the stuff you probably get at the corner restaurant.
In China, there is no such thing as chop suey.
This is the real deal …
“Last month, I went to a noodle shop in Shanghai,” reported Erik Wolf, president of the International Culinary Tourism Association. “My friend told me to go into the kitchen. Though I was convinced that it was a ploy to get me in trouble with local health authorities, I went into the crowded and very hot kitchen.
A man took a ball of dough, pounded it a few times and began pulling it apart with his bare hands. The noodle-making process took about five minutes. When he was done, the noodles went into the steaming water to cook. A couple minutes later, I had a very tasty plate of home-cooked noodles with vegetables in sauce.”
Another lesson Wolf learned on the road: Watch out for those pot stickers!
“You cannot imagine how delighted I was to see pot stickers—lots of them—cooking on the streets. I absconded back to my hotel with four amazingly authentic Chinese pot stickers (costing all of about 40 cents). Ouch! They were incredibly hot, and watch out! The juice oozed down the front of my shirt. You think I would have learned after the first one to be careful, but oh no. Nothing a little laundry detergent can’t fix, right?”
Craving a familiar dish? Ask for gung bao ji ding, aka “Kung Pao chicken done the right way,” according to Wolf. Don’t ask for dim sum in Beijing—it’s a Cantonese thing.
But do ask for baozi, steamed dumplings that are usually available for breakfast in most establishments. And for an unusual dessert experience, try ba si xiang jiao—warm battered banana with sweet syrup. Take a piece and dip into the water provided, watch it solidify, and then eat.
With more than 30,000 restaurants in the metropolitan area, Beijing is an ideal but often overwhelming destination for the culinary adventurer. Pack along some of these handy tips:
FOR THE MORE ADVENTUROUS
Roast duck (sometimes served complete with head, wings and feet)
Raw sea urchin
Donkey meat stew
Duck bone soup
Braised sea cucumber
Stinky tofu (only the authentic versions are truly stinky)
Braised chicken Feet
Fat head fish soup
DO AS THE LOCALS DO AND EAT ON THE STREET
Street vendors offer good food, great value and a chance to mingle with local patrons. Try sticky fruit on bamboo skewers and Xinjiang lamb skewers. Be sure to try these street vendors as you meander Beijing’s avenues and alleys:
Gui Street, near Dongzhimennei Dajie in the Dongcheng District, is the largest and most famous food street in Beijing. Here you will find seafood specialties such as spicy lobster, spicy crab, pepper and chili prawns, and poached fish in pungent sauce.
Wangfujing Snack Street, south of Haoyou Department Store, is near Wangfujing Business Street in the Dongcheng District. Red lanterns light the street at night. If you’re really adventurous, sample the scorpion kebabs. Snack on crossing bridge rice noodles, smelled bean curd, sticky fruit on bamboo skewers and Xinjiang lamb skewers. The Uyghur people from Xinjiang, China’s most western province, often have portable barbecues on which they cook and sell their offerings. If you can’t find them on the street, look for Arabic words written on any restaurant sign and you will be at a Xinjiang restaurant.
Donghuamen Market, north of Donganmen Street in the Dongcheng District, offers an ambiance of beautiful red lamps at nighttime and smells of barbecued meats and vegetables, a true feast for the senses. Try stretched noodles, fish ball soup, smelly bean curds, muttons, prawns, skewered and grilled silkworms, boiled dumplings and caramelized fruits on sticks.
Longfusi Snack Street, north of Dongsi Longfu Mansion in the Dongcheng District, is the place to try soymilk, fried dough rings, sausage or fried squid. Sweetened baked wheaten cake is a traditional treat here.
Laitai Food Street, located across from Lady’s Street, is the newest food street in the city. Here you can sample foods from different regions and cultures: Cantonese, Sichuan, Japanese, Korean, Turkey, and Thai.
Chao Yang district near the Olympic Village is popular with business people and with Westerners (not a localist destination, just an ex-pat area that does have good street food).
CAN’T-MISS CULINARY ATTRACTIONS
Fang Shen Imperial Restaurant serves Court Cuisine, based upon 600+ year old recipes favored by China’s former emperors in the Ming and King dynasties. This is a truly “imperial” dining experience, with the option for an eight, 10, 12 or 36(!)-course dinner.
LAN is one of the hottest, trendiest spots in Beijing, complete with Philippe Stark decor and 35 private dining rooms.
Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, founded in 1864, is famous for its namesake dish.
CULTURAL TIPS ON DINING IN BEIJING
- Don’t expect molten chocolate cake or pie for dessert. Fruit, particularly watermelon or sometimes oranges, is normally offered.
- Vegetarians beware. Many vegetable dishes contain meat or meat sauces.
- Never stand your chopsticks straight up in your bowl of rice; it is an offensive gesture.
- Don’t be offended by locals slurping soup. They’re just enjoying themselves.
- MSG (wei jing) is alive and well. If you have an allergy, plan accordingly.
- There is no such thing as smoke-free eating in China. If you are allergic to cigarette smoke, consider eating outside if possible.
- Servers often stand next to you until you order. Don’t be offended, it is just the custom.
- Locals will often spit out or drop food onto the table, which is not considered rude.
- Eating out is a way to bring friends together, and most Chinese don’t go to bars. Alcohol is only consumed with meals. As such, you can usually find a couple of tables of rowdy people playing drinking games in restaurants.
- You will often see fish, shrimp and other seafood in a pond or fish tank when you enter a restaurant. This is the chef’s way to show you that the fish is fresh. Just point to the one you want.
- People may come over to your table and try to talk with you. If you are feeling like throwing yourself into the local mix, just walk over to one of the rowdy tables with a full beer, and say “Gan Bei” [gan-bay] (Bottoms up). They will probably throw you a cigarette and ask you to join their table.
- Watch out for Baijiu (clear hard liquor made of sorghum). This drink can be an acquired taste for Westerners and quality can vary widely.
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