Beijing holds all the flavors of China. Each province’s traditional food can be found on tables of its long-operating family chain restaurants, inside hutong (narrow alley) holes-in-the-wall, and hawked by vocal street vendors. Practice your chopstick skills (or pack a fork), because you’re about to get a crash course in some of Beijing’s most beloved and flavorful plates.
Born in Nanjing and made famous in Beijing, this dish dates back to 1330 A.D., when chefs would serve it to Chinese emperors. In modern times, cooks slice the whole-roasted duck table side, finely separating the juicy, crispy sweet skin and tender roasted meat. Plates of small pancakes, spring onions, and cucumbers are served with it. Fill the pancakes with a little of everything on offer, place a dollop of hoisin sauce on top, roll it up, and then bite into the savory mixture. Head to Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant 北京大董烤鸭店 to have a chef carve one for you.
Jianbing, a giant eggy crepe, is both an art form and food. Made to order, street vendors pour batter over a giant circular griddle, then spread it in circle with a small wooden rake. The vendor cracks an egg and spreads it around, then throws spring onions, cilantro, and salt on top. Once partially cooked, the cook folds it in half, adds hot pepper and hoisin sauces, some pickles, and fried crackers, and then folds and cuts it once more. Finally, it gets shoved it into a bag for customers to eat on the go. Cheap and delicious, try it Dahua Jiangbing (大华煎饼) or find it on most streets in Beijing.
Beijing-Style Hot Pot
Curl up with Beijing-style hot pot in winter, a dish reminiscent of a village soup. Diners gather around a large boiling pot of broth, then throw uncooked ingredients into it, making an ever-changing soup. The pot is divided into two sections: salty broth and spicy broth. Mutton, garlic, vegetables, noodles, tofu, spices, pepper, and mushrooms get tossed into both sides, making a piping hot soup that diners can alter in flavor simply by adding more of their favorite ingredients.
Beijing-style hot pot is famous for its focus on the quality of the lamb and the brass or copper pots they use to cook it in, as opposed to one of the other 30 styles of hot pot in China. Try Beijing-style hot pot at Dong Lai Shun Restaurant (东来顺火锅店).
Chewy hand-pulled noodles full of pork smothered in rich sweet bean paste are combined with julienne carrots, cucumbers, and spring onions in this Beijing staple. Though originally from Shandong, the noodles ended up in Beijing when the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi sampled them on her way back to Beijing via Xi’an, then decided to bring the chef with her. This dish can be found all over Beijing from street vendors to high-end restaurants. Chew your heart out on Zhajiangmian at Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Mian Da Wang (老北京炸酱面大王).
This one’s for the spice lovers. Food from Sichuan is characterized by garlic and insanely hot chilis and peppercorns, especially by la jiao (a numbing berry which stuns different parts of your tongue as you eat it). Although normally dried, the la jiao in the Sichuan-style beef at Siji Minfu (四季民福烤鸭店) comes out fresh and green, still attached to the branch and packing even more heat than the dried version. The beef itself is tender to the point of perfection, and oh-so-juicy, but have tea or rice on hand in case of mouth fire.
These plump packets of meat and veggies taste good any way you cook them: boiled, fried, or steamed. Usually made with pork, leeks, and veggies, jiaozi (what the Western world calls "dumplings") come served with vinegar and sesame dipping sauce and are eaten in mass during Chinese New Year by locals. Other jiaozi fillings include shrimp, lamb, cabbage, eggs, crab, mushrooms, carrots, or garlic. For vegetarian options, going to a Buddhist restaurant will be a safe bet, or for more fanciful as well as traditional flavors, try Mr. Shi’s Dumplings.
This Chongqing-style whole grilled fish comes out simmering with flavor—full of chilis, cilantro, green veggies, and mushrooms, the fish soaks in spices and natural juices in a small brazier place in the center of the table. Although the city isn't coastal, this Beijing river fish will not disappoint. Super fresh and with enough meat for large groups, it’s also the right option for those who like their spice as much as their seafood. Hop over to La Shang Yin with five of your best friends to give it a try.
Where can you get fatty, grilled mutton roasted on a spit over your own personal table fire? The hutongs of course! An experience and a meal in one, diners cook then cut their own leg of lamb on small grills placed in the center of the table for this Xinjiang delicacy. Served with garlic, cumin dry spice, peanut dipping sauce, and vegetables, diners can make their own concoctions to dip the meat in and mix with its rich char-grilled flavor. Having trouble cutting it yourself? Just send it to the back for a little help from the kitchen at Tan Hua Kao Yang Tiu (No.6 Beixinqiao 3rd Hutong, Dongcheng District).
Douzhi and Jiaoquan
Locals love a big cup of coffee in winter or summer for breakfast. Made from fermented mug beans, this slightly sour beverage can be served hot or cold, it smells like eggs, and it's brimming with vitamin C and protein. You might need to hold your nose as you drink it, but Bejing locals swear by its health properties and happily gulp it down between dunks of fragrant jiaoquan (a type of Chinese donut) in it. Nibble on a few of the salty pickle slices that come on the side to really balance out the flavors. Make your way to Laociqikou Restaurant 老磁器口豆汁店 at No.5 Commercial Building, Temple of Heaven North, Dongcheng District to give it a try.
Sweet food, street food, these candied hawthorns on a stick are an iconic Beijing treat. To create this sugary snack, cooks hollow out Chinese hawthorns and then stuff them with red bean paste. They skewer them on a bamboo stick, dip them in boiling sweet syrup, and let them cool until a hard shell forms. Pop them in your mouth and savor their sugary sour crunch. You can buy them anywhere in the city from street vendors, or if you come during Chinese New Year, purchase some at one of the temple fairs in the city.