Between excursions scaling the sinuous Great Wall, admiring the grandeur of the Forbidden City and exploring Beijing’s quaint hutong alleyways, you’re bound to get hungry. China’s capital naturally hosts restaurants representing the nation’s diverse regional cuisines. You can find fiery Szechuan dishes, delicate Cantonese dim sum, Shanghainese seafood and so much more, but don’t forget to sample Beijing’s own specialties:
With all Beijing’s magnificence, you may be surprised to discover one of its special treasures comes in chubby white jars, crowned by paper labels affixed by rubber bands, accompanied by a straw. Beijing’s signature yogurt is sip-able refreshment, widely sold by street side vendors. The fermented milk drink has a tangy hint of sweetness. The classic ceramic jars must be returned to the vendor, but newer disposable plastic jars can be taken away.
Beijing’s most iconic dish, Peking duck, is not just a meal; it’s a ritual. Served exclusively to royalty for 600 hundred years, the dish is now available to the masses at dozens of renowned restaurants. Watch as chefs deftly carve the specially prepared ducks, separating shiny mahogany skin from juicy meat. You will receive a tray arrayed with condiments. First, dip morsels of the crispy, brown skin into a petite pile of sugar. As thin, steamed pancakes arrive, the server demonstrates how to fold these up into bite-size packets of duck and sweet bean sauce, with scallions, cucumber, pickles or garlic—which can then be eaten by hand. (Recommendation for the best Peking duck in Beijing = Siji Minfu Restaurant, No.32 Dengshikou West Street, Dongcheng district—The wait for a table will be well worth it.)
If you love DIY dinners, head to a hotpot (pictured at top) spot where you can cook your own meal, combining your favorite meats, vegetables and sauces. A pot of broth is placed in the center of your table and heated. The metal vessel is often divided in two sections so you can have both spicy and non-spicy options.
You’ll order from a long list of ingredients, such as paper-thin slices of raw beef, pork or lamb, which are rolled up and attractively arrayed on platters. Other options include fish balls, prawns, a variety of mushrooms, greens such as bok choy, and napa cabbage, beans, bean sprouts, tofu and cellophane noodles.
If the restaurant has a sauce bar, create your own bowl of dipping sauce from: hoisin, soy sauce, peanut sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and chili pepper sauce to name only a few. Once the soup begins to boil, place a few slices of meat or vegetables in the broth at a time; when the pink meat turns brown, take it out, dip in your sauce and enjoy. Hotpot meals have been enjoyed for more than 1,000 years, perhaps because no matter how many times you partake, each meal will be unique.
Zha jiang mian, hand-pulled wheat noodles, are tossed with a thick, fermented, soybean and pork sauce and enlivened with an array of crunchy accompaniments, such as thinly sliced watermelon radish, green onions and cucumbers, fresh soybeans and bean sprouts. This beloved dish of comfort food will bring sighs of pleasure from Beijingers as it reminds many of their childhood.
During the cooler months (from October through April) you’ll find street corners festooned with long bamboo sticks threaded with shiny red fruit that resemble tiny apples. These fruit are from the Chinese hawthorn bush and early versions of this treat trace back to Song Dynasty (960-1279). Several hundred years later, it became a nationwide traditional snack.
For around a dollar, you’ll get 10 small apple-shaped, tangy fruit, in a crunchy sugar shell sprinkled with sesame seeds. These festive skewers provide a sweet and sour nostalgic memory for many. Nowadays, you can also find other fruits, such as kiwi or pineapple, similarly threaded, but hawthorn holds a special place in Chinese culture.
Hawthorn fruit grow on a thorny bush. The fruit, flowers and leaves are widely used in traditional medicine and reputedly good for the digestion and its antioxidants are believed to deliver cardiovascular benefits. Teas made from the fruit are used to treat conditions from insomnia and chest pains to hot flashes. So this quintessential Beijing sweet is not only tasty, but good for you too.
Anna Mindess leads a double life in Berkeley, California. She is a food and travel writer and a sign language interpreter, two fields bridged by a fascination with culture. Her work has been published in Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, KQED’s Bay Area Bites and The Washington Post. Share her visual take on the world via Instagram @annamindess.