Mongolian lamb, Sichuan-style chilli-spiked crayfish and flaky flatbreads with sweet wafts of fried spring onions cooked before you. Beijing showcases the best of China’s (and neighbouring) flavours, with a few surprising additions of its own. You’ll find Beijing’s food is as headstrong as its residents, not shying away from frying, garlic, chilli, fermented soybean and anything else that brings out bold flavours.
Rice is big in the south, where it grows easily in temperate climes, but China’s capital presides from the often-frigid north, where wheat is grown and filling tummy warmers such as dumplings and hand-pulled noodles are key staples to keeping happy in sub-zero temperatures. Don’t leave the Chinese capital without trying these iconic Beijing dishes.
Peking roast duck (北京烤鸭, Běijīng kǎoyā)
Beijing’s most famous dish, Peking roast duck is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, and served sliced. You’ll be given light pancakes, into which you pile a slice of duck and accompanying sides like fermented bean paste, cucumbers and spring onions. Peking duck was first mentioned in royal cookbooks during the Yuan dynasty (13th century), but didn’t come to the fore until the early 1900s, when former imperial cooks began opening roast duck restaurants outside the palace walls. To prepare the duck, chefs first inflate the bird by blowing air between the skin and body. They then prick the skin and pour boiling water over the duck. Some chefs add malt sugar to the skin so that it glows golden brown once roasted.
Dumplings (饺子, jiǎozi)
Dumplings have a delicate wheat-flour skin around warm, moist prawn or pork contents. More surprising ingredients include sweet corn and yam, while the perfect dumpling has a contrasting crunch of chestnut or garlic chives. The crescent-moon dumplings are served steamed, fried or in a soup, sold by the number of dumplings or weight – a jiǎng (about six dumplings) or bàn jīn (about 30, enough for two people or a solo dumpling fiend). Use your chopsticks to share from the one platter–the Chinese way. On your table you’ll find black rice-vinegar and smoky chilli-oil to drizzle into your little dipping sauce dish. Be ready for the juicy dumpling contents to burst with flavour in your mouth. You’ll be poured a hot bowl of jiǎozi tāng, which is the broth in which dumplings are boiled and a mere palate cleanser for the next tasty morsel of love.
Zhájiàng noodles (炸酱面, Zhájiàngmiàn)
Firm, drained, hand-pulled wheat noodles are topped with minced-pork in a smoky yellow-soybean paste reduction in this classic Beijing noodle dish. To balance out the addictive saltiness of the chunky sauce, fresh vegetables are laid to the side – julienned cucumber, crunchy radish and, in modern Beijing, juicy bean sprouts or edamame (fresh soybeans). You lovingly turn the toppings through the noodles to reach the flavour-to-noodle ratio of your liking and quietly slurp away. Vegetarian versions swap the pork for tofu. Zhájiàng noodles is a much loved and copied dish – Koreans know it is as the ubiquitous jajangmyeon.