Eating like a local:
- Exploring the Forbidden City
Regional food specialties
Sometimes life doesn't go as planned and that's not always a bad thing. I use my recent trip to China as example. While I'm pretty much down to go visit damn near any country out there I never had mainland China high on my bucketlist. For what it's worth Japan and Peru are currently 1 and 2. So when we started planning for a trip this past summer we looked hard into Peru as there wasn't enough time to plan Japan. Well Zika ended up holding us back from South America. Shortly after that decision we found some airfare to Beijing that was too good to pass up. Just $500 for a r/t nonstop ticket to China's capitol. Even better it was with American and we had vouchers. Along with the cost for a visa ($150/lasts ten years) we ended up paying just $350/each to get to Beijing. No brainer.
The Summer Palace
After purchasing the tickets I went to twitter to get opinions on Beijing. All of which were negative. Oh boy I thought what have I done? Then I remembered I'm the type of person that loves exploring a spot like Wisconsin. Why wouldn't I enjoy a descent into China? It's unlike anywhere else on earth. The future focal point of the world according to many. If your idea of Beijing is guys on bikes with big boxes of fruit for sale on back or old ladies selling steamed buns from their scooters on a street corner you're wrong. It's more like bustling buildings with ads from every American corporation you can think of and Lamborghini's and Maserati's every corner you turn. From what I heard the street food scene in Beijing was swept under the rug forever before they hosted the 2008 summer Olympics.
More from The Summer Palace
But before we get to food let me discuss the other stuff most folks will want to know. Many beloved American internet sites such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube are blocked in mainland China. So most folks who go need a VPN card in order to continue using such sites. The important one being google which may hold your email as well as the all important google maps. Google maps isn't perfect there but it will always get you at the very least near wherever it is you're trying to go. I got mixed answers about needing a VPN card if I was using my AT&T International travel plan. So I got one anyway (it was free for seven days which was all I needed). I recommend Express VPN.
Th Palace Museum
So they say Beijing is the best city in China to explore the country’s regional eats and I was feeling that. There might not be much street food left but the vendors didn't just go away. Many of them made it into malls. Unlike here in the States malls are still huge in China. When I say huge I mean Beijing alone has 100's of them and every single one of them has 100's of food and shopping stops. My visit on a Sunday was like being at Disney World or somewhere as there were 1000's of families. These malls are some of the best spots to eat in Beijing. All of them have either locally famous restaurants or franchise stalls from locally famous places in other regions of China. The Chinese love their chains bc of both the consistency and also the fact they're trustworthy. There's been lots of food scandal in China over the years but you don't need to worry about a spot with millions of dollars invested in it trying to pass off this as this or something like that. Long story short the chains in China (and many other parts of Asia) are awesome. They have many of the American options too but why bother?
Lamb Skewer Vendor in Beijing
One thing most everyone who goes to Beijing does is take a trip to go see the Wall. So of course the wife was adamant about doing that. This meant one of our days would be dedicated to seeing China's Great Wall. A friend from the food world I know who's a veteran traveler and someone I totally trust recommended the name of a driver for us. There's a few ways to get to the Great Wall but as a tourist your best bet is to hire a private driver. Which is what we did. Through the recommendation we got in touch with Mark at best-our.com
. He took us through all of the options and answered all of my questions as far as what each option entitled us too. I think we got the top choice and that's your best bet bc not only will you get picked up and dropped at your hotel but your private guide will do everything like buy tickets, pay tolls, make sure you're good when there. It's very much worth it.
The Great Wall of China
We visited the wall early enough to where we were basically the first people there. It was a slightly rainy misty morning so for whatever reason we had almost an entire section to ourselves. Which is pretty crazy bc I couldn't imagine it with 1000's of people. I don't think I would've enjoyed it the same way. But in the end it's just a wall and it's cool but after an hour or so I was ready to go back into the city and start eating. Bc we got out so early we got back pretty early too so you don't need to dedicate an entire day to seeing the wall as long as you get out early and beat the crowds. Which started forming as we were leaving. I think we ended up handling this perfectly but sometimes a gift is a curse as we didn't get to ride the toboggan down due to the inclement weather. We ended up spending four nights in Beijing and the same in Hong Kong which was on my bucketlist (stay tuned). So without further ado here's just some of the food you can look fwd to on a trip to the Forbidden City.
More from The Palace Museum
29 aka Ling Er Jiu
Despite it's booming population there wasn't much going on in Beijing past 10p. In fact it was as quiet as some small US cities seem to be. There were certainly areas where nightlife could be found but it wasn't anywhere near as vibrant as a place like Bangkok was. Still with a city of 20+ million people you better believe there's dining options when the moon is shining. One of them called 29 aka Ling Er Jiu caught my eye. I'd read that this place was known for superior renditions of two classic Shaanxi dishes. 1) Youpo Mian aka hot oil noodles and another noodles dish called qishan saozi mian aka Qishan-style sister-in-law noodles.Youpo mian is the first dish listed on the all Chinese menu. Therefore it was the easiest one for me to order. It's a dry dish featuring wide biangbiang noodles and a handful of vegetables served with or without meat (pork). What a great way to get our trip to China going. Beijing is a top spot to indulge in the different noodles dishes of each region. Rice isnt as big.
Youpo Mian at 29 aka Ling Er Jiu
Golden Peacock Dai Ethnic Flavor
One of the regional cuisines I really wanted to try was food from China's Yunnan Province. Because of it's close proximity to the likes of Vietnam and Laos the flavors of the dishes take on those funky flavors associated with Vietnamese food and such. Beijing had handfuls of options for Yunnan food. I ended up choosing one that wasn't all that close to anything except it was somewhat near the Palace Museum. I'd read to get here early because the hours are limited and it fills up quick thanks in part to its location near Minzu University. I'd read that the menu features plenty of distinct
dishes from China's Dai population. I had trouble finding this place bc as you can see there's no English spoken. Though this time Google maps was basically right as I walked in and a waiter translated into phone that this was the Golden Peacock. So we sat down and the menus came out with a peacock on front.
Fried Potato Balls with Chile
One dish I knew I wanted to try were the little fried potato balls. I guess these are very popular in the region as almost every Yunnan restaurant seemed to have pictures of these in their online reviews. They're just little balls of mashed potato that are lightly coated and fried and then meant to be dipped into a red chile sauce with lots of those previously mentioned Southeast Asian flavors. So good. The menu must've been five or six pages long and I was admittedly overwhelmed. Our waitress couldn't really speak English but she pointed to a picture of noodles that were described as rice noodles stir fried with pork and sour cabbage. Sounds pretty plain but they were outstanding. Finish
off with a dessert of sticky pineapple rice which I'd read was worth trekking across town for
all on its own.
Stir Fried Yunnan Rice Noodles at Golden Peacock
Mr. Shi's Dumplings
This is one of those spots that's going to pop up in just about every online search for food in Beijing. That's bc its very popular with tourists. Part of that is the fact their signature homemade dumplings are delicious and part of it is bc they have an extensive menu and it's all in English. So the prices are a bit higher but I will say it's location in an old hutong (alleyway) is as good as it gets. It felt more like a cafe at a boutique hotel than a locally loved Beijing dumpling shop. Mr. Shi makes dumplings in the classic boiled variety and also fried in the less seen foldover style. The filling options are just about endless. I'm talking everything from cheese and corn to tomato and shrimp. Some of them sounded better than others but you'll never get better than the classic of pork with leeks. These were on point but I found the shells to be a bit more chewy than I like as well as a bit thicker than I prefer.
Dumplings at Mr. Shi's Dumplings
Anwai Laoma Shaomai
Here's a spot that caught my eye and made it onto my must visit list. Pictured below are Inner Mongolian style Shaomai from a place called Anwai Laoma. These large dumplings are not to be confused with the dim sum favorite. These are bigger and shoot a little liquid upon first bite. Your choices include a few fillings and the option to have your dumplings steamed or fried. I tried the shrimp and mushroom version steamed at the recommendation of the Beijinger article that turned me onto the popular but small spot. You may have to wait for a table. Also the google maps address was wrong but if you look around for the facade pictured above you'll eventually find these filling treats.
Shrimp/ Mushroom Steamed Shaomai
Lady Chai's Beef Noodle Soup
Old Beijing meets new in the form of this beef noodle soup from Lady Chai. Originally a little noodle stand in an alley turned full blown noodle shop in one of Beijing’s gazillion shopping malls. I’m not a big shopper but the food options in the malls here are something to behold. So much goodness. This fantastic bowl of beef noodle soup can be found in the SanLiTun SOHO mall. At first it may be a bit hard to find but if you persist in finding it you will be rewarded with a big beefy bowl of noodle soup.
Beef Noodle Soup from Lady Chai
The Country Kitchen at Rosewood Beijing
One of the things you'll hear from American travelers to China is how good the hotel restaurants are. Honestly I think this has more to do with the comfort zones of many Americans when it comes to restaurant. But there are those who love impeccable service and you'll certainly get that at these spots. Our hotel had a place called Country Kitchen that got lots of love from the online review crowd. The menu is an ode to old school Northern Chinese cooking techniques and such. It of course includes a Peking Duck dinner but we were holding out for another spot I'd read about. Here we just wanted to try a few of the things from the ala carte menu such as the potstickers - a near flawless example.
Potstickers (pork) at Country Kitchen
While the service was really nice here I didn't notice anything out of this world. It seemed to be a spot for tourists but they didn't seem to be taking many shortcuts in the food. For instance there was a guy making noodles on site as well as at least two people totally dedicated to the Peking duck station. All of the food is cooked in an open air kitchen. Another one of their proclaimed specialties was a dish of prawns simmered in tomato sauce pictured below. It was basically a really flavorful sweet and sour shrimp dish. The peel and eat prawns were really sticky but it was the type of sticky you remove with your lips and not napkins bc the flavors are so delicious. But priced like Singapore.
Prawns Simmered in Tomato Sauce
One of Country Kitchen's specialties is an ode to "lost recipes" popular during the 1950's. Recipes with braised and crispy pork were popular with the wealthy during 1950's Beijing. So they say most of those recipes were lost and are no longer cooked except for at Country Kitchen. We tried an order of claypot roasted pork belly that came served with bao buns and toppings. So they were basically bao buns. Which aren't that rare but can be very good. I liked these but didn't think they were extraordinary.
Claypot Pork Belly with Bao buns at Country Kitchen
Beijing's Cocktail Scene
I was very much surprised by the city's cocktail bars. Aside from maybe the lack of pollution (on the streets anyway) it was the most surprising thing of the trip. We went to a handful of bars and all of them were pretty damn good. Some of them were called apartment bars. These were real deal speakeasy's that worked out of apartment buildings. Bc google maps isn't as accurate over there as here and bc these are literally cocktail bars hidden within random apartment complexes they can be hard to find. But if you persist you'll have an awesome experience and some fantastic drinks to go with it. Some of the bars both and hidden and in plain sight that we enjoyed were Lush Whiskey & Cocktail, Botany Lounge, and Scandal Bar. All of these spots had creative drinks and top notch service.
Cocktail in Beijing
Jianbing stand near the Beixinqiao Station
One of the handful of things I wanted to make sure I had in Beijing was Jianbing. It's the city's preferred breakfast snack and one that's really took off in the States. It's kind of like the combination of crepes and a breakfast burrito. It's cheap and easy to eat on the go. It consists of a batter made of flour and eggs with a variety of sauces and a crunchy cracker inside. I love them and while this random stall wasn't on my hit list it seemed popular with the locals so I stopped and got in line. I don't know what I pointed at but I ended up getting what seemed to be a classic Jianbing albeit the crepe was purple. Everything else about it was very similar in flavor, texture, taste to those I've tried here.
Jianbing from the stand outside Beixinqiao Station
While it's noodle dishes is where Beijing thrives this is still China so there's good dumplings to be had too. The ones at Dalian Huoshao are long, pan-fried, and cigar shaped. They're said to have been invented in Beijing. The story goes that a
street vendor in the north of the city originally wrapped up these
dumplings to be sold alongside his popular hot and sour soup. The name
comes from the rolled-cloth rucksack market goers used to ferry goods. Not exactly an appealing description but damn these were good. I noticed the place was packed so I ended up sharing a table with some grandmas and their grandkids. Though we spoke different languages we were still able to bond over our love for the dumplings. Service was average at best but those dumplings were damn delicious.
Dumplings at Dalian Huoshao
Wang Pang Zi Donkey Burger
I didn't exactly go to Beijing with the idea of eating donkey meat burgers, but I was open to the idea. So when I saw the famous Wang Pang Zi Donkey Burger while walking I had no choice but to stop and get my Andrew Zimmern on. Donkey meat is popular in Northern China and Wang Pang Zi is the gold standard. It's like the Johnnie's Beef of Donkey Burgers. Which aren't actually burgers. The donkey meat is more like beef stew meat than a hamburger patty. It's tender and also reminded me of lengua. It's served inside a really wonderful toasted roll that gets cut open and stuffed with the tender donkey meat as well as fresh diced jalapeno. Bc it tasted so much like pot roast I found it to be very much to my liking. If you can stand the fact you're eating donkey meat you'll enjoy it too I think.
Donkey Burger at Wang Pang Zi Donkey Burger
A Bu Noodles in the Hopson One Mall
While browsing one of Beijing’s mega malls I stopped for lunch at one of the 200 restaurants on offer. Yes you read that right. 200 eating options. Where does one even start? Luckily the folks at The Beijinger
do a great job highlighting the city’s non stop food options. This semi new sprawling mall was alive and kicking when I visited. Luckily it was semi easy to find bc it's located in the basement in an area called 21st Block where there's more than 60 stalls selling damn near everything you could think of as far as different Asian food goes. Everything. A Bu Noodles is a chain from the Qinghai region. I knew I wanted some Qinghai style yak noodle soup when I read about it. It’s a soul warming bowl as the province of Qinghai is spread across the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau. The broth is bold from boiled yak bones while the yak meat was just as tender but richer than your average cut of cow. You can watch as noodles are hand stretched on site. I ate quite a few noodle dishes this trip and these were the best as far as texture. It's tough to name favorites but this was one of them.
Yak Noodle Soup from A Bu Noodles in the Hopson One Mall
Pang Mei Mian Zhuang
While there's always a handful of places on my must visit list when traveling, there's usually one that gets the royal treatment. Meaning I get there by any means necessary. Even if that includes waiting in a long ass line. Bc that's what you will do when you arrive to the famous Pang Mei Noodle Shop via Chongqing - one of China’s most noodle obsessed regions Pang Mei is a popular noodle shop that also has a location in Beijing. I read about this bowl of Wanza Mian over at one of my favorite culinary travel websites - Culinary Backstreets. It sounded like my type of spot and it most definitely was. The peppers are flown in fresh from Chongqing while the
noodles are made on site and resemble ramen as they’re made with alkaline
water. Topped with yellow peas, and spicy pork and rounded out with
their secret spicy sauce. I can’t begin to describe the flavors bc I was
too busy inhaling what was without a doubt the spiciest bite this trip.
If this dish isn’t one of China’s best kept culinary secrets I have
some major digging to do. I've ever felt my tongue tingle quite like this. Must stop spot.
Wanza Mian at Pang Mei Noodles
Hot Dry noodles are a classic Wuhan dish, the
capital of the Hubei province in central China. Reganmian has a long
history in Chinese food and culture and is typically eaten as a breakfast food in
Wuhan. In it's native land it's popular on the streets but as mentioned Beijing doesn't much have much of a street food scene left anymore. So spots like Morning Noodles are becoming the norm. This means locations below hotels and ordering off an iPad. It also means a near spotless dining area and decent service and such. It's all part of China's boom into the 21st century. Not that I have any experience prior to this but the food seems to be the same. At least in terms of locals and such continuing to enjoy it. Lots of younger folks here as well as a few well informed tourists like myself. I'm sure there's better to be found but these signature hot and dry noodles were just about perfect. Sitting at the bottom of the bowl is a spicy sesame paste meant to coat the noodles as seen below.
Regan Mian at Morning Noodles
Search where to find good dumplings in Beijing and the first result will most always be Baoyuan Dumplings. Beijing’s reigning king of dumpling houses serves six to an
order with no minimum. Dumpling wrappers come in the standard white,
along with orange, purple, and green which are colored by vegetable
juice. These are most certainly popular with the social media crowd. I noticed quite a few Caucasians here. But also plenty of Chinese people. All of them there for the steamed dumplings that come offered in enough filling options to take up a few pages of menu space.
Dumplings at Baoyuan Dumplings
Now for the Grand Finale. You cant go to Beijing and not partake in one of the seven wonders of the food world. Peking Duck in it's natural habitat. I decided we would wait until the final night to get our Peking Duck on. Some would probably wonder why and I guess it was bc of the fact I wasn't planning on eating Peking Duck more than once. I wanted to try all the other things leading up to this. Well looking back maybe we should have ate it twice. Ha. I didn't even know I liked duck quite that much. In fact this isn't a dish I've gone out for anywhere else. Then again I'd never been to Beijing before this. This is the city where roasted duck can be found on damn near every block. It's been prepared regularly in the city since the Imperial era. There's no city as attached to a single dish as this.
Cutting of the Duck
It's easy to make room for a Peking Duck dinner but it's hard to figure out where to go for one. Like I said it's regularly available so it'll never be far but of course there's spots where they do it better than others. I'd say there's a handful of places in regular mention when it comes to online searches. After way too much deliberating I decided on a spot called Siju Minfu. My biggest reason for the decision was the fact that everyone who ate here really seemed to enjoy the place and also bc it was the most local of the bunch. Siji Minfu has a few locations and from what I read they all do a stellar job with their Peking Duck dinners. The only thing is there are no reservations so you'll need to plan to go early or later for less of a wait time. We got there maybe around 5:30p (they open at 5p) and ended up waiting around 30 minutes for a table. We weren't the only tourists there but there were far more locals than there were visitors. Despite a large menu every table there knew what they were getting.
Some sort of fruit dish to start
Instead of me trying to describe every last thing we ate I'm going to take you on a visual tour of our Peking Duck dinner and deliver some tips I learned in my research. First things first. You always get a full duck. Even if there's only two of you. Hell even if it's just one. In the end there's not that much meat and if you get a half you'll be paying only a few bucks less than a whole and there's a good chance it's been sitting around and drying out having already been cut. Getting a full duck will ensure you get one of the freshest ones at a spot like Siju Minfu where they go through 100's of them a night.
Prawns Simmered in Tomato sauce
Aside from the obvious the other menu item that got lots of love online was the prawns simmered in tomato sauce. So we went ahead and got a plate of that as an app. Very good but it was kind of like the opening act at the concert of your all time favorite musician. It was just a warm up for what was to come. Your full duck meal entitles you to said full duck which will arrive somewhere near your table-side for the cutting. Before that comes out though you get a bowl of duck bone soup. It's a cloudy bowl of broth with very subtle flavors. Not the best soup you'll have in China but it did hit the spot.
Duck Bone Soup
When you order your duck you'll be asked about pancakes and such. They cost a bit extra but it's not a Peking Duck dinner without all of that. Siju Minfu had some of the thinnest pancakes and from what I read maybe the best of them all. Along with them you'll receive a tray consisting of little tidbits to top your duck meat pancake with. The sugar is probably the most crucial topping of them all. When sprinkled on the duck it goes from really good to damn near magical. It will make you moan.
Toppings for your Duck Panckes
As mentioned the duck isn't cut up until you order it. You can watch as the dedicated slicers work perfect cuts into the flesh which equates to three different plates. First up is the grand daddy of them all. This was the skin paired with the meat from the belly. One of the things that made me choose Siji Minfu was all the praise given to the skin on their ducks. It was some of the most succulent anything I've ever had. I could spend an entire day sitting at a table eating nothing but it with a sprinkle of sugar on top. The best damn meat candy I can remember. Worth the price of admission as is.
Crispy Skin and the meat underneath
The next plate you get is everything that was left as far as the bones and such go. This includes the legs and the head. I'd say this plate was least appealing of them all only bc there want much skin.
Duck Bones and Flesh
Then there's the breast meat and all of the skin this was cut up perfectly and made for each little piece being as good or better than the next. As god as the DIY pancakes were the best bites were straight from the plate to mouth. As I had read Siji Minfu is a place where they have mastered the art of the Peking Duck. Ours was cooked perfectly. This meal is a testament to how deep the traditions in China run. I believe this is the type of dish that would only be for special occasions in most other countries. But in Beijing it's as prevalent as a Big Mac and eaten as regularly as McDonald's is elsewhere. That's it for this trip. Stay tuned for the other half which was spent over in Hong Kong.
Peking Duck at Siji Minfu
The Duck Masters at Work
Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE
for my google maps guide to Beijing. Stay tuned for Hong Kong.