Culinary Capitals - Beijing Food and Drink Guide / by Thomas O'Malley

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My Beijing food and drink guide for Le Pan: The Art of Fine Wine Living.

The capital city of the most food-obsessed nation on earth, Beijing is an aromatic melting pot of Chinese and international cuisine, where “have you eaten?” is the standard way of saying hello. Here you can dine like an emperor on banquet favourites like Peking duck, or discover authentic regional fare from migrant mom and pop holes-in-the-wall. As China marches into the 21st century, Beijing is catching up with Shanghai as a destination city for global gastronomy, where east-west chefs are reimagining the restaurant experience for an increasingly urbane dining set.

A northern city state where wheat and corn thrives instead of rice, Beijing food is hearty, salty and fortifying for those winters when the icy winds whip south from the Great Wall. A blend of local influences, Beijing cuisine draws on lu cooking from nearby Shandong province (soups, seafood, eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, steamed breads), the snacks and traditional dishes of the resident Islamic hui community like grilled lamb and hand-pulled noodles, Manchu and Mongol specialities, and grand dishes dreamed up in the old imperial kitchens to satiate the “sons of heaven”.

The local dish on every visitor’s must-eat list is beijing kaoya, otherwise known as Peking duck. Roasted over fruit wood, carved tableside, then wrapped in wafer-thin pancakes with scallions and soybean sauce, it’s a Beijing institution gone global. The dish dates back to the Ming Dynasty, but was popularised in the 19th century by the Quanjude restaurant chain, whoose flagship branch close to Tiananmen Square has fed many a visiting dignitary, including Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro. Yes, “duck diplomacy” is a thing.

Beijing yoghurt is a tradition going back to the Manchu occupation.
Beijing yoghurt is a tradition going back to the Manchu occupation.

But it’s not just duck that sends the locals quackers; mutton is a must-try in Beijing. A large Muslim Chinese community has called the city home for 500 years, their halal habits fueling the popularity of mutton, best enjoyed sliced wafer-thin and dunked into bubbling soup at one of the city’s thousands of DIY hot pot restaurants. Or threaded onto skewers, doused in chili and cumin, and grilled al fresco on every street corner. Streetside is also where you can slurp paper-topped clay jars of youghurt, a nod to the pastoral Mongols and Manchu to the north, or eat xianbing, grilled pucks of minced pork and cabbage (or other fillings) encased in crispy dough.

Home to millions of migrants from every corner of China, Beijingers have taken other cooking styles to heart; none more so than the spicy, fragrant fare of Sichuan province. Gui Jie, or Ghost Street, is the city’s preeminent destination for spice and oil, where folks queue up to gorge on shuizhuyu (fish cooked in bubbling spicy oil) and mala xiaolongxia (spicy crayfish stew).

The Restaurant Scene

In the early days of the PRC, the restaurant scene in Beijing comprised a few gloopy state-owned eateries; it wasn’t until 1979 that the first private restaurant opened - a tiny eatery called Yue Bin in an alley close to the National Art Musuem that sold soy-braised pork hock and stuffed tofu parcels (it still does). Fast forward to 2015 and beijing is a truly global food city, with trends taking hold at a startling rate.

Americana has held sway in the last couple of years, with craft beer bars, gourmet burgers, hipster tacos and authentic barbecue joints popping up all over town. Moving up the value chain, fine-dining Italian has proved a recipe for success, attracting luminaries like Umberto Bombana from three michelin starred 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong, who put his name to Opera Bombana in 2013, a restaurant that spars with Mio in the Four Seasons for the accolade of Beijing’s best Italian restaurant.

Short rib and beef tenderloin at Opera Bombana.
Short rib and beef tenderloin at Opera Bombana.

The response to various food scandals in China has seen a rise in eateries with a focus on wellness, organic produce and and sourcing, along with a smidgen of the vegan, vegetarian and raw. New brunch spot Green Cow Café sources all its fare from its own organic farm on Beijing’s northern outskirts, while recently opened organic joint Tribe is all about immunity-boosting juices and crowd-pleasing quinoa salads.

When it comes to Chinese fine-dining, top chefs are eschewing the safe but staid dim-sum and Cantonese roast meat formula and beginning to tinker and toy with the local cuisine. The city’s snack culture was probably long overdue a spruce-up, but new spots like Country Kitchen in the Rosewood Hotel are building on the efforts of Beijing stalwart Made in China by making local fare sexy – think clay-pot roasted pork belly, posh pot-stickers and knife-cut noodles in a rustic-chic dining space.

Drinking in Beijing

It used to be that the Hard Rock Café (now closed) was the only place in town where a mixed drink didn’t mean tea leaves and water, but today’s Beijing is the equal to anywhere in Asia for a night on the tiles.

The commercial district of Sanlitun has always been ground zero for nightlife, but these days the savvy drinkers are heading to the hutongs to bar-hop between an ever-growing roster of personality-rich establishments popping up in old courtyard homes among the city’s warren of traditional alleyways. You can choose from a fine selection of imported single malts at cosy date-space Amilal, savor an impeccable Old Fashioned at Mai Bar before catching a puk show at Mao Livehouse, all in the space of a couple of a city block.

Local revellers crowd out the impressively ritzy clubs and luxe karaoke joints that skirt the Worker’s Stadium, where dancefloor space is given over to see-and-be-seen private tables, and champagne is the libation of choice. But Beijingers are also getting in on the craft beer craze that exploded in the capital since 2010, thanks largely to the work of US-China collaboration Great Leap Brewing, an enterprise that started in a dusty, hard-to-find courtyard annex and now has three fantastic brewpub venues across town, not to mention a host of worthy disciples like Jing A, Slow Boat Brewery and NBeer.