Beijing: Eat Like a Local

Jul 24, 2018

You already know about Beijing duck. Your tours and guidebooks will cover that culinary must. But do Montrealers eat poutine every day? Do Chicagoans only dine on deep dish?

Of course not. And Beijingers are no different. If you want to nosh like a native, read on.

Jianbing – a street-food staple

When you order this savoury crepe from street-cart vendors, you’re in for a show.

They sweep a blob of batter into a perfect circle on a flattop griddle, load it with flavour-packed toppings like hot peppers and coriander, then finish it off with a deep-fried noodle crisp for an audible crunch.

This quintessential Beijing street food is so ubiquitous it even sparked a hit comedy called Jian Bing Man. (Watch out for the Jean-Claude Van Damme cameo.)

Find it: Any street cart or stall bearing “煎饼,” like Da Hua Pancake, a local favourite that tends to attract long lines.

Dumplings – a northern Chinese classic

Forget the pork-only oil bombs you know from the Chinese restaurant down the street. Real Beijing dumplings are most often boiled, not fried, and come stuffed with everything from mackerel to Japanese tofu. Pour some vinegar and chili oil onto a side plate for an authentic dip.

Find it: Most northern Chinese restaurants serve dumplings (called jiaozi, or 饺子). Our favourite places are Xian Lao Man and Baoyuan Dumplings.

Hot pot – an excuse for a group huddle

Nothing brings people together more than gathering around a single bowl of scrumptiousness. That’s why hot pot is the ultimate social ritual. Everyone chimes in with what they want to throw into the communal cauldron – be it beef, bok choy or enoki mushrooms – and, when the food comes, everyone ladles from the same pot.

Broths vary from simple chicken to spicy Sichuan. After your delectables finish cooking, dunk them in your personally concocted dipping sauce: Locals usually start with a hefty glob of sesame paste as their base, then decorate it with everything from chives and garlic to barbecue sauce and crushed peanuts.

Find it: Haidilao outlets are hands down the best hot pot joints in Beijing. Check out the chain’s Wangfujing location near the Forbidden City or the Baijiazhuang one near foreigner-friendly Sanlitun. Reservations are highly recommended; these places are always packed. Order noodles to get a noodle dance!

Roujiamo – the "Chinese hamburger"

Although it's acquired this moniker recently, this pork pocket’s name literally translates to “meat wedged into steamed buns.” Vendors stew the pork in a mishmash of seasonings and nestle it into a split flatbread that’s at once chewy but crispy on the outside. Dribble chili oil into your Beijing burger before consumption to eat like a pro.

Find it: Roujiamo vendors litter the city; many hawk mediocre food. But one hole-in-the-wall that blew us away was Little Shaanxi Doll near the National Art Museum of China.

Lanzhou beef noodles – savoury simplicity

Lanzhou noodle joints only offer one dish: noodles. But they make them in nine different forms. Choose from shapes like the “big and wide” (大宽), the “chive leaves” (韭叶), and the “capillary” (毛细).

Cooks will slice the noodles right in front of you from an enormous pillow of dough, sling them into a boiling pot with a dozen other customers’ orders, then magically remove only your noodles and slosh them into your bowl. Top it with slivers of beef that plump up in broth.

Find it: This is our favourite location, a 10-minute walk west of Dongsi Shitiao subway station on Line 2, but any restaurant with a yellow headboard and red font displaying "中國蘭州牛肉拉麵" will satisfy.

Lamb skewers – cheapest street eats

Half the fun of buying these street-side kebabs is watching the dance your order sets in motion.

The vendor plucks a few sticks from his skewer bouquet, balances them atop a coal-filled trough, showers them with a mix of cumin and chili flakes, then blasts them with a hair dryer to pump up the coals’ heat.

Vendors tend to pop up on street corners around 10 p.m. and will stay out as late as hungry clientele want their wares. At just a few yuan (about $0.40) per stick, this is one of the capital’s cheapest treats.

Find it: Any stall or restaurant sporting the character for these kebabs, 串, which conveniently looks just like a kebab itself.

Before joining Travelzoo’s Toronto team, Brittney Wong studied and worked in Beijing for four and a half years.

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