5 Places to Try Regional Cuisine in Beijing
A culinary tour of China from the comfort of the capital. By M. Rose/ Photographed by Katharina Hesse
Published on May 22, 2013
Beijing is not known as a culinary hotspot, unless you’re looking for roast duck or the “imperial cuisine” that’s a fixture of state banquets. But as the capital of the People’s Republic of China, it has a unique edge: hundreds of municipal branch offices representing China’s 30-odd provinces and autonomous regions. Whether out of homesickness or marketing sense, many of these bureaus have restaurants featuring the local cooking, meaning you can travel the breadth of China’s culinary landscape without ever leaving Beijing. Here are a few favorites, but be warned: while each of these restaurants has English on the menu, they aren’t for chopstick neophytes. Be ready to separate meat chunks from bone with your teeth.
Gongyuan Shulou is probably the best known of the provincial bureau restaurants, at least among expats, who refer to it by the abbreviation “Chuan Ban.” Hidden in a hutong near Jianguomen Subway Station, it was renovated last year, and now comes with ersatz classical touches, such as round wooden window portals that separate tables and offer a little privacy. Even though the dishes are slightly toned down to accomodate the bland Beijing palate, the chili-averse may want to avoid this place: a meal here leaves your mouth either burning hot or oddly numb. While some of the food here you’ll find at any Chinese restaurant—such as gongbao jiding (kung pao chicken) and mapo doufu (the classic numb-and-spicy tofu dish)—there is also less-ubiquitous grub to be had. Most of the food will be submerged in a pungent red oil or heaped in dried chilies, so start instead with the sweet-sauce drenched dapai, a big rack of pork ribs that takes 40 minutes to prepare. Then test your tolerance for heat with the koushuiji (chicken in chili sauce) and shuizhuyu (“water boiled fish,” which, despite its name, is actually immersed in oil). Other options include Chongqing classics, such as laziji (chilies fried with chicken), maoxue wang (a hodgepodge of tripe and congealed blood cubes), and even rabbit. 5 Gongyuan West St., First Alley, Jianguomen Inner St., Dongcheng District; +86 10 6512 2277, ext. 6101.
Huaiyang cuisine doesn’t have the same name recognition of the other great Chinese food traditions such as Cantonese or Sichuan, but if you’ve eaten xiao long bao (soup dumplings) then you’ve had it. Strictly speaking, it refers to food from Jiangsu, but the term has evolved to represent the dishes of neighboring regions as well. That explains why Nanguo Zi Yuxuan, just north of Andingmen Subway Station, doesn’t just serve Jiangsu classics like Wuxi-style pork ribs or Nanjing-style yanshuiya (“salt-water duck”), but also fish from Zhejiang and Hubei provinces. Other quintessential choices at this upscale, atmospheric venue include shizitou (“lion’s head” meatball) and xiangyoushanhu (a fried eel dish), as well as dazhugansi (stewed shredded bean curd), Xuzhou-style tofu, and malantou (a local green). If all these seem too mundane, then more intrepid eaters can test their mettle against yaxue fensitang, a soup with congealed duck’s blood and glass noodles. Jiangsu Hotel, 1 Ganshui Bridge, Andingmen Outer St., Chaoyang District; +86 10 6422 4806.
Urumqi (Xinjiang Autonomous Region)
Xinjiang Fanzhuang, tucked into the Urumqi branch office just west of Chegongzhuang Subway Station, is one of several restaurants in the capital representing China’s far western Xinjiang Autonomous Region. It’s so popular you’ll see even Xinjiang tourists having a meal at this bustling eatery. The cinema-marquee-style entrance is surprisingly easy to miss, except for the stacks of boxes outside— regional specialties being sold in bulk. While waiting for a table, you can work up an appetite haggling over blackcurrant raisins, Hetian dates, Korla fragant pears, dried apricots and Hami melons (similar to cantaloupe). Once seated, you can treat yourself to the usual Uighur fare—the meat is Halal—with the assurance that the servings won’t skimp on the meat. Get a half portion of the nangbaorou (lamb meat on a flatbread), and the basic dapanji (“big plate chicken”). Follow that with guoyou roubanmian (greasy pulled noodles with lamb). Or, for a simple lunch, try the lamb dumplings, along with a plate of yellow rice and a cold tossed radish salad. Don’t forget to finish off any meal with a cup of yogurt sprinkled with raisins and sesame seeds. Afterwards, you can pick up a flaky dessert or a traditional nang flatbread to go. 1 Chegongzhuang North Alley, Xicheng District; +86 10 6836 2795.
Dali (Yunnan Province)
Dali, in China’s southwest Yunnan province, is a backpacker favorite, but in Beijing, you can skip the verdant mountain trek in favor a short stroll down an alley just west of Lingjing Hutong Subway Station. Dali is the seat of a Bai minority autonomous prefecture, so the food at the Butterfly Spring Hotel Chinese Restaurant is not your typical Chinese cuisine. Like most other Yunnanese restaurants, its offerings include wild mushrooms as well as fried insects, but you can also satisfy your urge for the exotic by trying dishenzi (wild ginseng), or a juice misleadingly referred to on the menu as mugua shui (“papaya water”) but that is actually made from a local plant called bingfen. You’ll also want to sample a dish with zhusun, an edible fungus that grows in bamboo groves. A variety of combo platters also let you graze more broadly. Try the rubing (fried goat cheese) paired with a wispy fried meigui rushanjuan (“rose-flavored cheese fan roll”) and the hongheisanduo, which is a DIY minced-meat taco plate. For seafood, skip the inexplicable sushi section, and dive right into the Dai (another ethnic minority) grilled fish. Don’t forget a small qiguo (“steam pot”) soup or the Yunnan-style mashed potatoes. Instead of rice, slurp down some mixian, round rice noodles that are a Yunnan specialty, or the ersi—flat strips of rice noodle—which are even harder to come by. Butterfly Spring Hotel, 55 Xidan North St. West Byway, Xicheng District; +86 10 6615 6583.
Wuhan (Hubei Province)
Wuhan, a smoggy metropolis straddling the Yangtze River, isn’t usually a food destination, but Ese Tianhu, southwest of Jinsong Subway Station, offers a good sample of wholesome heartland flavors. Hubei food is, in fact, similar to its more famous—and spicier—counterpart in Hunan, from where Mao himself hailed. To cover the best of both traditions, the menu takes up not a little red book, but, rather, a coffee table-size tome. If you have any questions, just ask—people from Hubei are renowned for having the gift of gab, and, if you can get past the language barrier, they’re sure to chat you up. Worth tasting are the steamed Yangtze river fish (beware of bones), latizi dun ou (braised pig trotter with lotus) and fenzhengrou (a steamed rice mound filled with fatty pork slices), as are the bozi changdoujiao, (a kind of string beans) and the steamed zhenzhu ouyuan (“pearl lotus balls”). For something distinctly Wuhanese, order a plate of the jiangbanya (a spicy duck cold dish). Or instead of plain rice, try the fried rice-and-bean cakes (sanxian doupi), a tasty Wuhan street snack.Wuhan Mansion, 16 Jinsong South Rd., Chaoyang District; +86 10 6775 0116.