However, I don’t even mention the many yummy bowls of noodles I had or even the simple vegetable dishes with rice that made up my day to day. It is also worth knowing that many places are happened upon and you have to be a little adventurous to discover these places and just go for it and point to those incomprehensible characters on the menu, hoping for the best. That’s how some of the best dishes are found! The last time I did that though I did get a duck soup with all the parts of the duck included, all of the parts. But hey, what is a trip to china without the odd square of congealed duck blood!
Hotpot (火鍋Huǒ guō)
When in China, one meal you cannot miss out on trying is traditional hotpot. Every region has its own way of preparing this dish but when in Beijing, eat Beijing hotpot. Gather a few friends and sit around a table where in the middle there will be a large brass pot sporting a chimney filled with hot coals cooking the fragrant broth situated in a donut shaped bowl around it. This is a meal I would suggest would be best if you brought your Chinese friends along as ordering from the menu can get a bit tricky. What you need to do is order a bunch of raw ingredients to cook inside your broth. Popular choices include thin cuts of beef and lamb, tofu, mushrooms, a leafy vegetable selection, more meat. Then when these arrive you choose what you want to eat and with your chopsticks pop it in the boiling broth and wait for it to cook. Generally as all the ingredients are cut up into nice small chunks it doesn’t take too long before you’re fishing out those delicious meats and dipping it in the accompanying sesame sauce. One of the best things about hotpot is that it is a very social dinner outing where the emphasis is on sharing and helping each other. Also an awesome opportunity to practice your mandarin, especially that food vocabulary!
If you’re on the lookout for some fast food Beijing style then try this out. Malatang literally translates to “spicy and hot” and originates from Sichuan province but is now very popular amongst Beijingers. It is similar in a way to hotpot and exists as a street food but now more commonly is set up in small restaurants where locals flock by the dozens during their lunch hours. It’s a soup but the interesting part is you’re in control of everything that goes in it. Rows upon rows of tuppleware are filled with all kinds of leaves, vegetables, tofu, mushrooms and meats for you to choose from, which ones you’d like and how much you’d like. You then put your selection in a bowl as you go along and maybe add some noodles, then, take it up to the front where it is charged by weight. As it cooks you prepare a small bowl of dipping sauce with peanut paste, vinegar and chilli to taste. Ready in minutes, warm and delicious.
Peking duck (北京烤鴨Běijīng kăoyā)
Undeniably a famous Beijing dish, it is popular for a reason and you may even recognise this one from your own Chinese takeaway menu back home. The only difference is it is non-comparable! These ducks are prepared in a traditional way which goes back to the Ming Dynasty. Firstly, air is blown in-between the skin and flesh to separate them, and then the duck is boiled and hung to dry. As it dries it is marinated in layers of a syrupy sauce. It is subsequently cooked, whilst still hung on a hook, in a special furnace where the skin becomes golden and crispy. Once ready, the duck is professionally sliced up and presented on a plate with the golden skin on top and meat on the bottom. This is then eaten with thinly sliced cucumber, spring onions and a sweet bean sauce all wrapped up in a pancake. I can’t even describe how good this is! That’s not all, the leftovers from your cut up roasted duck is then made in to a broth and served alongside the pancakes. I’m starting to feel hungry again…
Bubbletea (珍珠奶茶Zhēnzhū nǎichá)
My guilty China pleasure is bubbletea or milk tea. A delicious and sweet takeaway drink originating from Taiwan. I have been known to have one a day. You’ll see many young Chinese girls out shopping sipping their plastic cups of milk tea. Bubbletea shops are found on most streets and laminated menus tend to have English on them. Traditional milk tea is a strong black tea base flavoured with condensed milk and sweet syrup with hot or icey cold water added. Tapioca balls, otherwise known as bubbles or pearls, are added and the cup goes through a fun contraption which seals the lid. Then with a wide straw you puncture the lid and enjoy the milk tea goodness! Watch out as you suck up the bubbles through your straw though as they can catch you by surprise! Many other flavours are available of both the tea and the bubbles. If a milky drink doesn’t quite appeal to you, these shops also do similar lemon ice teas which are equally yummy. Try the kumquat flavour, it’s my favourite!
Street food: Chuar (串儿Chuàner)
The first time I came to China over 5 years ago, street food was still abundant and there were many makeshift restaurants set up on street corners with plastic chairs and tables and good, cheap fast food. Nowadays, Beijing has clamped down on many of the street vendors making street food a little bit more of a rarity. One street food which seems to have survived, however, is chuar. Chuar is basically barbecued things on a stick and it is delicious. Look at the first character in the name: 串, it looks like things on a stick, what you see is what you get! Street stalls range from having a menu to having the sticks laid out in front of you. Choose from popular sticks such as mutton, sweet chicken wings, fish flavoured tofu and my new favourite: enoki mushroom wrapped in bacon. The boss will then cook these on a charcoal grill and flavour them with his mysterious spices. Warning: (as with most Chinese food) if you don’t want it spicy, mention that before they start cooking! Then your sticks are brought to your plastic chair on a silver (well, metal) platter and bon appetite! A plentiful supply of tissues is needed, as it can get messy! Once you’re done your sticks are counted up and you pay the bill. Perfect as a quick snack with a beer or after a night out when you’ve drunk too many of those beers.
Cooking class: Dumplings(饺子Jiǎozi)
Lastly, why not make your own food! I love eating out in China because it is so affordable and there is so much variety. However, when I return home to the UK I have a longing for authentic Chinese food which isn’t as easy (or wallet friendly) to find as I’d like. So I thought I’d try a cooking class for the first time and it was so much fun, I would highly recommend it. I chose to learn how to make dumplings (饺子Jiǎozi), as they are my absolute favourite. I was so surprised that we started from scratch with all the raw ingredients, flour and water, then after a few hours we were eating our own delicious creations which tasted like a skilled Chinese Grandma had taken all day to make! OK, maybe not that good, but close! Chinese dumplings are popular throughout the different provinces in China but especially so in the North. They are traditionally made for Chinese New Year where families gather together and have a go at folding the dough parcels. The beauty is they can be filled with meat or veg and can be adapted to contain whatever filling you like. Not only that but all the ingredients are easy to find in your local supermarket so when you are recounting your tales of China to your friends back at home why not impress them with a plate of freshly cooked dumplings!
I would like to sneakily mention that on many street corners of Beijing, especially very early in the morning, you can find delicious handmade dumpling for very cheap. Think of it as research for your new culinary adventure or a perfect snack after a night out!
Other blogs from Marissa:
Marissa Wilson, a teaching intern from Winter 2009 Teach & Travel China; was placed in Zhejiang on a 6-month teaching internship; a student in Medicine from Glasgow University; currently working in London as a doctor