Běijīng is a magnificent place for culinary adventures. With upwards of 60,000 restaurants here, you can enjoy the finest local dishes, as well as eating your way through every region of China. Some of your most memorable Běijīng experiences will take place around the dining table. So do as the locals do – grab those chopsticks and dive in.
The Chinese pride themselves on unwavering generosity in public and the arrival of the bill (买单; mǎidān) among a group of diners is an excuse for some elaborate histrionics. People push each other aside and almost fight for the right to pay, but generally it is the host who does and if he didn’t he would lose face.
Splitting the bill is less common here than in the West, so if you invite someone out for dinner, be prepared to foot the bill. And remember that most places will expect you to settle it in hard cash; only top-end restaurants take credit cards.
Need to Know
Běijīng restaurants are mostly open from around 10am to 11pm, although there are quite a few that run 24/7. Many shut after lunch and reopen at 5pm. Generally, the Chinese eat much earlier than Westerners, lunching from 11am and having dinner at about 6pm.
Be warned that some restaurants in tourist areas still fob off foreigners with an English menu (英文菜单; yīngwén càidān) that has higher prices than the Chinese menu (中文菜单; zhōngwén càidān). Generally, though, most places have picture and/or English menus.
With the exception of upmarket restaurants, service can often be erratic and/or lackadaisical. Unless you’re in a restaurant serving foreign food, don’t expect the waiting staff to speak English.
There are nonsmoking signs in almost all Běijīng restaurants these days, but that doesn’t mean they are adhered to. Smoking is still commonplace in some eateries.
Tipping is not standard practice in Běijīng. Leave a tip in a local restaurant and the waiter will likely come after you saying you’ve forgotten your change. Some upmarket Western places, though, do tack on a service charge to the bill, as do high-end hotel restaurants.
You’d have to be quackers to leave Běijīng without trying Peking duck (北京烤鸭; Běijīng kǎoyā), the capital's most iconic dish. Its origins go back as far as the 13th century and the Yuan dynasty, when it was listed in royal cookbooks. But it wasn’t until imperial rule in China came to an end in 1911 that most ordinary people got the chance to try it, as the former palace cooks set up roast-duck restaurants around Běijīng.
Chefs go through a lengthy process to prepare the duck. First the birds are inflated by blowing air between the skin and body. The skin is then pricked and boiling water poured all over the duck. Sometimes the skin is rubbed with malt sugar to give it an amber colour, before being hung up to air-dry and then roasted in the oven. When roasted, the flesh becomes crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The bird is then meticulously cut into slices and served with fermented-bean paste, light pancakes, sliced cucumbers and green onions.
Vegetarians & Vegans
China has a 1000-year-plus tradition of Taoist and Buddhist philosophers who abstained from eating animals. But with an equally long history of poverty and famine in China, eating meat is a sign of status and many Chinese regard vegetarianism as a strange Western concept.
However, there are an increasing number of vegetarian (吃素的人; chīsùderén) eateries, while many Buddhist temples also have vegetarian restaurants. Nevertheless, vegetarian food consists often of ‘mock-meat’ dishes made from tofu, wheat gluten and vegetables. Some of the dishes are almost works of art, with the ingredients sculpted to look like spare ribs or fried chicken and ‘bones’ created from carrots and lotus roots.
Strict rules of etiquette don’t really apply to Chinese dining, with the notable exception of formal banquets. Table manners are relaxed and get more so as the meal unfolds and the drinks flow. By the end, the table can resemble a battlefield, with empty bottles, stray bones and other debris strewn across it.
Many foreigners get asked if they mind dishes that are là (辣; spicy). If you don’t want very spicy then say ‘bú yào tài là’ (not too spicy). The Chinese believe that a mix of tastes, textures and temperatures is the key to a good meal, so they start with cold dishes and follow them with a selection of hot meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Waiters will expect you to order straightaway after sitting down and will hover at your shoulder until you do. If you want more time, say ‘wǒ huì jiào nǐ’ ('I’ll call you').
Rice often arrives at the end of the meal but if you want it before, just ask. The mainland Chinese dig their chopsticks into communal dishes, or spoons will be used to ladle out the food, but don’t root around for a piece of food. Instead, identify it first and go directly to it without touching what’s around it. Bones can be deposited in your side dish, or even on the table itself. If you’re in doubt about what to do, just follow the example of the people around you.
Most people get to grips with chopsticks quickly out of necessity (it’s either that or go on an involuntary crash diet), but don’t feel embarrassed if you struggle at first; there’s no shame in dropping a dumpling.
Until recently, only posh places handed out their own, reusable chopsticks, while cheap joints relied on disposable wooden ones. The disposable ones are more hygienic but with China producing close on 60 billion pairs of them a year, which is an awful lot of bamboo, they are not environmentally friendly. If you don’t want to use them but are worried about cleanliness, consider carrying your own chopsticks.
Off the main roads is a world of steaming food stalls and eateries teeming with activity. Eat this way and you will be dining as many Beijingers do. Breakfast can be easily catered for with a yóutiáo (油条; deep-fried dough stick), a sip of dòuzhī (豆汁; bean-curd drink) or a bowl of zhōu (粥; rice porridge). Other snacks include the crunchy, pancake-like jiānbǐng (煎饼). The heavy meat-filled ròubǐng (肉饼; cooked bread filled with finely chopped pork) are lifesavers and very cheap. A handy vegetarian option is jiǔcài bǐng (韭菜饼; bread stuffed with cabbage, chives, leek or fennel and egg). Dàbǐng (大饼; a chunk of round, unleavened bread sprinkled with sesame seeds) can be found everywhere, and of course there’s mántou (馒头; steamed bread).
Hóngshǔ (红薯; baked sweet potatoes) are cheap and filling and sold during winter. Málà tàng (麻辣烫) is a spicy noodle soup that's very warming in winter, and has chunks of dòufu (豆腐; bean curd), cabbage and other veggies – choose your own ingredients from the trays. Also look out for ròu jiāmó (肉夹馍), a scrumptious open-your-mouth-wide bun filled with meat, chilli and garlic shoots. But perhaps the most ubiquitous Běijīng snack is kǎo yángròu chuàn (烤羊肉串; lamb kebabs), which are sold throughout the city at all times of the day and night.
Desserts & Sweets
The Chinese do not generally eat dessert (甜点, tiándiǎn) but fruit is considered an appropriate end to a good meal. Western influence has added ice cream to the menu in some restaurants, but in general sweet stuff is consumed as snacks and is seldom available in restaurants.
All of China’s cuisines converge on Běijīng, from far-flung Tibet to the hardy northeast, the arid northwest and the fecund south. The most popular cooking styles are from Sìchuān, Shànghǎi, Hong Kong, Guǎngdōng (Cantonese) and Běijīng itself. If you want to explore China’s full compendium of cuisines, Běijīng is the place to start.
Běijīng’s native cuisine (京菜; jīngcài) is classified as a ‘northern cuisine’ and is in one of the four major styles of cooking in China. Peking duck apart, many popular dishes, such as hotpot (火锅; huǒguō), have their origins in Mongolia and arrived in the wake of Genghis Khan. Běijīng’s bitter winters mean that warm, filling dishes are essential. Typically, they are made with wheat or millet, whose most common incarnations are delicious dumplings (饺子; jiǎozi) or noodles, which are preferred to rice in the capital. Vegetables are more limited, so there is a heavy reliance on freshwater fish and chicken. Cabbage and turnips, as well as yams and potatoes, are some of the most ubiquitous vegetables found on menus.
Two of the region’s most famous culinary exports – Mongolian barbecue and Mongolian hotpot – are adaptations from Mongol field kitchens. Animals that were hunted on horseback could be dismembered and cooked with wild vegetables and onions using soldiers’ iron shields on top of hot coals as primitive barbecues. Alternatively, each soldier could use his helmet as a pot, filling it with water, meat, condiments and vegetables to taste. Mutton is now the main ingredient in Mongolian hotpot.
Roasting was once considered rather barbaric in other parts of China and is still more common in the northern areas. The main methods of cooking in the northern style, though, are steaming, baking and ‘explode-frying’ (爆炒; bàochǎo), a rapid method of cooking in which the wok is superheated over a flame and the contents tossed in for a swift stir-frying.
Famed as China’s fieriest food, Sìchuān cuisine (川菜) should be approached with caution along with lots of chilled H2O or beer. A concoction of searing red chillis (introduced by Spanish traders in the early Qing dynasty), star anise, peppercorns and pungent ‘flower pepper’ (花椒; huājiāo), a numbing herb peculiar to this cuisine, Sìchuān dishes are simmered to allow the chilli peppers time to seep into the food. Meats are often marinated, pickled or otherwise processed before cooking, which is generally by stir- or explode-frying.
Landlocked Sìchuān is a long way from the coast, so pork, poultry, legumes and dòufu (豆腐; bean curd) are commonly used, and supplemented by a variety of wild condiments and mountain products, such as mushrooms and other fungi, as well as bamboo shoots. Seasonings are heavy: the red chilli is often used in conjunction with Sìchuān peppercorns, garlic, ginger and onions. Hallmark dishes include camphor-smoked duck (樟茶鸭; zhāngchá yā), Granny Ma’s bean curd (麻婆豆腐; Mápó dòufu) and spicy chicken with peanuts (宫保鸡丁; gōngbǎo jīdīng).
Cantonese cuisine (粤菜) is what non-Chinese consider to be ‘Chinese’ food, largely because most émigré restaurateurs originate from Guǎngdōng or nearby Hong Kong. Cantonese flavours are generally more subtle than other Chinese styles and there are very few spicy dishes. Sweet-and-sour and oyster sauces are common. The Cantonese are almost religious about the importance of fresh ingredients, which is why so many restaurants are lined with tanks full of finned and shelled creatures. Stir-frying is by far the favoured method of cooking, closely followed by steaming. Dim sum (点心; diǎnxīn), now a worldwide Sunday institution, originated in this region; to go yum cha (饮茶; Cantonese for ‘drink tea’) still provides most overseas Chinese communities with the opportunity to get together at the weekend. Dim sum can be found in restaurants around Běijīng.
Expensive dishes – some that are truly tasty, others that appeal more for their ‘face’ value – include abalone (鲍鱼; bàoyú), shark fin (鱼翅; yúchì) and bird’s nest (燕窝; yànwō). Eating shark fin is not recommended, as preparing the dish involves cutting the fin off the shark and then throwing the shark back into the water for it to die a painful and lingering death. Pigeon (鸽子; gēzi) is a Cantonese speciality served in various ways but most commonly roasted.
Generally sweeter and oilier than China’s other cooking styles, Shànghǎi cuisine (上海菜) features plenty of fish and seafood, especially cod, river eel and shrimp. Fish is usually qīngzhēng (清蒸; steamed) but can be stir-fried, pan-fried or grilled. Crab-roe dumplings (蟹黄饺子; xièhuáng jiǎozi) are another Shanghainese luxury. Dàzháxiè (大闸蟹; hairy crabs) are a Shànghǎi speciality between October and December. They are eaten with soy, ginger and vinegar and downed with warm Shàoxīng rice wine. They are delicious but can be fiddly to eat. The body opens via a little tab on the underside (don’t eat the gills or the stomach).
Several restaurants specialise in cold salty chicken, while drunken chicken gets its name from being marinated in Shàoxīng rice wine. Bāo (煲; clay pot) dishes are braised for a long time in their own casserole dish. Shànghǎi’s most famous snack is xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包), small dumplings containing a meaty interior bathed in a scalding juice.
Vegetarian dishes include dòufu mèn (焖; braised cabbage in cream sauce); and various types of mushrooms, including xiānggū báicài (香菇白菜; mushrooms surrounded by baby bok choy). Tiger-skin chillies (虎皮尖椒; hǔpí jiānjiāo) are a delicious dish of stir-fried green peppers seared in a wok and served in a sweet chilli sauce. Fried pine nuts and sweet corn (松子炒玉米; sōngzǐ chǎo yùmǐ) is another common Shanghainese dish.
Uighur cuisine (新疆菜) reflects Xīnjiāng’s chequered past. Despite centuries of sporadic Chinese and Mongol rule, the strongest influence on ingredients and methods is still Turkic or Middle Eastern, which is evident in the reliance on mutton for protein and wheat as the staple grain. When rice is eaten, it is often in the Central Asian version of pilau (plov). Nevertheless, the infusion of Chinese culinary styles and ingredients makes Xīnjiāng probably the most enjoyable region of Central Asia in which to eat.
Uighur bread resembles Arabic khoubz (Indian naan) and is baked in ovens based on the tanour (Indian tandoor) model. It is often eaten straight from the oven and sprinkled with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or fennel. Uighur bakers also make excellent girde nan (bagels). Wheat is also used for a variety of noodles. Laghman (拌面; bàn miàn) are the most common: noodles cooked al dente, thick and topped with a combination of spicy mutton, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, green beans and garlic. Suoman are noodle squares fried with tomatoes, peppers, garlic and meat, sometimes quite spicy. Suoman goshsiz is the vegetarian variety.
Kebabs, both shashlik (羊肉串; yángròu chuàn) and tandoori styles, are common, as they are throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Samsas or samsis (烤包子; kǎo bāozi) are the Uighur version of samosas: baked envelopes of meat. Meat often makes an appearance inside chuchura (dumplings; 饺子汤; jiǎozi tāng), which can be steamed or fried.
Běijīng’s emergence as a true world city has revolutionised its dining scene. Now, a whole host of ambitious chefs have descended on the capital, meaning that if you’re pining for a taste of home, you won’t have to travel too far to find it.
Korean and Japanese restaurants are especially plentiful because Běijīng hosts large expatriate communities from those countries, and there are many places specialising in contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, as well as standard Western comfort food such as pizza, pasta, steaks and hamburgers. But whether you’re hankering for Afghan or Turkish food, a burrito or a rogan josh, it’s being served somewhere in the city. For restaurant listings, check the monthly expat magazines.
Even the most selective chef will be able to find just about any ingredient they might want in Běijīng. But if you’re staying in an apartment, you might be stumped by the lack of an oven; Chinese cooking doesn’t call for them.
If you’re after Western food, the following supermarkets and stores cater for foreigners and stock such esoteric delights as imported cheese, French wine, English tea and peanut butter.
Cycle Rickshaw Pancakes
One of the tastiest street-food snacks to be found in Běijīng is the jiānbing (煎饼), a savoury pancake sprinkled with chives and spring onion and rubbed in chilli sauce before being wrapped around a crunchy slice of fried dough. They’re either sold from a hole-in-the-wall stall, or simply off the back of a cycle rickshaw. Ordering is easy, as the vendor generally only sells one type; all you have to decide is whether you want chilli (yào làjiāo) or not (bú yào làjiāo), and then hand over your ¥5.
Jiānbing vendors come and go (especially those working off cycle-rickshaws), but you can often find them outside subway stations. One sometimes hangs out on Gulou Dongdajie, near the junction with Baochao Hutong.
Failing that, head to 153 Yonghegong Dajie to find a permanent hole-in-the-wall jiānbing savoury pancake vendor. About 500m south of Lama Temple, and operating from a window at the front of a restaurant called 春饼京味菜 (Chūnbǐng Jīngwèi Cài), this pancake stall is one of the few that offers a variety of pancake mixes. Choose from millet (小米; xiǎo mǐ – the most popular), mung bean (绿豆; lǜ dòu), glutinous rice (糯米; nuò mǐ) or purple-coloured glutinous rice (紫米; zǐ mǐ).
And while you're here, the window to the left sells damn good bāozi (steamed dumplings; ¥2 each).