When making a culinary trip to Beijing, hutongs are a must – there are many foodie finds among the traditional courtyards. However, if there are more of you or if you are travelling with young children (or even just want a roomier sit-down environment), give Ju Qi (局气) or Jing Wei Zhai (京味斋) a go.
Ju Qi, named after a Beijingese word for having poise (being liberal and gallant) that captures the spirit of the people, has been extremely popular for the past two years. There is generally no booking, and the queues can be long, so get there early. Their chef’s specials come on a special wooden plaque “menu” on your table, and their special fried rice in the shape of a traditional “honeycomb” coal (below), is trademarked – watch it being lit at your table.
The more straightforwardly named Jing Wei Zai (a taste of Beijing) is a chain, though the type of stigma against chains is not there in China. It prides itself in good food, good atmosphere and outstanding service, so you will find their promises written on every table, which include: all food delivered to your table within 30 minutes of placing your order. Among the traditionally Beijing dishes and nostalgic decor, are also national favourites like Squirrel Fish (Song Su Yu), cooked to crispy perfection.
We went to taste a small range of what Beijing has to offer at both restaurants.
If you think of Beijing cuisine, Peking duck is often the first thing to come to mind. There are two schools of Peking duck, with varying oven techniques, heading by Bianyifang (the oldest Peking Duck restaurant, founded in 1416) and Quanjude (arguably the most famous Peking Duck restaurant). Bianyifang uses the menlu roast technique, which yields a less oily-tasting duck, and this is the school that Jingweizhai follows. Qujude’s galu roast technique, on the other hand, gives a particularly crispy skin, which you can also find at Juqi.
Both offer the duck with pancakes and all the trimmings, though as skin is a greater focus at Juqi, you can ask for them to roast a character for “fu” (luck) on the skin of the duck! The duck also comes with jumping candy, and dipping the skin in this makes a particularly exciting tasting experience.
Douji (fermented mung bean juice)
Douji(er) is definitely the most (in)famous out of Beijing’s snacks. It’s said that you are only really a Beijingese if you enjoy its acquired taste. The taste is a little sour and, well, fermented. If you want to give it a go, it’s best served with crispy fried dough rings and available at Jingweizhai.
You can find packs of imperial dimsums in many gift shops, but these are supposed to be super soft, so fresh is best! The most famous four include green/yellow split pea cake, kidney bean roll, rolling donkey rice cake (no meat involved!) and green bean cake. Of these, the rolling donkey rice (below, right) cake is perhaps the most famous – made from soft glutinous rice flour with mung bean paste and brown sugar, the rolled and dusted with soybean flour. The kidney bean roll (yundoujuan, bottom, second left) from Jingweizhai is particularly outstanding and melts in your mouth, and the pretty, flower-shaped yellow split pea cake from Juqi is so soft that you can barely pick it up without it falling apart.
Though Qianlong’s cabbages is named after an emperor, legends go that it’s not part of the imperial cuisine. Emperor Qianlong liked to go around the city undercover. He once came across a tiny family restaurant that served these cabbages, and loved it so much that it became named after him. The key ingredient is plenty of sesame paste! The Chinese cabbage leaves are marinaded in sesame paste, rice vinegar, honey and sugar to form a refreshing accompaniment to meatier dishes.
Candied hawthorn fruits (bingtanghulu)
From imperial cuisine to street food – that’s the variety that Beijing’s traditions have to offer. This is a taste of childhood and nostalgia. Bright red hawthorn fruits are coated with a thin layer of candy, so that when you bite in, there’s a crunch, then the sweetness of the candy blends with the slightly sharp-tasting fruit. Jingweizhai serves this (below) at its best!
The rabbit god (Tuerye)
Some gods are only found in a single city. Tuerye is a rabbit god that’s only part of the folklore in Beijing, and like rabbits in general Chinese folklore, is related to the moon. As part of the more modern Beijing cuisine, this ancient deity has been made into a popular dish for children. It’s basically mashed potatoes with a twist, as seen at Juqi (below), and some also contain mashed pumpkin. It’s of course beautiful inside and out!
These are just a few special foods you can try out in Beijing, but really, the list goes on and on… Fish head soup, lamb and egg, other types of dimsum (such as aiwowo), fried fickle, hot egg pudding (sanbuzhan)… Do you have a favourite of your own?Follow @blenderbasil