For many Westerners like myself, when I think of Chinese food I think of kung pao chicken and fried rice. However, after living in Beijing for over three years, I’ve learned that the Chinese food us foreigners are used to is only one of eight very different regional styles of cuisine in China. Therefore, each regional style is so different it’s like switching from Italian to Indian dishes. The Chinese cuisine most foreigners eat is the Cantonese style which has sweet and sour flavours while in Beijing, they use a lot of sauces and salty flavors and in Sichuan, it’s hot and spicy. All styles have their own delicious, unique flavors and I’ve always wondered, why don’t we have these other styles in western countries?
In Beijing, you can find all these different styles and there’s literally some restaurant, whole in the wall joint or street food hawker everywhere you look. That’s one of the main reasons why I stayed in Beijing for so long. Amazing Chinese food that would cost me less than $5 CAD.
Here’s my top 7 dishes every foreigner should try.
1. Chinese Hot Pot
Hotpot is more than just eating, it’s an experience that’s the best with a group of friends. You will sit down at a table with a large pot in the middle. You first start by choosing the broth you want. There’s a spicy red hot broth for the adventurous, mushroom broth for the vegans, and much more to choose from. Once your broth begins to boil this is where the fun begins! You cook your own meal by putting in strips of meat, veggies, and noodles into the broth. Most of all, the rule to hot pot though is you can only cook a few pieces per person at one time. This way, the meal can easily span out into a few hours and it’s just fun to cook your own food at the table.
My favorite place to go for hot pot in Beijing is Haidilao. There are many locations in Beijing and it’s the place for tourists and locals alike. In addition, make sure you get there early because during peak hours you can easily wait 1-2 hours. It’s ok though because Haidilao has many tables to outside to sit at while waiting and different kinds of snacks and games to play to curb your hunger and keep you entertained. Many locations also offer a manicure station.
Although it will be hard to find someone who can speak English there, you can order with their English written tablet that allows you to pick and choose your favourite meat and veggies from pictures.
What Haidilao does best is service. They will put a seat cover over your purse to prevent it getting dirty. Anyone with glasses will get wipes, women with long hair will receive an elastic band and everyone with a cell phone gets a ziplock bag to put it in to prevent from getting dirty. There’s usually a nice older lady who will be walking around the tables passing out warm hand towels throughout the meal. Lastly, there is the noodle dancer. When you order fresh noodles, a young skinny guy with a boombox will come out and start pulling noodles right at your table. He will swing them in the air, around your head, and play jump rope. Strangely enough, no noodles ever break without breaking a noodle.
All in all hotpot at Haidilao is the place you need to go.
2. Chinese Meat Skewers (Chaun’r)
Plastic tables, kiddie stools, delicious meat on sticks and a Tsingtao beer outside. This is one of my favourite things to do during the summer months. It’s hard to find many cities that offer Chuanr in the outdoors anymore because the government has shut a lot of places down and banned it but luckily you can still find places like this in Beijing. Chaunr is small pieces of meat with spices on sticks which you cook on an open flame. You can choose all different kinds of meat sticks like lamb (yáng ròu), pork (zhū ròu), chicken (jīròu). If you are wanting to try something a bit different, order the chicken hearts. It sounds a bit strange but is quite tasty.
You absolutely need to order a beer with this meal and the best is Tsingtao. If you are looking to have a wild night, order some báijiǔ. Unfortunately, unless you buy the expensive brands it will most likely taste like lighter fuel (it could also be used for that purpose) and is usually over 50% alcohol. Warning to all foreigners: if you make friends with Chinese people, you will be drinking large quantities of this.
After a full meal and some drinking in hot weather, you will start to see the men roll up their shirt like a crop top which we call the Beijing Bikini. Ultimately, if you’re not up for pulling off the Beijing Bikini but still want to act like a real local, head out to some Karaoke (or KTV as they call it) after dinner.
3. Home Style Chinese Egg and Tomato Stir Fry
A common dish cooked in Chinese households made from simple ingredients and tastes amazing. Tomatoes are fried in a pan with some garlic, sugar and soy sauce and then topped with scrambled eggs. Eat with rice. This is a super easy dish to make at home, especially after a night out.
4. Pork and Tofu
This is one dish that’s distinctly Beijing. You get shreds of pork meat covered in a sweet brown sauce which you out onto a square piece of tofu. This isn’t the usual tofu westerners are used to because it’s a square-shaped thin wrap which is sturdy enough to hold the food placed inside without falling apart. So you put your pork on the tofu wrap and add some thinly sliced green onions and cucumber.
5. Chinese Braised Pork Belly (Dōnɡ pō ròu)
A delicious piece of braised pork belly cooked in small clay pots, a specialty in Hangzhou. It’s covered in a sauce made of light and dark soy sauce, ginger, rock sugar, scallions and Shaoxing wine. Eat this on its own or with a bowl of rice.
6. Soup Dumplings (Xiǎo lónɡ bāo)
This is a Shanghai speciality. It’s a meat bun that contains soup inside. To eat, bite off the top, sip the soup inside and then eat the dumpling. Delish!
7. Xinjiang Noodles
The Xinjiang province is located in the north-west of China. This dish includes fresh hand-pulled noodles which are served in a bowl full of broth made from lamb. In the bowl potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onion, and lamb meat are added to complete the dish.
If you are a big foodie like I am, check out my post on the’Top 22 Greek Dishes You Need to Taste!’ Finally, if you would like to try any of these dishes and want a specific place to eat at while in Beijing, check out these sites below.
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