A Flavour Tour of Beijing with Neil Perry
Neil Perry has been in love with the flavours of China since he was a boy. So who better to take us to the best fine-diners and hidden hutong restaurants in Beijing?
In almost every country town in Australia, there’s a Chinese restaurant. The tastes of China are as much a part of our cultural fabric as Vegemite and spaghetti bolognaise. It’s no secret that Chinese flavours are a culinary obsession for me and I’ve been lucky to travel to many parts of China to experience them firsthand.
And now I’m back in Beijing, which I last visited in 2007. I’m always struck by the equal pull of its history and culture. There are so many wonders to see. The Beijing sections of the Great Wall are a must – imagine what they’ve witnessed over the past 700 years – and the size of the Forbidden City is extraordinary. If you have time, include the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace on your itinerary. And visit the house of Soong Ching-ling, one of three sisters who were prominent in Chinese politics before the 1949 Revolution. The wife of Sun Yat-sen, a founder of the Republic of China, she is known as the Mother of Modern China, as she was heavily involved in its 20th-century social development. Her former residence (now a museum) tells the story of contemporary China and is worth an hour of your time.
But I’m really here for the food. I seek out the ducks first. Traditionally, they’re roasted in square wood-fire ovens, with the fire at the front and the ducks hanging at the rear (this differs from the Cantonese conical oven). The chef hooks the ducks with a long rod and pulls them forward so the flames lick the skin, making it super-crisp.
Beijing has some of the best roast duck in the world but there are myriad other pleasures, too. Here’s my pick of some of the city’s best places to eat, from casual you’ll-have-to-queue joints to fine-dining establishments.
Cai Yi Xuan
If you’ve dined at Lung King Heen at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, you’ll know what to expect here. Cai Yi Xuan is an opulent dining room where the service and wine list match the fine cooking.
We start with wonderfully crisp suckling pig on a little steamed bun with a smear of hoisin sauce. Please may I have this every day for the rest of my life? There are also beautifully executed baked pork buns with incredibly light, fluffy pastry. The crab xiao long bao is excellent, too, as is the yum cha.
But it’s the signature red-braised pork belly with abalone and truffles that I’m here to try and it doesn’t disappoint – melt-in-the-mouth pork with a rich, earthy truffle sauce and the exquisite texture of the abalone. It’s so good that I’m determined to create a version in the not-too-distant future.
Salt-and-pepper prawns are encased in the most delicate, crisp batter, which provides texture to complement the sweet fresh seafood and salt highlights – they’re irresistible. A plate of crisp-skin chicken arrives next. It’s the ultimate roast chook, with skin that’s crunchy and delicious.
I’m a massive fan of stir-fried snow pea runners. (Snow pea shoots grow into vines, or runners, from which the pods eventually sprout. When young, runners are tastier than snow peas.) Here, served with a dash of garlic and a little shaoxing wine, they have a natural deep-green vegetable flavour with the added sweetness of the snow pea.
The wine list’s by-the-glass selection entices you to lunch in style. I have a couple of glasses of Domaine la Barroche Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the perfect match for the chicken skin and pork belly.
Level 2, Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, 48 Liangmaqiao Road, Sanyuanqiao, Chaoyang District ￼
￼At Da Dong, there are four traditional ovens in the centre of the dining room so you can watch as each duck gets the treatment before being carved at the table. Chef Dong Zhenxiang is justly renowned for serving some of the best Beijing-style roast duck but Da Dong isn’t limited to the succulent waterfowl; its menu is extensive and everything we try is really good.
The restaurant has several branches; we visit the Dongcheng one, down the road from our hotel. It’s located on the fifth floor of a high-end shopping mall, which may seem unusual to Australians but in Asia it’s a legitimate venue for a quality restaurant. It won’t win any awards for the atmosphere but that’s not why we’re here.
The stir-fried broad beans are delightfully nutty, with dried shrimp, fried until it’s crunchy, adding a wonderful texture. The flower and baby herbs make this a very pretty dish. Stir-fried pak choy with fresh bamboo shoots is also a must-try vegetable dish; the slightly bitter crunch of the bamboo and the bursts of garlic and ginger are perfect with the deep green flavour of the pak choy.
Tender and tasty beef sizzling on a griddle plate comes next, accompanied by shallots and leeks and seasoned with both light and dark soy. Meanwhile, crisp flounder in a light batter swims in an intense stock that’s rich with chicken fat and a long, delicious taste of white pepper, the texture reminiscent of a hearty tonkotsu ramen broth.
When the duck arrives, skin glistening, I simply dip a piece of skin into a little sugar; the fatty, crunchy texture and length of flavour is what makes true Beijing duck special. Other condiments include cucumber, garlic, hoisin sauce, spring onion and rockmelon, each to be wrapped in your pancake as you like with the duck and skin. Da Dong also serves a splendid light, crisp roll with no centre, to which you add duck and seasoning – it’s a Beijing specialty.
The wine list is fantastic and we indulge in a bottle of Hubert Lignier Morey-St-Denis. Beijing duck and burgundy is a match made in heaven.
Level 5, Jinbaohui Shopping Center, 88 Jinbao Street, Dongcheng District ￼ +86 10 8522 1234
￼This branch of Siji Minfu is near our hotel. There are no bookings – you take a ticket then wait on stools outside. It’s part of the restaurant’s charm and the line moves pretty quickly. We queue for 30 minutes and are offered water while we wait.
This place is famous for the duck but don’t underestimate the rest of the menu. It’s here that I have my favourite dish of the trip: green cauliflower stir-fried with onion, black beans, pork belly, chilli, garlic, ginger, soy and shaoxing wine. Simple but so delicious.
There’s also tenderised beef marinated in soy, dry-fried with Sichuan pepper and green Sichuan peppercorns and bursting with five-spice flavour.
The tender pork belly steamed with rice meal and served with steamed buns is another hit; it’s almost impossible to stop eating it. But hold the phone. The duck here is the best we taste. Okay, perhaps the skin isn’t quite as crisp as Da Dong’s but the meat almost melts in your mouth. Wrapped in a pancake with classic hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onions, it’s a total winner.
32 Dengshikou West Street, Dongdan, Dongcheng District ￼ +86 10 6513 5141
Jing Yaa Tang
￼In its previous life, Jing Yaa Tang at The Opposite House was a nightclub, which is evident in the design: the duck-roasting fire ovens have taken residence in the old DJ booth and much of the dining space, presumably once the dance floor, is elevated.
The go-to is the all-you-can-eat yum cha – it’s outstanding value for lunch. The barbecue pork pastries are light and flaky; the siu mai has the fresh taste of prawn and a more-ish wrapper; and the crisp pork ribs with chilli are chewy, spicy and perfect with an ice-cold beer. The light, fluffy steamed pork buns (cha siu bao) are a good rendition of the yum cha classic and the vibrant green spinach and prawn dumplings are succulent and bouncy to the chew, with a strong spinach flavour. Surrounded by some of the best shopping in Beijing, Jing Yaa Tang is a great place to refuel.
Lower ground, The Opposite House, Taikoo Li Sanlitun North, 11 Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District ￼
￼Country Kitchen is fitted out with a smart bar and a large open kitchen. Charcoal grilling and noodle rolling and pulling all take place in the middle of the dining room so if you’re a cooking nerd like me, the bench seating around the kitchen is the best spot to watch the masters at work.
A Northern Chinese classic, the cumin lamb skewers cooked over charcoal have an earthy flavour, while the garlic eggplant comes chilled and has a delightful chewiness. And I love the soft tofu and shrimp roe, which almost has the consistency of congee or a thick soup; its hearty texture and temperature are spot-on.
The dish of the day? Cabbage and Chinese ham stir-fried with garlic, ginger, soy and a dash of sugar. The ham adds a punch and the sweet soy balances the flavour of the cabbage.
Be sure to order the hand-pulled noodles with braised pork and chilli. There are seven types of fresh, firm noodles and nine sauces to choose from, which gives you a good excuse to return and is lots of fun.
Level 3, Rosewood Beijing, Jing Guang Center, Hujialou, Chaoyang District
Crescent Moon Uighur Muslim Restaurant
￼If you’re interested in the depth and breadth of China’s cooking, this is one of the best Xinjiang Muslim restaurants in Beijing. It’s a little flashier than its counterparts but don’t expect a hotel-style fit-out or high level of service.
The vegetable and egg pie with a mound of fried lamb on top is alone worth the trip and the grilled food laced with cumin is awesome. I also love the noodles with vegetables, the texture of the slippery noodles elevating this simple student lunch to heavenly. The breads, grills, lamb, goat and noodles are an education in how different Xinjiang ethnic cooking is to Beijing, Cantonese and Sichuan cuisines.
16 Dongsi 6th Alley, Dongsi, Dongcheng District ￼ +86 10 6400 5281
￼Attached to the Sichuan provincial government representative office, Chuan Ban is very authentic and became a firm favourite when I last visited Beijing. You can’t book, you’ll probably have to queue and the service might be a little gruff but if you love spice, this is the place.
The spicy chicken salad is a must, as is the tingling chicken with green Sichuan peppercorn dressing that delivers a citrus hit while being pleasantly numbing at the same time.
Another standout is the stir-fried rabbit featuring small chunks of meat with vegetables, peanuts and loads of dry-fried chilli. Also try the firewater beef. And to help cool the fire, follow it all with steamed custard. Or have a couple of cold beers to quell the heat from these wickedly hot and seriously good Sichuan dishes.
5 Gongyuan 1st Alley, Chaoyangmen, Dongcheng District ￼ +86 10 6512 2277
￼Lei Garden in the Regent Beijing is where to go if you’re craving yum cha, which is not really a Beijing specialty. The original Lei Garden is my first port of call when I’m in Hong Kong and the Beijing outpost doesn’t disappoint with its classic, fluffy white pork buns and its har gow with a crunchy prawn centre and delicate, light wrapper. Be sure to leave room for the wobbly egg tart. And enjoy it with the traditional cup of tea or, if it’s hot, a cracking cold beer.
Regent Beijing, 99 Jinbao Street, Dongcheng District
Do a food tour
I don’t normally go on guided tours but in a place like Beijing, when you’re hoping to discover hidden gems and you don’t speak Mandarin, it’s the ideal way to get a handle on the food culture. I’m so pleased I did. In fact, I’d recommend that you take at least one – if not both – of UnTour’s three-hour food excursions.
Our charming guide, Garth Wilson, tells fantastic stories about the history of the foods and of China. You can opt for a breakfast or dinner tour, where you eat in little diners and at roadside vendors in hutongs (alleys) that you might never visit on your own.
Two venues on our morning tour are pop-ups, the vendors renting the space from 6am to 9am to serve food that’s very different to the dishes made by the restaurants that usually occupy the space.
Our first – and my favourite – stop is Hong Yan Restaurant, which does beautifully soft tofu with coriander, chilli, vinegar, seaweed paste and spring onion. Further on, Lao Tang Restaurant dishes up a roti-style bread with dried green vegetables and pork. The taste is sweet-sour and it’s the dried greens that make it so delicious.
Over the next couple of stops, we sample pork and vegetable buns, sweet fried bread with soy milk and chilli sauce (sounds crazy but it’s incredible), crisp fried bread dipped in sugar (a kind of Chinese doughnut) and a drink of fermented sprouts that’s supposedly healthy (the jury’s out but I’m glad I tried it).
We finish our street tour at a jianbing stall, where the crêpes are spread with egg and pastes (chilli-bean, wheat, fermented bean curd) then coriander and spring onions are added and a bean curd sheet is dropped in the middle. My tip? Eat it while it’s hot, as the bean curd softens quickly. It’s food experiences like these that I wouldn’t have had if I’d just gone on my own.
Where to stay
I stayed at The Peninsula Beijing, an all-suite hotel in the city centre, where I arranged many of my restaurant bookings. There are also great restaurants near Rosewood Beijing, The Opposite House and Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, which are all in the Chaoyang District. Using the subway or taxis is an easy way to get around. Just remember to take your hotel’s business card with Chinese characters on it if you’re not fluent in Mandarin – otherwise, getting back to your hotel could prove a challenge. ￼
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