Traditional delicacies: Most sublime flavours of China

Follow along as Vanessa Hong discovers the real culinary story of Beijing

When I try to explain to friends who haven’t visited China the sheer diversity of the country’s culinary wealth, I draw on an example that’s usually more familiar to North Americans.

Imagine having only sampled Tex-Mex and thinking that that was as good as Mexican food gets. Like the taste explosion that is real Mexican food in Mexico, Chinese food in China is a deeply complex and layered love affair that goes far, far beyond the fried rice, spring rolls and pupu platters that dominate Americanized Chinese cuisine.

During travels in Beijing, you really have to prime your taste buds. Because when you sit down at the table here you are in for sensory overload in the very best sense. Like the diverse fashions that dominate the streets of China’s major cities, Chinese food is far from a homogenous experience. Every province of China – and there are 34 – has its own unique food culture that’s dictated by climate, vegetation, accessibility, tradition and history, and many other factors.

What always excites me about visiting Beijing is that the city is the meeting point for all of China’s taste-driven experiences. Ultimately, the essence of Chinese cuisine cannot be condensed into a single dish because it’s just too wildly complex and diverse. And in the same way that in New York or Sydney you might decide with friends whether to go out for Ethiopian, sushi, Italian, or Lebanese food for dinner, Beijingers are likely to toss around options that span their own country’s diverse offerings and cover cuisines like Sichuan, Guangdong (aka Cantonese), Hunan, Shandong, Fujian and many other regions.

You can treat yourself to mushroom-heavy dishes from Yunnan, spice it up with the mouth-numbing experience that is true, bonafide Sichuan food, or keep it simple and on-the-go with one of Beijing’s iconic street foods such as jian bing (Chinese egg galette) or jiaozi (dumpling).

And since knowing where to tuck in – there are just so many options vying for your attention here – is likely to be your first dilemma, I’ve happily done the legwork to help curate your culinary wanderings.

On my most recent visit to Beijing, my first stop was Country Kitchen, the open, show-kitchen that wows visitors and is a favorite of Beijingers, too, at Rosewood Beijing. You might be surprised to hear it, but comfort food is a thing in China, too. And Country Kitchen’s menu puts forth a mix of elevated comfort food for the soul and famous dishes from China’s north that include Pekin Duck and steaming jiaozi dumplings, all served family style as is the favored Chinese way of properly enjoying a meal.

Finessed renditions of other favorites like garlicky pickled cucumbers and chilled wood ear fungus sit alongside fiery, palate-awakening dishes like cumin-heavy Chuan meat sticks (a popular street food) and the tongue-numbing (so I’m told) Mandarin fish poached in sizzling chili broth. The menu’s selection of Lost Recipes calls to your comfort food cravings, and takes its inspirations from recipes popular with wealthy Beijingers in the 1950s. And the Qing Dynasty Roasted Pork Belly served with braised cabbage is a house specialty. I suggest finishing on a light note with the ethereal Osmanthus Bean Curd, a light flowery tofu dessert.

To sample the best of Cantonese foods, I recommend The House of Dynasties, another of my Beijing favorites. Southern Chinese staples get the spotlight here as the servers bustle about with beautifully plated dim sum dishes, poached fish and delicate clear broths. It’s the kind of aesthetics-driven eating that feels almost meditational, and the restaurant’s luxury private-dining setting adds to the ambiance. Dining at The House of Dynasties is like a journey through imperial China as you tuck into dishes like Buddha Jump Over the Wall—a decadent soup made with 30 ingredients that requires two days of stewing and harkens back to the Qing Dynasty. Our party loved the chance to eat together family-style again here, too, all the better for stoking conversation and sharing the experience with the whole table. My fellow diners were particularly enamored with the chef’s more exotic offerings that included delicately braised Australian abalone and double boiled fish maw soup, while the many vegetarian offerings called my name.

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And for one of the most coveted tables in town, you’ll want to book in advance at my personal favorite, Red Bowl, where the whole concept of hot pot dining gets taken to a seriously sophisticated level. I had a feeling it was going to be an evening and meal for the books as I sat down with my group here at a large table centered around a simmering hot pot. Their eyes grew wider as plate after plate of things like Australian lobster, delicate razor clams, Wagyu beef, Argentinian red prawn and Xinjiang lamb arrived. And of course, for me, it was all the exotic vegetables – lotus root, winter melon, baby Chinese cabbage and more! – that set my stomach rumbling. Once you’ve nailed down the ingredients you prefer, you choose between various fragrant stocks for simmering all the goodies, which are then cooked before your eyes in the communal pot and served for sharing. The result is nothing short of heavenly. And if you happen to be dining alone here, the experience doesn’t lose any magic, either, as you can pull up a seat at the stylish bar where individual hot pots are nestled into the countertop.

My entire meal at Red Bowl was as pure and natural in its sensibility as China’s deep tradition of hospitality itself, as our servers rolled out the red carpet for us and we shared and shared alike the simple yet elegant dishes parading across the table. And rest assured that there’s a world class selection of sake, wine and beer here to accompany your meal. It was one of those evenings where conversation nearly comes to a stand still at times thanks to all the eye-rolling goodness on the plate. I’m still thinking about this meal – can you tell?

Across Beijing – from family-run restaurants hidden among the warrens of hutongs to high-profile addresses that lure the world’s top tastemakers – your dining experience can go endlessly on. And there are simply too many wonderful restaurants for me to mention. But at some point, I am guessing, you may have a yearning to experience just how impressively international fare is rendered, too, in China’s most food-forward city.

Is it any surprise that for the finest in modern French bistro fare, Beijing has you covered, too? My go-to when I’m craving something très français is Bistrot B, a gorgeous jewel-box of a restaurant full of dark woods and shimmering light on the buzzing first floor of Rosewood Beijing. French classics like steak frites, charcuterie boards, duck leg confit and the chef-recommended escargot all find a place on the menu. And if fruits de mers is your thing, don’t miss the chance to sample a decadent chilled platter of French oysters, Dungeness crab, Canadian lobster and poached prawns, which comes chilled on ice and proffered with the same panache as at any Parisian bistro. But there are Chinese influences at work at Bistrot B, too. Alongside hot brick ovens that waft with the scent of rising pizza dough stand giant woks primed for fiery sautees. I sometimes want lighter fare after so much indulging, and opt for the North African-inspired vegetable tajine or one of Bistro B’s towering plates of fresh salad.

And with a clientele as diverse as the menu, Bistrot B always feels like a place to be seen, so I suggest sticking around for a digestif after your meal and seeing where the Beijing evening leads you from there.

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By: Vanessa Hong

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