Unless you’re already a connoisseur of the stuff, your first Peking duck in China will be a revelation.
Forget about the shredded bits of meat you wrap in pancakes with cucumber, spring onion and a dollop of brown sauce. We’ll get to that. But a proper roast duck – kao ya in Mandarin – is served in two courses.
For the first, a server brings the whole glossy-skinned, wood-fired bird to the table and expertly begins slicing off the fatty skin, which he sets in its own dish with a side of granulated sugar. If you’re with a veteran you’ll know to pick up a slice of the browned skin with your chopsticks and dip it in the sugar before downing it (preferably followed by a swig of Tsingtao beer). While you repeat the previous steps, the server will be carving up the rest of the duck – not shredding it, but giving you great glumps of the stuff to roll up in your pancakes alongside scallions and the Hoisin sauce. Delicious. You might order other dishes too, but the chances are you won’t need them.
It’s a production, but Beijingers are traditionalists and they prefer it that way. Most restaurants in the city are still deliciously old-school. Modern and foreign cuisines are slowly sneaking onto the restaurant scene, but in Beijing old habits die hard.
Even though the city is hot as Hades in summer, Beijing food – more broadly classified as ‘northern’ cuisine – is all about sizzle and steam. Its most popular snack markets, still thriving despite the megatowers shooting up around them, are lined with barbecues, woks and stacked steamers. Look more closely and those grills are heaped with skewers spearing scorpions, starfish, squid and all manner of insect life (though you can get more ordinary meats, with or without the head).
You’ll also see people perched on stools around a hotpots of simmering broth for dipping veg and fatty meat in – though they can barely see one another through the vapour. Perhaps that accounts to the heads-down approach to eating in Beijing. The method is a means to an end, but the food is the thing.
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The hulking brick, wood-fired ovens where ducks are hung for roasting are such a weighty affair, some restaurants are literally built around them. Guests can watch the hanging birds while the flames lick their fatty skin until it’s red and greasy (tastes better than it sounds).
Attributed to the Mongolians (though they do it in Szechuan too), Beijing hotpot (from the Mandarin huo guo, or fire pot) sits on a mini-stove in the middle of the table, filled with a bubbling, meat-based broth. Diners use their chopsticks to dip raw goodies in the liquid, then fish it out with a slotted spoon. Dip it in some sesame butter or soy sauce and you’ve got yourself a meal.
Every culture loves a pot sticker. And every Chinese culture loves jiaozi, a chewy, half-moon pork dumpling fried in a cast-iron drum and served with red vinegar. You can find them on the Beijing streets at breakfast time, but some restaurants serve them throughout the day. Eat with caution, however – the burning pork fat can shoot out dangerously when released.
Hand-pulled noodle soup
Noodle-pullers operate stalls all over the city, where they wind and throw their wheat-based dough theatrically until it magically appears as thin, winding pasta in your piping-hot broth. Served with beef tendon or tripe and all manner of greens, the soups are a rich wintertime tradition.
Mung beans have managed to find a way into dozens of Chinese delicacies, from fresh juices to desserts. They also make a distinctive sweet-and-sour tofu, called madoufu, which even wealthy Beijingers prefer to the traditional kind. It’s grey and mushy and more like hummus than any tofu you’ve ever seen. But don’t send it back – it’s a surprisingly lovely antidote to all that meat you’ll consume.