In 2008, I was asked by NBC.com to make a list of things for Olympics visitors to do in Beijing. One of my suggestions was to try a new kind of Chinese cuisine. I stand by the list – but not the restaurant recommendations, which are five years out of date…
•Try a kind of Chinese cuisine you’ve never heard of before.
China is a vast nation, with over 30 distinctly different provincial regions, each with its own array of distinct cuisines. Yet in America, Chinese food has generally been reduced to gone-native versions of Hunan, Sichuan and Cantonese foods. While all of these areas certainly have their delights, there are countless other excellent Chinese cuisines just begging to be tried, all of them readily available in Beijing.
Guizhou food is spicy but not overpowering, with more subtlety and contrasting textures and flavors than its better-known cousin, Sichuan food. In Guizhou, they balance the fiery peppers with sour pickles, mint and other fresh herbs. Sour soup fish is one specialty not to be missed and the spicy ribs readily found in most Guizhou restaurants are slow cooked until they melt off the bone. A wide range of great noodle dishes is also worth sampling.
TRY: Sange Guizhou Ren, Private Kitchen No. 44
Sange Guizhou Ren
Private Kitchen No. 44
2. Hot Pot
The concept is simple enough: take a boiling pot of broth, filled with huge chunks of garlic, ginger, ginseng and God-knows-what-else and drop in thin-sliced pieces of your favorite meat, vegetables, tofu and anything else you can think of. Dip it into a sesame sauce, eat, and smile.
Hot pot is a really fun, delicious, uniquely Chinese meal. It comes in many varieties, most famously Sichuan (hot broth) and Mongolian (highly flavored but not super spicy broth). Hot pot is Chinese comfort food, particularly popular in the winter. As such there are many little joints serving the dish, but there are also a number of newer, more contemporary hot pot places. Some also offer individual hot pots.
TRY: Ding Ding Xiang, Little Sheep
Ding ding Xiang
Yunnan is a province in China’s Southwest, home to rainforest jungle in its South and soaring Himalayan Mountains in the Northwest, where it borders Tibet and has large ethnically Tibetan regions. The food represents this diverse, interesting range. Pineapple and lemongrass appear often, and the area is also famous for its ham and mushrooms.
TRY: South Silk Road, Golden Peacock
South Silk Road —
Xinjiang is a Muslim-dominated “autonomous region” in far Western China, bordering Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The food reflects this Central Asian heritage, with lots of delicious grilled lamb and fresh-baked flat bread amongst other savory treats, with a Chinese influence that makes it distinctly its own. Fresh noodles are also popular and it you’re in a large group and you’re not too squeamish, call ahead to see if you can order a whole roast lamb.
Beijing has many fine Xinjiang restaurants from high end to tiny neighborhood kebab joints. Some, including the recommended Red Rose also include raucous belly dancing and musical shows.
TRY: The Red Rose, Crescent Moon Muslim Restaurant
This may seem like an odd choice, but there is a Chinese vegetarian tradition, stemming from Buddhist temples, of faux meat dishes prepared with flair and imagination. At the recommended place, you will sample some of the best “duck,” “chicken” and “beef” you’ve ever had. You’ll have to try it to believe it.
TRY: Bodhi Sake, located in a converted Buddhist temple, Pure Lotus