From exclusive Imperial recipes sneaked out of the Forbidden City to cheap street snacks peddled at New Year's Temple Fairs, the taste of Old Beijing is deeply rooted in centuries of illustrious culinary traditions. These two extremes have both blossomed into specialized but integral branches of modern Beijing cuisine, and on our Beijing Food Trip we searched for the best within both genres -- authentic, reasonably priced, and highly recommended by local foodies. While peasant snacks can easily fit into any backpacker's tight budget, finding a moderately priced restaurant for Imperial cuisine is a bigger challenge. The most famous of Imperial cuisine restaurants, Fangshan Fanzhuang, starts at RMB 198 per person for tiny set lunches and twice that for dinners. Of course patrons also behold the lovely view of Beihai and of waitresses dressed in Imperial Court gowns, but that's aside from the food. We consulted the opinion of local Beijingners, who suggested another restaurant with an even better reputation for quality food, better service and, amazingly, much cheaper prices. The location is harder to reach, but if you're going to visit the Summer Palace (aka. Yiheyuan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in itself), you're almost in the neighbourhood already.
Food Review: NAJIA XIAOGUAN, Main Branch (Haidian, Beijing Hours: 10:30-21:30 Website/Map: From Dianping.com Directions: Taxi is the easiest way -- flag one down outside Beigongmen subway station and it should cost around RMB 25 (as of 2011). But if you opt for cheap public transportation like we do, take bus 331/563/696 across from the Beigongmen subway station and get off at Wofosi or Botanical Garden. Najia Xiaoguan is located right on Xiangshan Nanlu. Hidden at the foothill of Xiangshan where the Emperor's Manchurian Legions traditionally settled, the old residence of the Na family has been converted into an intimate restaurant serving the family's own recipes. But this isn't just any regular family, but one that served the Emperor as court physicians and inherited the secrets of the Qing Dynasty's imperial kitchen.
Najia Xiaoguan isn't easy to find -- this is outside of the 5th Ring Road after all -- which tells you how good this place is. Visitors have come for the proprietor's 200-year-old recipes, many of which still call for rare and expensive ingredients in addition to the ultimate requirement of tasting good. How this place manages to charge relatively low prices for the quality of food they serve is entirely beyond me. Prices listed on its old-fashioned menu of bamboo strips are all surprisingly affordable, especially for Beijing's rapidly growing middle class. Smaller cold dishes such as Sliced Pork Knuckle, Fish in Gelatin and Chinese Yam in Guihua Sauce are mostly RMB 28. Hot entrees generally range from RMB 38 to 48 and include intriguing choices like Braised Belt Fish, Stir-fried Mongolian Lamb with Green Onions, Old Duck in Sour Broth. Larger meat entrees such as Braised Deer Meat and Dry-Braised Yellow Croaker Fish start at RMB 68 and up.
It was fitting to start our meal with Najia's most famous dish, originating from a 200-year-old recipe that once served the Emperor and his concubines. This dish fits in the category of Yaoshan, or medicinal cuisine, which traditionally served as a dietary staple of the Chinese royalty. Available (though not necessarily affordable) to peasant workers nowadays, this Manchurian thick soup is known as Huangtanzi, or Vessel of Royalty (my translation). Inside this heated claypot was an extremely thick and smooth yellow chowder with a deep, mouth-watering Xianwei (aka. Umami) flavour extracted from a soup stock of chicken and cured ham. But it was the ingredients floating inside the soup that asserted traditional Chinese opulence: deer tendons, fish lips and bamboo pith. This was the collagen diet for the Emperor's harem of concubines, and is still trusted by modern day Chinese consumers to enhance the skin's elasticity. For us though it's a deliciously thick soup and a rare glimpse into Imperial culinary traditions. Huangtanzi comes in several versions with various medicinal values (and escalating prices). The cheapest (Saiwai) starts at RMB 38 and the most expensive (Manhan) climbs all the way up to RMB 208. We ordered the Hougong (Emperor's Harem, RMB 68) version, infused with collagen-rich ingredients tailored for the female body. The male version, Bawang, is priced at RMB 58 and contains deer penis as an aphrodisiac. Very appetizing.
Next came one of the best dishes of our 16-Day trip, and certainly one of the best prawn dishes I've ever had. Even after reading countless raving reviews about this dish from local Beijing tradition. But what really set this dish apart was the incredible crunchiness of the prawn shells -- all of the shells and even the tails disintegrated under my bite and became completely edible. I don't know what's inside their so-called Secret Recipe, but at a measly RMB 38 (CAD$5.8) this marvellous dish has to be one of the best bargains of Beijing.
My wife loved this cold dish of Guihua Shanyao, or Chinese Yam in Guihua Flower Sauce, which has the starchy yam generously smothered with the distinctly fragrant and sweet jam. I always like Guihua in Northern Chinese desserts and apparently it works in more substantial dishes as well.
We wanted one more dish and had to decide between the warm Spring Water Spareribs (Quanshui Paigu) or this cold dish of Jellied Crunchy Cartilage (Cuigudong). This turned out to be quite an interesting dish with slightly softened pork cartilages suspended inside a gelatinized Lushui sauce. Just the right supplement of calcium and collagen after an afternoon of hiking at the Summer Palace. The bill totaled RMB 168 (CAD$25.5) for two persons even with a beer, not exactly cheap for the locals but certainly much more affordable than most other places serving high-end Imperial cuisine. Najia Xiaoguan has recently opened a few more branches all over Beijing, with one being centrally located near the Yong'anli subway station. If they can maintain the same exceptional quality as the main branch, Najia Xiaoguan has the potential to truly assert its claim as one of Beijing's star restaurants, just like the rise of Dadong 10 years ago. Bill for Two Persons Huangtanzi (Hougong) RMB 68 Secret Recipe Crispy-Skinned Prawns RMB 38 Chinese Yams in Guihua Sauce RMB 18 Jellied Crunchy Cartilage RMB 28 Draft Beer RMB 16 TOTAL RMB 168 (CAD$25.5) At the other end of the spectrum is the much more budget-friendly Xiaochi, or traditional Chinese peasant snacks, which some translators equate with the Spanish concept of tapas or the Greek concept of Mezedes. That's not entirely correct in my opinion. While there are similarities in terms of size and informality, the Xiaochi of Beijing is often breakfast, after-meal dessert, AND late night snack to the locals. And there's no better way to experience it than to live inside the Hutong alleys of Old Beijing and to rub shoulders with the locals while seeking their advice for what to order. Food Review: HUGUOSI XIAOCHI, Main Branch (Huguosi, Beijing) Address: 68 Huguosi Street, Xicheng District, Beijing Hours: 05:30-21:00 Website/Map: From Dianping.com Directions: Take Ping'anli Station's northeast exit and walk east along Huguosi Street for half a block. It's on the left hand side.
This is a mecca for anyone interested in authentic Beijin cuisine. How good is this place? We booked our guesthouse around the corner so that we can have breakfast here everyday. Crazy perhaps, but it was well worth it. Huguosi Xiaochi is widely recognized by locals as one of the city's best places for peasant snacks. For hundreds of years these traditional recipes were passed down through independent street vendors hawking outside the Huguosi Temple. But with the old temple's partial demolition back in the 1950's, these vendors were assembled into an troupe of specialty chefs to carry on their tradition in an eatery setting. Dozens of mouthwatering choices await curious visitors -- presented below are the varieties recommended to me by the locals.
My own favorite was probably the Naiyou Zhagao (Deep Fried Cream Puffs, RMB 6 per order), a filling-less Northern Chinese doughnut. Deep-fried and dusted with sugar, these morsels were feather light and tasted much less oily than they look.
Look at the puffiness of the scrumptious dough! Good thing each order came with five puffs as I can easily finish a dozen for breakfast.
But our daily breakfast staple was Shaobing Jiarou, Beijing's counter-punch to New York's Pastrami Sandwich. Literally meaning Meat in Roasted Flatbread, this beef sandwich makes a delicious light breakfast for only RMB 5 (CAD$0.8). The more adventurous can also walk next door for an equally appealing Lurou Huoshao (Donkey Meat in Roasted Flatbread).
Wandouhuang (Yellow Pea Cakes, RMB 1.5) has been a springtime favorite of Beijingner peasants and Empresses alike for centuries past. These blocks of mildly sweet, smoothly ground peas may look and taste like Japanese gelatinous Yokan, but are actually made of pure pea paste and thus are quite filling as a breakfast item.
The curiously named Aiwowo (RMB 1) is actually a round ball of soft glutinous rice flour with a centre of sweet sesame paste. Now this gets even more filling than the Wandouhuang, and for a cheaper price as well! This is precisely the attractiveness of the Chinese concept of Xiaochi -- any blue collar worker can get reasonably full for RMB 5 (CAD$0.8) or less.
But perhaps the strangest name belongs to the Ludagun, or Rolling Donkey, certainly one of the best selling items judging by the breakfast trays of the locals. This little cake of millet flour and red bean paste is mildly sweet and wonderfully chewy.
And if the above breakfast staples aren't filling enough, there's still the fruity and densely packed Hawthorne Jelly (Shanzhagao, RMB 5). Despite its resemblance to the ubiquitous varieties of starchy rice cakes, it's actually refreshingly sweet and sour and slightly crunchy.
These absolutely delectable pretzels drenched in Guihua flower syrup are known as Sanzi Mahua (Loose Twisters, RMB 2 per order). Now these are much more suitable as casual snacks than breakfast items.
Those who have a sweet tooth can consider a bowl of the steaming hot Babaozhou (Porridge with Eight Treasures, RMB 3), a chunky porridge filled with sweet red beans, lily root, peanuts and other goodies. This is even more filling than the Aiwowo.
One of the more expensive snacks (still costing only RMB 7) is the Niuroubing, which literally means ... ahem ... Beef Cake. This pan-fried roll of flat bread was deliciously greasy and came with a savory filling of minced beef. It actually turned out to be one of my favorite items.
The common Sanxian Baozi (Bun with Three Delicacies, RMB 1.5) is probably a better option for the budget-conscious -- three or four of these would make a very cheap and extremely filling breakfast.
Finally there's the Beijing equivalence of McDonald's Big Breakfast, a complete breakfast set with a millet porridge, a salad, marinated steamed peanuts, and your choice of hearty entrees. We chose this Stir-Fried Shrimp and Dough Lumps (Xiaren Chaogeda, RMB 13) for brunch on our final day. The shrimp stir-fry certainly wasn't as spectacular as the traditional Xiaochi snacks though, and I really should have picked my favorite Beef Cake as entree ... which would have dropped the price of my breakfast set down to RMB 10. Hungry yet? To tell the truth we only tried a TENTH of Huguosi Xiaochi's offerings -- I still haven't braved the famous (or infamous?) Douzhi, or Mung Bean Milk, yet. And then there are a number of other famous Xiaochi eateries around the city (eg. Longshengming, Baodu Feng, Baodu Zhang, Jiumen Xiaochi). If you consider yourself a foodie, definitely don't deprive yourself of these delicious and cheap treats during your time in Beijing. Bill for Breakfast for 2 Persons for 5 Days Deep Fried Cream Puffs RMB 6 Meat in Roasted Flatbread x 6 RMB 30 Yellow Pea Cakes x 2 RMB 3 Aiwowo x 2 RMB 2 Rolling Donkey x 2 RMB 3 Hawthorne Jelly RMB 5 Loose Twisters x 2 RMB 4 Porridge with Eight Treasures RMB 3 Beef Cake x 2 RMB 14 Bun with Three Delicacies x 2 RMB 3 Stir-Fried Shrimp and Dough Lumps RMB 13 5 DAY TOTAL RMB 86 (CAD$13)
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