Leave all your preconceptions on the plane. Chinese food in China - the real stuff - will doubtless come as a big, delicious surprise. The local fare, from the disappearing ‘small eats’ snack culture to haute Imperial cuisine (the food of Emperors past) to Peking duck, is certainly interesting enough, but what folks don’t realise is the sheer regional variety of Chinese food. Noodles and spuds in the north, rice in the south; the numbing, oily spiciness of Sichuan and Hunan versus the ethnic South Asian flavours of Yunnnan, Guizhou and Guangxi.
And what makes Beijing unique (more so than Shanghai, Hong Kong or Chengdu even) is that it has it all. It’s a giant, steamy, mouth-watering melting pot. This is in part due to it being the political centre. Each provincial government in China operates hotels and restaurants in the capital for the comfort of their visiting officials, run by native chefs and with fresh, regional ingredients trucked or flown in daily. One of these – Chuan Ban – is on the list.
Of course, you could spend the whole trip eating spaghetti, sushi, Indian or even fish and chips. As each year goes by, Beijing becomes a more global gastronomic destination. But you don’t what to do that, do you?
A few things to bear in mind
- Don’t’ worry too much if a restaurant looks grubby. It’s the amount of customers that’s the key. If the place is busy, you’ve nothing to worry about. Bear in mind that Chinese diners tend to use the floor of the restaurant for bones, cigarette ash, and – perish the thought – sometimes even the contents of their throats. Also, remember that Chinese restaurants are bright, brash, communal and loud. So get stuck in and have fun. And don’t be afraid to yell at your fuwuyuan (waiter / waitress). Everyone else does.
- Smoking is, unfortunately, the norm in most ordinary Chinese restaurants. This is less of a problem in warm weather when you can look for a place with outside seating.
- It’s perfectly acceptable to take your leftovers home in a doggy bag, so don’t be shy. Ask your waitress to da bao.
- The Chinese eat their meals early. Lunch can happen at 11am; dinner as early as 5pm. This means you'll have less choice if you're looking for a restaurant on a weeknight after 9pm.
- When going out for Chinese food, try to muster as many diners as possible. The more people, the cheaper the meal, and the greater variety of dishes you can try.