Whatever impressions you may have about the city, one thing is undeniable: Beijing hosts a magnificent selection of regional Chinese restaurants. This aspect alone makes the trip worthwhile.
Food has occupied a central role in Beijing for thousands of years, as can be gleaned by the role of serving various dishes to the spirits of the Deceased. It is said that Beijing food reflects the country's tumultuous history. Famines would ensure that precious little ever went to waste. The need to conserve fuel also induced ancient Chinese chefs to slice meats and vegetables in order to reduced cooking time. While people could always buy food at inns and markets, restaurants, as social centers and culinary institutions, took root only in the Song Dynasty.
We can divide traditional Beijing restaurants into three main groupings: Shan Dong style cuisine and Chinese Muslim hallal fare.
Shan Dong Style Cuisine
Shan Dong province is close to Beijing. Because of the frequent floods in the Yellow River, the province periodically tossed out waves of refugees seeking safety in the capital. As a consequence, Beijing soon became the host of a large Shan Dong community who nourished themselves at restaurants serving their home cuisine.
Of these Shan Dong style dishes, sometimes the most famous is Beijing duck, which is an extrapolation of a suckling pig recipe adapted for the specific species of ducks in north China and that, incidentally, are the ancientors of Long Island ducklings. The oldest Beijing duck eatery name pian yi kao ya dian was established in the Vegetable Market district in 1416, four years before Yong Yong proclaimed Beijing as the capital. Prior to the 20th century, most Beijing duck restaurants operated simply as take-aways, with sit down parlors only becoming fixed in the culinary firm in the early 20th century. For a while in the 19th century, there were nearly 30-competing Beijing duckling restaurants using the name pian yi kao ya. Different shops would use different ingredients, such as molasses, honey, or plum sauce as well as charcoal from different types of trees. Apple wood charcoal is famous for giving a roasted duck the best smoked flavor.
Beijing duck is eaten with wheat pancakes, plum sauce, green onion slices and sometimes sliced cucumber. Although very rich, a properly roasted Beijing duck is an indescribable pleasure. While not strictly Shan Dong in origin, another northern duck dish is xiang su ya where the duck is pressed and then roasted so that all of the fat drains away. The resulting dish is dry and tender, with morsels of the duck pulled away from the bones in tender chunks. Here again the duck is eaten with wheat pancakes, plum sauce and green onions.
Shan Dong cuisine uses wheat and corn more than other Chinese cuisines. Shao bing are little wheaten loaves sprinkled with sesames, often eaten for breakfast or as a side dish for Mongolian hot pot. Corn flour dumplings stuffed with carrot shavings and bits of lamb and cold wheat noodles dishes with a spicy plum sauce and slivers of cucumber and beef are other snacks that echo of Old Beijing. Garlic and scallions figure more prominently in Shan Dong cuisine than in other regions, as quickly noticed upon boarding the Beijing subway. A spiced paste of eggplant is also a delightful local specialty.
Although not completely a Beijing drink, a "tea" made of sour plum juice (suan mei tang), thoroughly chilled, makes a satisfying thirst quencher in the summer months of Beijing's "Great Heat."
Chinese Muslim Hallal Fare
Given the long tradition that Islam enjoys in the city, it is not surprising that many famous hallal restaurants emerged to prepare delightful dishes for Muslim palates. Lamb figured heavily in the menus, though some of the Muslim eateries established their reputations for the production of (pork-less) Shan Dong dishes as well. One specialty of these restaurants was roast lamb meat, broiled on a grill over a charcoal stove in the middle of the table. The grills were never cleaned, for such a proposition was a heresy. The accumulation of charcoal and burnt meat over the decades was believed to give the freshly roast meat its unique flavor. Fried lamb (chao yang rou), served with sesame and dried red pepper powder, is another hallmark.
Some Chinese Muslim restaurants specialize in "Mongolian" hot pot (shuang yang rou), which has spread to many other provinces in China. None do it as well as the hallal restaurants. Here you cook thinly sliced lamb or other meats as well as vegetables or frozen tofu in a samovar set in the middle of your table. Once the ingredients are cooked, you fish them out with a ladle and season them with a selection of spices and sauces that you have combined in a bowl.