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Cuisine: Chinese Buddhist vegetarian
Area: Meishuguan/Dafosi (just north of Wangfujing)
Price: 35-50 RMB per person
Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns don’t eat meat, nor do some lay Buddhists. So what do they eat? Their own, specialized cuisine, of course, which has been going since the 6th century AD!
As any modern vegetarian or vegan knows, not eating meat can create all kinds of problems. Should I go to that party, accept this invitation, go to that restaurant? Or personal dilemmas, like how can I live without bacon?
Buddhist chefs came up with a rather brilliant solution: inventing dishes that looked, smelled and tasted like meat…but were made from other things, mostly wheat gluten. That way, in theory, the meat-eaters and vegetarians could both be happy at the same table, and the vegetarians could still enjoy the “meat” dishes they once had.
We ran into Still Thoughts on a walk around the Art Museum, and decided to see how it all works in practice.
The atmosphere is brightly-lit and busy. There are shelves stacked with Buddhist texts. Our table was glass over a map of the world.
The menu is a fascinating read for someone who’s never encountered this kind of cooking before. The menu looks exactly like a typical, homestyle-type Chinese menu. They have Peking “Duck,” Sichuanese shuizhu “fish”. There’s nothing these chefs won’t attempt. We tried the pickles (very nice) and a “sausage” (二指禅), which seemed to be a popular item.
To me, the sausage tasted exactly like meat! It was spiced beautifully and had a nice umami richness. I’m amazed at the skill of the chefs that have pulled this off (especially after tasting what passes for mock meat in the West, aka Tofurkey). My companion was not as convinced, but truly enjoyed and ate most of it.
Next up was the “beef” and potato stew, which the waitress recommended. This was even more challenging – but when the dish turned up, it looked entirely convincing.
The meat tasted wonderful – exactly like beef! It turns out, though, that the hardest thing to imitate about meat is its texture. This “beef” had the texture of glutinous rice – if you’ve ever had mochi, you’ll recognize it. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the dish and, while it might bother others, I didn’t mind the texture at all.
To finish the meal, we had pumpkin soup – this was stunningly good. It was almost completely unspiced, in contrast to the “pumpkin pie” flavours I’m used to. It was lovely to enjoy that pure pumpkin flavour.
Of course, mock meat will never really be the same as real meat, but it does allow you to really enjoy the flavour of meat dishes with your compassion intact. If I were vegetarian, I would be here all the time – the atmosphere is pleasant (a monk or two even strolled by as we ate) and the food is well-prepared. The skill and invention required to make meat substitutes is dazzling, and the nerd in me loves to eat dinner and reach a centuries-old tradition all at once.
18A Dafosi Dongjie, Yuqun Hutong (turn right onto Yuqun from Dafosi, which continues from Meishuguan Dongjie), Dongcheng District
Open 10 am – 11 pm
See Dianping page for map and Chinese-language reviews.
Price: 59-159 RMB
Note: SdC Patio is not to be confused with SdC Grill, which is located on a different hutong just east of SdC Patio’s location.
Warm weather is here at last!!! It’s time to eat outdoors in this perfect in-between season. Saveurs de Corée Patio offers not only some of the best Korean food I’ve had in Beijing, but a serene, quiet little outdoor space to enjoy the sunshine while you eat.
We showed up just before 2:30, when the lunch shift was ending, but we were still graciously ushered in.
Ingredient quality is remarkable here, particularly the purple, fragrant rice. All the dishes we had were sensational for their contrasts: crunchy and soft, sweet and sour, cool and hot, rich and refreshing.
Here are the highlights:
Pomegranate soju was incredible. Soju is a great mixer because its flavour is very robust but also gets along beautifully with other flavours. Plus this is one beautiful cocktail.
Deep-fried tofu with pickled onions came with the basic set menu. This is a pure texture dish, crunchy outside and meltingly soft inside. The pickled onions were very strongly flavoured and went beautifully with the bland tofu.
Steamed pumpkin with kimchi was surprising and stunningly delicious. When our first kimchi side dish arrived, we found it too sour – however, it paired beautifully with the sweet and unctuous pumpkin. The flavour grew on us with every bite, the crunchy cold kimchi and warm soft pumpkin setting each other off. This dish alone would make a great lunch with a bowl of rice.
Bibimbap Oh my god so good. The wide bowl produced a ton of crispy rice at the bottom, and the gochujang was excellent quality. As compared to the other dishes, the flavour was a bit bland, but that just meant that the quality and fragrance of the rice had a chance to shine.
Cinnamon tea is spicy and cold and sweet. Boiling cinnamon for a long time gives the tea a kind of smooth, slippery texture – or maybe it tastes so unusually good because it’s missing the mouth-drying feeling that comes from tannic tea leaves. (And cinnamon is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean teas).
Street-food style chicken were the best dish by far! Please, please order these when you visit! The drumsticks were succulent, clearly having been braised for a long time in a sugary soy-y marinade, and crisped either by frying or broiling. These were fatty, crispy, sweet, salty, spicy – they hit every button, especially when topped with simple, sweet pickled daikon. These really did remind me of gochujang chicken kebabs I’d eaten in Seoul,
The silken tofu soup was a happy surprise: the broth had obviously been made with a whole lot of shrimp (and garlic for that matter). Tiny shrimp were lurking in the soup, too, which was wickedly spicy, as the waitress warned us. Meanwhile, the silken tofu slides across the tongue like a raw oyster! Great for those that like spicy food in hot weather.
The basic set menu includes banchan, fried tofu, bibimbap and cinnamon tea for 59 RMB- it’s really an excellent deal for this level of quality and service. It’s true that some of the noodle dishes are overpriced compared to what you can find elsewhere, but the set menu is definitely worth it. Our total bill came to 245 RMB – which could have fed 4 at 60 each (we really didn’t expect portions to be so generous).
And as a plus, there’s a mini Korean grocery store next door (and if you’re interested in making Korean food at home, do check out Maangchi’s blog – she deserves her own cooking show!)
Saveurs de Corée/韩香馆
20 Ju’er Hutong (off Nanluoguxiang)
Open 11 a.m. – 11:30 p.m., lunch menu available 11:30-2:30.
Beijing has introduced me to the concept of restaurant as historical artifact.
Liu Zhai Shi Fu means “Liu House Cuisine.” There’s a plaque in the entrance hallway and a kind of dusty feel that makes you suspect that time here stopped in the Qing Dynasty.
In fact, the Liu family has lived in the courtyard for over a hundred years (they opened the restaurant a decade or so back).
We stopped in for a cup of jasmine tea.
We’re planning on going to eat soon. To quote Haw Berries & Kumquats,
Their mastery of simple dishes like cold cucumber or fried eggs and wood ear is mesmerizing.
Liu Zhai Shi Fu/刘宅食府
8 Jiangjia Dayuan Hutong, off Meishuguan Dongjie. Opposite the Sanlian bookstore.
Open 9:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Cuisine: Peking Duck, homestyle dishes, palace snacks
Price per person: 40-80 RMB
Beijing’s restaurants are of wildly varying quality. But there’s one thing you can say for this city, and that is that the duck is always done right. Take Jing Wei Zhai for example. It’s a lesser-known chain restaurant (there are 11 branches in Beijing). But here, a seriously delicious duck can be yours for under 40 RMB a person.
First, you’ll be greeted by cheerful ladies dressed in red.
Then, you’ll have to choose what to eat from a menu with a mix of traditional Beijing dishes and popular Sichuan ones. We opted for stir-fried cabbage (see a great recipe on Beijing Haochi!), the restaurant’s famous zhajiang noodles (炸酱面) and “rolling donkeys” （驴打滚).
The “donkeys” are really glutinous rice rolled around red bean paste and coated in toasted soybean flour. I love a bite of sticky, chewy, glutinous rice, and these have the added fun of coming from the menu’s “palace snack” section. At this restaurant you are literally eating like a king.
Then you get to season your noodles liberally from the noodle-sauce bar. I may have gone a little overboard.
And then the duck arrives. You may already have caught a glimpse of a serious young man slicing it at a distance.
I love that the duck comes with canteloupe, as well as plum sauce. I like one strip of canteloupe and one of cucumber in my duck roll. I also like piling on the garlic until my dining companion chokes a little bit. There’s no fussing with sea cucumber-duck dishes or duck-related paraphernalia coming to your table here. Just damn good duck. And you can enjoy it with a cheap bottle of Yanjing. You can come on a weekday in a hoodie. Duck minus a dress code. I love it.
Jing Wei Zhai/京味斋
8 Wenhuiyuan Beilu (Qingya Tower Building B)
Open 10:00 a.m. – 10 p.m., according to the sign, but after lunchtime they tend to take a break until 5:30.
There are, as I mentioned above, a bunch of other branches in Beijing. Just type or copy “京味斋” into your nearest Google or Baidu Map to find the one near you.
Plus: if you’re in this neighbourhood in the afternoon, check out the Xiaoxitian market.
The good news is that now there are at least four or five places to eat Mexican food in Beijing (not at Amigos, though, it just closed.) The bad news are that none of them is stellar. Why is that? Lack of competition? Lack of a demanding consumer base?
As one demanding consumer, I say: Beijing needs better Mexican food!
I guess you might say that no, the reason you love Beijing is that it is far away from Mexican food and similar pernicious cultural dilutions. But I say that ship has sailed, and there are already Mexican restaurants. Since they exist, they might as well not suck.
But you’re reading this post to find out where you should eat Mexican food in Sanlitun, and now I can tell you: it’s Luga’s. By a mile.
The reasons were pretty simple – price, atmosphere and flavour were all better there compared with the Saddle Cantina.
At the Saddle Cantina, we ate:
Soft tacos with carnitas, and a margarita. (Unphotographed was a chicken tortilla). The carnitas were identifiably carnitas, but that was the only thing worth saying about them. The tacos were inexpertly stuffed, and were hard to eat, the salsa didn’t taste very good. Covering them with Tabasco was the only way to make them even slightly interesting. And the margarita was way oversalted – it was a chore to drink. The two items cost 105 RMB.
Afterward, at Luga’s: a caipirinha, nachos, and chicken burrito:
The caipirinha was excellent, as were the nachos: very nicely cheesy (with two layers of cheese!) and pretty spicy. The burrito could have used some improvement, it wasn’t as flavourful as it should have been. However: all of this cost half as much as at the Saddle. A clear winner! Quite amazing for a place whose menu is half Vietnamese.
7 Sanlitun Beijie
Open 10 a.m. – 3 a.m.
The Saddle Cantina
Nali Patio, 81 Sanlitun Beijie
Open 11 a.m. – 3 a.m.
Lurou fan 卤肉饭 or stewed-meat rice has a humble name but is a classic Taiwanese dish, something you can find in almost every Taiwanese restaurant in Taipei.
It’s all about the stewing broth, which is boiled for a long time with many spices and acquires a delicious savory-sweet flavour. The versions I was served in Taiwan were spare and elegant; just crispy, fatty pork mingling with pure steamed rice.
There’s a little lurou fan hole-in-the-wall outside Beijing Normal University’s South Gate, but I tried not to get my hopes up. Sometimes the real stuff can be hard to find in Beijing. Last night I was speaking with a guy from Hunan, and I asked, “where do you go for great Hunanese food?” He replied, “In my own kitchen.”
Fortunately, with the luroufan, I was in for a nice surprise.
This version has a lot more heft than the elegant varieties I tried in Taiwan. There’s the tea egg on the side, the bok choy, the pickles. But that flavour is right. It’s sweet and spicy, with cinnamon, anise, soy all working together.
One bowl is lunch for a very hungry person (probably for one doing more strenuous work all morning than learning the grammatical uses of 才). Make sure you stir everything into the rice first – that strongly flavoured meat needs to be rice’d down.
There are some other lunch options: meat-stuffed bread and chicken-leg rice. Both were deemed “pretty good” by discerning classmates. My top recommendation is the xiangla lurou fan, 香辣卤肉饭, which is the same as the regular version but with a little sandy chili oil plopped on top. Lunch perfection as far as I’m concerned. I’ll go back.
Taiwan Lurou Fan/台湾卤肉饭
Go out BNU’s south gate and cross the street, turn right and look for the “台湾卤肉饭” place.
(For non-BNU students, just go to the Beishida/北京师范大学 bus stop, and turn left onto Xueyuan Nanlu 学院南路. You’ll find it on the south side of the street).
If you’re biking around between Xihai and Houhai and food attracts you, chances are you’ll find your way to Run De Li market by accident. Last September, I was biking after class and started to see a few vegetables here and there, being sold off carts, trucks full of sweet potatoes. Then there were a few dry goods shops. Then a pork butcher or two, and then the market gate. Vendors spill out, alley veins leading to the market’s heart.
This market shows how Beijing’s old town’s small size hides certain vast distances. This market isn’t far from Houhai, which is full of partying foreigners, but here, on the other side of the lake, a non-Chinese person will be noticed. Treated well, but noticed, and talked about, especially if you step into the little “snack town” or 小吃城 for a bowl of hand-pulled noodles.
Inside you’ll find a man making noodle magic. (He didn’t want me to photograph him at work, but you can see the process here). He made me this:
This is egg-and-tomato topped noodles, or 西红柿鸡蛋拉面。 The secret of this dish is that the tomatoes should be sweet and the eggs salty; this one fit the bill and the noodles were some of the best I’ve had in Beijing.
Outside, you can stock up on vegetables and pantry essentials. Actually, at this market, unlike the Xiao Xi Tian market, you can buy everything you need, from furniture & shoes…
To beautiful fruits and vegetables. This isn’t a “local food” type deal – they definitely aren’t growing sugarcane in Beijing.
But I still feel like this market is a healthy places. The market knows seasons. Produce is fresh. Meat is expensive and there isn’t much of it, and vegetables are cheap. You can chat with the vendors.
I love a place where you can buy everything you need. A modern supermarket really has nothing on this.
Off Deshengmen Nei Dajie/德胜门内大街
Cuisine: Taiwanese desserts
Price: 20-40 RMB per person
The mango-coconut-sago drink here is delicious! If you like mangoes, you’ll like iTea. Stop in if you’re on Nanluoguxiang. Just don’t try the Guiling Gao, it may be a fascinating food but to me it tasted like death.
Nanluoguxiang and Jingyang Hutong (on the west side of Nanluoguxiang).
Open 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.