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Cuisine:  Traditional Beijing (Hui Muslim)

Area: Houhai

Price: 5-20 RMB per person

English menu available

 

Li Ji Traditional Snacks, sitting in a narrow hutong just north of Houhai, specializes in traditional sesame buns, or shaobing. They also offer a small-but-excellent selection of other Beijing classics, like boiled tripe and lamb soup. (You won’t find any pork here – Li Ji is run by Hui Chinese and is halal only).

The shop is well-known among Chinese visitors, resulting in an interesting mix of customers. Tattooed Hui guys and bearded lao Beijing grandpas rub elbows with iPhone’d xiaojies posting their shaobing excursion on Weibo.  

Li Ji is managing its popularity with grace, resisting the neon craze going on in most of Houhai. The prices are low and their hospitality is genuine. A smile and a polite question or two are enough to get invited into the open-air kitchen, where you can see the shaobing being rolled by hand.

The dough, to which sesame paste is added, is stretched and twisted until it makes a bun filled with hundreds of thin, soft layers. The outside is then dipped in sesame seeds and baked, making a flaky, tender bun that’s an excellent vehicle for silky slices of beef (just ask for shaobing jia niurou, 烧饼夹牛肉).

You can also have your shaobing plain, with ma doufu. Ma Doufu isn’t exactly good to look at; its name translates to “freckled/spotted tofu,” and it’s a kind of off-brown colour. It is, however, good to eat. It’s made of mashed, fermented mung beans, and was traditionally eaten by Beijing’s poor (perhaps since ma doufu was considered an unwanted byproduct of the classier douzhi, fermented mung bean juice). It’s usually fried in lamb fat and topped with a little chili oil.

Don’t be put off by its colour: ma doufutastes rich, sour and oniony. It’s an unusual taste, but I liked it on my very first try.  In fact, the combination of ma doufu and shaobing put us in mind of bagels and cream cheese – a sesame bun and a fatty, savoury topping. I’ll be back the next time a sesame craving hits.

 

Li Ji Traditional Snacks 李记传统小吃

(sometimes known as Longxingsheng Snacks or  隆兴盛名优小吃)

19 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng District (near Houhai’s Silver Ingot Bridge)

西城区后海鸦儿胡同19号(近银锭桥)

Dianping page.

BoB has a new feature, the Food Map of Beijing – a Google Map that plots every restaurant and market I’ve visited.

Now it’s easy to see what restaurants are near you – and just click on any tab to get a short description and link to the relevant post!

The map is a little Gulou-heavy, and biased towards Beijing’s northern half – I’ll be working on that over the next few months.

With mala xiangguo “hot-numbing fragrant pot”, the process is part of the pleasure. At the restaurant outside Beijing Normal University’s South Gate, you’re faced with a list of at least 40 different vegetables and meats from broccoli to bacon. Four or five choices are good for two; my favourites are the lotus root and broccoli, which drink in the chili oil but keep their own flavour.

The ingredients you choose are then tossed in a hot bowl full of oil and spices: chili oil, lantern chilies, deep-fried garlic and ginger, salt, and of course a handful or two of Sichuan peppercorn. You’re at the mercy of the chef and your tolerance: a few too many peppers and it’ll burn like hell. But if the balance between chef and eater is right, you’ll be in hot-and-numbing heaven. A lemony buzz from the Sichuan peppercorn and smooth, rich heat from the chili oil animate the vegetables.

There are plenty of places to get mala xiangguo in Beijing; I like my local hole-in-the wall, but here are some addresses:

Spice Spirit/麻辣诱惑 (Wudaokou location)

28 Chengfu Lu (Wudaokou Shopping Centre) 6th floor, Haidian District
海淀区成府路28号五道口购物中心6楼

Shu Xiangcun
South side of Xueyuan Nanlu (not far from Xinjiekou Waidajie, opposite BNU’s south gate)

And thousands of others…just search 麻辣香锅 on Dianping!

Cuisine: Jiaozi (dumplings) and Sichuanese

Area: Maizidian

Price: 30-60 per person (ordering dumplings is much cheaper than the Sichuan menu)

I used to be a serious jiaozi-hater. The fillings always tasted the same: meat drenched in too much soy sauce. They’d be filled with almost-raw chives, or have wrappers that fell apart. It didn’t seem to matter what we ordered; they all tasted the same! Every time I ate them, I would make unfavourable comparisons with ravioli in my head and promise myself never to spend money on jiaozi again.

It took Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu’s creative, clever jiaozi to change this dumpling-hater’s mind. Their jiaozi wrappers are beautifully coloured – orange, purple, green – making a cheap meal feel festive. (This makes up for their being a little too thin and loose for my taste).

But what really makes Baoyuan’s jiaozi great is the combination of ingredients in the fillings; they’re fresh, innovative, and texturally interesting as well.

Their lotus root and zucchini dumpling (below, left) was delicious! The lotus root, chopped fine, was very crunchy, contrasting with the soft zucchini. This dumpling’s delicate flavour matched nicely with the vinegar at the table.

The smoked pork, radish and chili dumpling (below right) was very, very fiery. Chili addicts will love the mix of chili heat and savoury, fatty smoked pork. The radish added sourness and crunch.

Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu has a Sichuanese menu as well, but we decided to focus on the dumpling offerings. However, a stir-fry of pea shoots (清炒豆苗) was very refreshing, salty with barely a touch of oil.

Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu 宝源饺子屋

North of 6 Maizidian Jie, Chaoyang District (it’s not hard to spot if you look out for a big red-and-white sign with the name of the restaurant in characters).
朝阳区麦子店街6号楼北侧

Open until 10 p.m.

It just doesn’t get more Beijing than a plate of dumplings.

Xian Lao Man is in my estimation one of the better places to eat them, and drink up a uniquely Beijing atmosphere.* If you go at the right time, the restaurant is packed and noisy, bright lights, very chaotic, just the way it should be. Order a jug of sour-plum juice (酸梅汤) and appreciate where you are.

Their dumplings are really well-done, with taut, thin wrappers, fresh fillings, with the dumplings just the right size to eat in two bites. I like them made into guotie (i.e. fried), it makes for a crunchier, more interesting texture. They come with plenty of fillings – I especially liked the pork-and-corn (猪肉玉米) variety.

And that crispy-skinned fish-fragrant eggplant (鱼香脆皮茄子)! What a star! What an exciting dish! Fish-fragrant eggplant, with its sweet-sour-spicy sauce, is always delicious, but here the skins were crunchy, adding a fun textural element and making the dish new again.

We were clearly not the only ones who liked Xian Lao Man. “After eating there regularly,” said one Dianping reviewer, “if I go elsewhere, I feel the dumplings are oily or just too big. Xian Lao Man really is better.”

Xian Lao Man/馅老满

Andingmen location:

252 Andingmen Neidajie/安定门内大街252号

Dongsi location:

316 Dongsi Beidajie (at the intersection with Dongsi Liu Tiao) 东城区东四北大街316号(东四六条西口)

For full list of locations see the Dianping page.

*As it happened, I was reading City Weekend’s best restaurant guide while eating. Xian Lao Man was not mentioned. In fact, of their many categories only two Chinese restaurants were mentioned: Da Dong and Din Tai Fung. Do they know what City they are in?

Cuisine: Yunnan

Area: Gulou (Baochao Hutong)

Price: 50-100 RMB per person

At any given time in Beijing, where all Chinese cuisines are available night and day, there’s always one region that’s hogging the spotlight. Taiwanese is enjoying attention now, and Sichuan is always popular. But the star of the moment in Beijing is, definitely, Yunnan.

Yunnan Province is in China’s far southwest, and its cuisine is very easy to love. It relies on simply cooked local produce – like mushrooms, pineapple, mint, flowers and lemongrass – and delicious preserved products like ham. For Beijingers it’s also nice to think about a visit to the gorgeous Yunnanese countryside (which we imagine, incorrectly or not, to be all green hills, blue rivers, etc.)

There are plenty of great Yunnan restaurants out there now (Middle 8th, Dali Courtyard, In & Out) that are all as good as they are expensive. Equal deliciousness can be found at Dali Renjia in Baochao Hutong, with an interior slightly dustier and a price slightly friendlier.

Jasmine flowers stir-fried with egg (茉莉花炒鸡蛋). The flowers are more buds, and their gentle herbal flavor is perfect, PERFECT, with the salty stir-fried egg. The combination is a Yunnan classic.

The beef with lime (柠檬牛肉) isn’t delicate at all. Cured beef slices are covered in vinegar, lime, mint, and chilies, making the dish very acidic and spicy. And addictive.

Cucumber salad is always delicious, as in smacked cucumber, (拍黄瓜) but this lime cucumber salad (柠檬黄瓜) kicks it a crazy notch up with extra acid from the limes and a huge amount of chili. This one had me running for the fridge for drinks and sniffling hard – I’m a chili addict so I loved it.

The day I took pictures they had run out of pea tofu (碗豆腐), but if you’re a tofu lover don’t forget to order it – the lightly pea-flavoured tofu is dressed with vinegar, chilies and soybeans; it’s pretty sublime.

There’s no question, Dali Renjia is an awesome place to eat in Gulou, with a great rooftop view away from the Nanluoguxiang crowds. This meal cost us about 50 RMB each (if we had ordered more meat dishes, it would have been more). That, plus the service is always great – casual but attentive, and the waiters have suspended their break time more than once to serve us a midafternoon meal.

Dali Renjia/大理人家
80 Baochao Hutong 宝钞胡同80号

Opening hours – ??? They are never closed at lunch or early dinnertime.