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Cuisine: Traditional Beijing (Hui Muslim)
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)
1. Visit the beautiful Ox Street Mosque. Walk around, admire, observe. Learn about Hui (Chinese Muslim) history. Work up appetite.
2. Admire in particular this enormous pot, built in 1739, for making congee (粥) during Ramadan. Wonder how many people this congee pot could feed. A hundred? Start to feel hungry.
3. Head over to the Qingzhen (清真, halal) supermarket across the street.
4. Notice many snack shops in the foyer (there is also a food court on the second floor, but we are too lazy to explore it just yet). Notice in particular an incredible dried-fruit stands, which contains dates almost as big as your fist. Purchase.
5. Draw your attention over to the biggest pot of eight-treasure rice (八宝饭) you have (probably) ever seen. Admire. Be drawn into English 101 conversation with the keeper of said rice pot, who is 27 and from Beijing. Agree to be friends.
6. Wander over to Bai Ji Niangao (白记年高). Feel proud that you can recognize everything on display: from the back, sweet shaobing, zongzi, lu da gunr, niangao, and a huge slab of red bean cake.
I chose some some lu da gunr (rolling donkeys, i.e. glutinous rice + red bean + soybean flour). I also picked up some jiangmi niangao (the layer cake of glutinous rice flour and red bean paste, topped with haw jelly).
Eat and examine your reactions. For myself, while I acknowledge that the red-bean paste quality was excellent, I did not have a niangao epiphany. The layers of red bean and rice were just too thick, and the rice paste was too heavy to enjoy more than one bite of. Same goes for the donkeys – the whole thing was too enormous to be manageable, and the quality was not so different from Huguosi Xiaochi, which is easier to reach from central Beijing.
8. Head over to Ju Bao Yuan to admire the beautiful place settings. Look at the line of about 40-50 people waiting for a table, at 5 on a Thursday evening. Make a mental note that Ju Bao Yuan has it going on, but plan for lineup time before going. (Read more here, I’m especially intrigued by the haw berries in crystal).
Return home, belly full of red bean paste and possibly hotpot. Feel impressed by how integral Hui cuisine is to traditional Beijing foods, and feel interested to know that Beijing still has places where you’re a tourist, a total stranger.
Note: To do all this, simply find a bus that heads to the Niu Jie 牛街 bus stop.