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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.

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?

Daoxiangcun Grocery is packed with interesting foods, but ma la su, a crisp mix of sesame, chilies, and peanuts, deserves a little special attention.

In the store, you can’t miss it – its bright red colour shines out from the white breads around it. I can’t eat peanuts, so I recruited a tasting assistant. The verdict:

“This is basically the perfect snack food. The photo makes it look like a bit of a mess, but it’s dry on the hands and the heat isn’t overwhelming. The sesame seeds, just a little sweetened, add enough moisture to make the mix easy to chew. It’d be great with beer or while watching a movie–and it was cheap even by Chinese standards!”

(It was 3 RMB for our little bag).

Generally speaking, Daoxiangcun is a very fine store, with terrific Dianping ratings at just about every branch. They serve up a variety of prepared meats, dumplings, tiny cakes, and cookies. There’s almost certainly one in your neighbourhood, so go check it out!

Daoxiangcun/稻香村

Many, many locations. If you read Chinese, check out this Dianping page. If you don’t, copy and paste “稻香村” into Google Maps to find the closest one to you!

Huguosi snack shops are very traditional, very old-school bakeries and restaurants run by Hui Muslims. The shops’ namesake, Huguosi or “Protect the Nation Temple,” was once located on the west side of Xicheng district. Sadly, the temple was mostly knocked down in the 50s, but the little traditional snack shops on the same street (Huguosi Xiaochi Dian, or 护国寺小吃店) are still going strong and now have plenty of locations throughout the district.

These foods may be traditional, but they are popular. I hardly ever walk by the shop near Beijing Normal University without seeing a lineup of people stocking up on various red-bean-stuffed goods.

I really like the savory mahua 麻花, dough strands which bake up very hard and crunchy. It offers a salty, crispy, sesame-y bite.

Date bread is terrific, heavy and soft, with the date flavour permeating the dough. It’s more like a cake than a bread.

I also love the coconut-covered, red-bean filled pastries (just look for the coconut, they’re not hard to spot). But really the best thing to do here is point that everything that looks good and taste for yourself!

Huguosi Xiaochi Dian/护国寺小吃店

Google Map of locations throughout the city (concentrated in Xicheng district).

Also see this longer and more detailed post by Beijing Haochi on the actual meals you can eat at the largest “snack shop” on Huguosi street itself.