The decor at Da Gui has a clear message: order the sour fish soup! Once you locate the restaurant (behind an unassuming hutong door and ramshackle corridor) you’ll see a bright painting of the tomato-red soup shining in the white, old-fashioned dining room. The opposite wall has another, equally large mural explaining how the famous Guizhou dish is made.

We didn’t order it today because of its cost (the cheapest fish was 116 RMB). Diners around us took note: “Foreigners don’t like suantangyu,” they commented. Far from it – it’s simply that Da Gui has plenty of other delicious dishes, pairing Guizhou cuisine’s distinctive sour tastes with sweet and savoury ingredients.

For example, their cucumber and Asian pear salad (雪梨黄瓜) is a revelation to people, like me, that have only eaten cucumber with vinaigrette. Here, it’s treated like a fruit, paired with crunchy Asian pear and tossed in an orange juice dressing. The textures of cucumber and Asian pear are very similar, and the parallel was enhanced by their being cut in exactly the same shape. Cucumber’s mild grassy flavour contrasted pleasantly with the orange dressing.

Sweet and savoury flavours are paired again, maybe even more brilliantly, in Da Gui’s sweet dumplings (汤圆) with Guizhou preserved vegetables (腌菜). The toasty, black-sesame filled dumplings would be good on their own, but paired with the pungent, salty greens, the dish becomes addictive. The taste is analogous to salty chocolate, but the combination of soft vegetable and crisp dumpling create a great mouthfeel too.

I’m sure the suantangyu is delicious, but it will have to wait for the day that we’re tired of these fascinating dishes.

Da Gui/大贵
69 Daxing Hutong, off Jiaodaokou Nan Dajie
东城区交道口大兴胡同69号
Open 10 am – 2 pm, 5pm.-10pm

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It’s one thing to enjoy what you’re eating, and completely another to understand the skill and artistry with which it’s made! There’s no question – the more you know about Chinese cooking techniques, the more you’ll appreciate Beijing’s foods (and the more you can impress/bore the pants off your friends at the dinner table).

Today, at the Black Sesame Kitchen off Nanluoguxiang, we joined the clumsy cleaver-wielding crowd for a lesson based around tofu. We learned a lot — especially about knife skills, which are absolutely crucial to Chinese cuisine, not to mention crucial for not looking like a barbarian in the kitchen.

Mostly, though, we admired the abilities of the teachers, people who have spent their lives cooking.

Chairman Wang (above photo, centre) is, as one of our fellow students described her, “a born teacher,” looking like the happiest woman in Beijing as she encouraged us gently to position our hands just so, to cut the carrots at a 45-degree angle. The more mistakes we made, the more she smiled, unafraid to grab our hands and show us what to do.

She was honest, letting me know that my twice-cooked tofu wasn’t up to par and told me just what I needed to change. And she conducted the class entirely in Chinese with the help of a translator. It worked for those that didn’t speak Chinese, but it was even better for Chinese learners – we learned more useful language in three hours here than we do in a week of ordinary class!

Check out Black Sesame’s website for more info!

Cuisine: Imperial

Area: Yonganli

Price: 90-150 RMB per person.

Na Jia Xiaoguan is a distinctive experience. First, it is a beautiful place. All too many traditional-style restaurants in Beijing feel like their last paint job was before Liberation. At Na Jia Xiaoguan, however, the paint is new, the wood is shining: here, visitors can guess at what it was like to be rich at the height of the Qing Dynasty.

Second, the setting of the place – in view of the towers of CBD – made me feel like I was in a rarefied version of Beijing. A Beijing where traditional restaurants and neighbourhoods thrive, but the city is wealthy and international. Up to this point, I had seen this Beijing mostly in the movies.

On to the food. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert in Manchu and Imperial cuisine! However, I can say that the menu was fascinating and the dishes delicious.

We hit an interesting snag or two while ordering: the lovely waitress told us that one dish wouldn’t suit us, it was too gamey, and another soup was “unsuitable for women.” Gastronomic sexism? No, it turned out the soup involved deer penis. Thanks for the warning!

As an appetizer, we tried the Shi Ning mashed potato (世宁土豆泥). This dish was invented by an Italian painter at the Kangxi emperor’s court, who was trying to recreate Italian ice cream. The painter, however, couldn’t find the right ingredients (in the past, dairy and beef were taboo in China, much like dog meat is for many Westerners). He came up with a dish of sweetened mashed potato dressed in red bean sauce.

This is only like ice cream in the sense that it’s sweet and served cold. But it’s certainly enjoyable, simply tasting of mashed potatoes and sugar.

The “crispy shrimp with unique flavour,” 秘制酥皮虾, were bathed in a delicious sauce – a light, elegant sweet and sour. The prawns were large and meaty – I wanted them a little more tender, but their flavour was good and, looking around, we could see that this was a popular choice.

Next up, the most interesting dish of the evening: 逐鹿皇坛子, one of Na Jia Xiaoguan’s several soups that are slow-cooked for at least 18 hours. Ours included venison (the Manchu were famous hunters), mushroom, egg and medlar.

The soup did taste wonderful, but after all the difficulty of its preparation, I was surprised: its flavours were simple and earthy, to me tasting mostly like excellent chicken broth and eggs. It was very satisfying, with its unusual thick texture making it more filling than most soups. And then, we tried the condiments:

That little square of tofu in the foreground looks innocent, even bland, but that couldn’t be more wrong. This would be the thing to give anyone who things tofu is “boring.” That little square was my first taste of fermented tofu, 豆腐乳, and one tiny speck of it on the tip of a chopstick was almost overpowering. It tasted first shockingly salty, then funky and sweet like overripe fruit. And it was strong – two of us were only able to consume half the block. It was absolutely sensational.

Finally, the conghua bing 葱花饼 were crispy, just greasy enough and mildly flavoured – a strong finish to a fascinating meal. Na Jia Xiaoguan is perfect for new visitors to Beijing, and for those who want a glimpse into the city’s past and possible future.

Na Jia Xiaoguan/那家小馆

Jianguomen Wai, just southwest of Yonganli subway station, beside Elementary School no. 119. Look for the one traditional-looking house behind the LG building.
朝阳区建国门外永安里(119中学西边)

Dianping page.

The Beijinger listing.

Cuisine: Yunnan

Area: West Sanlitun

Price: Around 80 RMB per person

Today Beijing had a one-in-a-million blue sky day. It looked like some property developer’s sketch – even the metal-and-glass monstrosities stacked up in Chaoyang looked gorgeous in the sunshine. A good day to eat outside. Going to In & Out is a great thing to do on a day this sunny, not least because they serve Yunnan cuisine, which involves mint, fresh flowers, mushrooms, pineapple and lemongrass.

Decor: Beautiful green outdoor patio, though you might be bothered by itinerant vendors, especially if you look foreign. Indoors is painted white, with comfy chairs.

Menu: Beautifully photographed. Includes Chinese and English, but I liked the explanations of dishes (in Chinese only). In & Out is clearly not aiming for a Yunnanese customer base, but to denizens of the Embassy area and to the many, many Chinese couples who went to Lijiang on their honeymoons. Unfortunately, we were too cheap to order the fried bees (82 RMB). Next time perhaps.

Dishes:

Jingpo Ghost Chicken (景颇鬼鸡) is a poached, pulled-apart chicken, served cold and dressed with lemon, chilies, pepper, ginger and garlic. The flavours were very bright, and the chilies got hotter with every bite. This dish is a specialty of the Jingpo ethnic group, which offers the ghosts a sample of everything they cook before it can be eaten.

The Dongba No.1 Ribs (霸王排骨) were surprisingly good. They didn’t come warm, and they weren’t falling-apart tender, but the chopped chili sauce on top was so good it more than made up for the cooler serving temperature. I took the mint on the side and ate it with the ribs, I’d recommend you do the same.

The roasted eggplant (火烤茄子) was the only serious disappointment. The mix of roasted eggplant, bell pepper and onions was drenched in a very strong-tasting vinegar, drowning out the flavours of the vegetables. Too strong to eat!

Finally we had the roast tofu with ham and lemongrass (建水香草云腿豆腐裹). This one was my favourite, Yunnan ham encased in little tofu pockets, tied up with lemongrass. Yunnan ham is always great – salty and rich – and the tofu had, I suspect, been fried in rendered pork fat, because it tasted rather meaty itself. I chewed up the little packets, lemongrass and all, and really enjoyed the lemongrass and ham flavour together.

I should mention that my friend did NOT enjoy the slightly funky taste of the tofu, saying it “tasted like barnyard.” It is true that the tofu had a gamy, funky flavour, which I completely loved, but if you don’t like, say, blue cheese, stay away from this one.

Last up was the Buyi multicoloured rice, which tasted like plain rice but looked ten times more beautiful:

There was plenty more of interest on the menu – Yunnanese mushrooms, for example, which are rightly famous, plenty of edible flowers, and very interesting-looking desserts. This is a menu to explore. I’d highly recomment giving the jasmine flower eggs (茉莉花炒鸡蛋) a try.

Value: Decent, especially considering the location. A couple of items (like the 25 RMB Dali beer, and the 40 RMB pineapple rice) were clearly, blatantly overpriced. We are in Chaoyang, after all. But other dishes were good value, 30-40 RMB each.

Service: Very friendly. The traditional Yunannese outfits were lovely. Our waitress always came right away when we called, and she was great about helping us choose what we wanted.

Comparisons: I think that Golden Peacock in Haidian may still have the edge (I’ve never had a bad dish at Golden Peacock, and it is slightly cheaper). But In & Out has a more varied menu, a convenient location, and plenty of unique, interesting Yunannese products and dishes on offer – while GP focuses on Dai cuisine, In & Out picks and chooses from many different cuisines. If decor is a factor, In & Out is far superior, and that can be important on a sunny day. In & Out also beats No Name both in terms of flavour and prices.

In & Out/一座一忘丽江主题餐厅

1 Sanlitun Beixiaojie, next to Jenny Lou’s.
三里屯北小街1号.

Open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Dianping page.

Cuisine: Xinjiang

Area: Dongsi

Price per person: 40-50 RMB

Crescent Moon’s been written about plenty; I think it always wins “Best Xinjiang” in whatever English-language restaurant surveys are around. I’m very fond of it myself. Crescent Moon may not be the cheapest, or even really the best Xinjiang around. But at a certain level of goodness, does “the best” really matter? Crescent Moon is delicious.

I have found Xinjiang food wonderful since my first encounter with it, at a little place in Dazhalan. This place could be spotted and smelled from down the street thanks to the nan guy out front grilling flatbreads, then brushing them with oil and spice. Tasting cumin and salt together can still make me remember being nineteen years old and feeling, hearing the waiters speak a language I hadn’t known existed the day before, that my world was getting wider quickly.

That place is gone now, like a lot of the places I ate at way back in 2008.

Now I’ve got Crescent Moon and their delicious Xinjiang liangcai (新疆凉菜), julienned pepper, onion, and cucumber. It’s dressed with vinegar and, in an inspired touch, a hint of sugar.

Nan baorou 馕包肉 is pure comfort food to me, likely because I ate a lot of lamb growing up. This dish, lamb in a tomato stew, sitting on top of a toasted flatbread, is rich, complex, and very filling. If you love lamb, be sure to order this one.

If you can handle it, do get the lamb skewers (羊肉串)…the waitress will always ask if you want any. Today, she looked a little miffed when we said no – we weren’t hungry enough, but they are delicious.

Crescent Moon/弯月
16 Dongsi Liu Tiao.
东城区东四六条16号

Cuisine: Hunan

Area: Minzu Daxue (in southern Haidian)

Price: 40 RMB per person

The area around National Minorities University (Minzu Daxue) is good to visit on a Saturday night. Everywhere you look, beers are being cracked open, meat’s being grilled on a fire, bubble tea’s being shaken up, drunken college kids are hugging their friends. “I drank too much!” “Dude, I did too!”

Minzu Daxue is blessed with a series of truly excellent restaurants, including, as we found tonight, pitch-perfect Hunan at Tong Xin Kitchen (童心厨室). This place is well worth a trip: the decor is friendly and cheerful, as is the service. Prices are very reasonable (about 40 RMB per person), and the food is as good as, if not better than, what we ate on a recent trip to Changsha.

Hongshao rou, 红烧肉 or red-cooked pork is a classic Hunan dish, which was given a priceless PR boost when Chairman Mao declared it his favourite. It’s made with pork belly, cooked for a long time with cinnamon, star anise, chilies, and caramelised sugar. Tong Xin’s version was redolent with cinnamon, “richly fat but not greasy,” fei er bu ni, as you would say in Chinese.

In fact, I found Tong Xin’s version far more flavourful than the one I tried at Mao’s family home in Shaoshan.

Tong Xin’s nongjia xiaochao, 农家小炒 or “country house small stir-fry,” was also one of the best I’ve ever had. This is a very potent dish – made with dried pork, green pepper, lots and lots of chilies, and fermented soybeans. The result is super salty, peppery and hot, making the dish very xia fan – “makes the rice go down”. This means it’s so intensely flavoured it keeps you reaching for your rice, and you fill up fast even if there isn’t much to eat.

This was the kind of dish eaten during hard times in the countryside – happily, now mainly enjoyed for its amazing flavour.

Our third dish was a bit of a mystery. It’s called 青炒油麦菜, and we ordered it at our waitress’ recommendation. It was beautifully seasoned, but we couldn’t identify the green, nor can we find it in the dictionary. It did taste great, so no complaints!

Tong Xin Kitchen/童心厨室

26 Minzu Daxue Xi Lu (at the corner of Minzu Daxue Xi Lu and Weigongcun Jie).
海淀区魏公村民族大学路26号(近民族学院西门)

Dianping page (including map).

Cuisine: American/European (focus on breakfast, brunch, sandwiches).

Area: Nanluoguxiang

Price: 30-60 RMB per person

Just in case you haven’t heard of Alba on Gulou: they make a nice breakfast fry-up and delicious pancakes, at reasonable prices. They are much better than Sculpting in Time, my previous breakfast spot. The sausage, especially, was very good and spicy. The pancakes were fluffy and great paired with the house-made jam.

That said: we have returned and found that their coffee is seriously overpriced (28 RMB for an iced latte that was mostly milk), and that the kitchen doesn’t seem to be holding up to Alba’s increased popularity. Return visits have found badly scrambled eggs and tasteless potatoes. It is better than Sculpting in Time, but Alba still has some ways to go; it’s not yet serving consistently great food at good value. But sometimes when you really want pancakes, good is often good enough.

Drop by if you haven’t yet! And check out what City Weekend has to say about it here.

Alba

70 Gulou Dongdajie
东城区鼓楼东大街70号

Open 10 a.m. – 1 a.m.

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!

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.

Cuisine: Traditional Beijing desserts

Area: Nanluoguxiang

Price: 10-15 RMB

Walking down Nanluoguxiang at night, you’ll see plenty of brightly lit and not-good snack joints. One snack shop, however, stands out from the masses for two reasons: 1) it is actually old, and has plaques on the shopfront saying as much, and 2) there is always a large queue of happy-looking Chinese tourists outside.

Wen Yu Nailao could be translated as “Wen House Cheese,” but Chinese nailao and European cheese are very different animals. There is only really one type of nailao, which is milk curdled with rice wine. It’s not fermented or aged. It’s more like a loose, very soft custard, served cool and slightly sweetened – a refreshing summer dessert.

There’s a nod to nostalgia in the setup: you order at the ordering counter, and take your ticket over to the food counter. Like any great specialty shop, Wen Yu’s offerings are limited but perfect as they are: you can have your nailao plain, or topped with mango, red bean, or oats.

My mango-topped nailao was mild, gentle, and had just the right amount of sweetness. I really loved the texture, which reminded me of a full-fat yogurt: very rich and full-bodied. It mixed very nicely with the fresh, sweet mango. I bet the other toppings would be terrific too.

This is a great light, after-meal snack – but be warned, the shop opens at noon and stays open until everything sells out, so the earlier you get there the better!

And don’t forget to keep a lookout for 奶酪 signboards, because the snack is all over Beijing, though most stores aren’t as old as Wen Yu’s.

Wen Yu Nailao/文宇奶酪

49 Nanluoguxiang, at the entrance to Heizhima Hutong. Open 12 p.m. – late.

东城区南锣鼓巷49号(黑芝麻胡同口)。

Dianping page.