Beijing: First, find your cleaver
Many traditional Beijing neighbourhoods have disappeared but parts of the Emperors’ city are still to be found. We visit Dongcheng’s Mao’er hutong district to see what Beijing’s chefs are up to
H ome of the Peking duck, but also host to Cantonese dim sum, spicy Sichuan hotpot and even Marco Polo’s commandeered pizza, Beijing’s chefs still churn out dishes fit for royalty.
To learn the secrets of what makes Chinese food so irresistible, sign up for a morning cooking class, or an evening taster session (both cost around €38 and are conducted in English), at Black Sesame Kitchen (3 Heizhima Hutong, inside Nanluoguxiang).
Kitchen trainees are immediately presented with China’s key kitchen tool – the cleaver. Heavy, dangerously sharp and a one-stop shop for food preparation, the cleavers are quickly hacked into the key elements of our Chinese dish, leeks and ginger, and used to smash up garlic cloves.
Chopsticks are used to stir our dumpling mixture, in one direction only, before a master class in making delicate dumpling skins. The end result is a banquet of northern-style dumplings, or potstickers, which are larger and meatier than their Cantonese cousins having been simultaneously pan-fried and steamed.
For those who go on holiday to get away from the pans, one of the best local dumpling joints is Xian Lao Man (252 Andingmen Nei Dajie). Xian Lao Man is known for its emphasis on meaty fillings. Dumplings can only be ordered in sets of 10, but dip each little one into your bowl of vinegar, soy sauce and fresh ginger and you can’t go wrong. For a little over €10, we gorged on two sets of pork and cabbage dumplings, along with a side of mushrooms and tofu in oyster sauce and Chinese tea.
Coming back into the daylight, Beijing’s Ghost St (Dongzhimennei Dajie) was already bustling. Look up to spot the floating red lanterns that line the street but don’t lose your way in the constant throng of students, career travellers, and families working their way through the varied take-away snack food. There’s an eclectic taste on offer here – from a popular version of Spanish churros, to American-style milkshakes to crispy grasshoppers.
If you’d rather keep the insects in the garden, head to Li Qun (11 Beixiangfeng, Dongdajie). It’s best to take a taxi if you can, as everyone seems to know Li Qun. Once you reach the hutong, follow the white ducks spray-painted on the hutong walls.
You won’t need a menu – just specify how many ducks you want. One is more than enough for two hungry people. Your waiter will carve the bird at your table like a master sculptor at work, while you smother light as air pancakes with a rich plum sauce.
Skip the communal bathroom, and bring cash, as friendly Li Qun has a temperamental credit card reader. Although, he will cheerfully cycle you to the nearest ATM if you are short of the €25 that a whole duck and all the extras will set you back. Make a telephone reservation: 00-86-1067055578, the day before you plan on dining.
A mix of cosy and cool, Mao Mao Chong Bar (12 Banchang Hutong) is a great place for an after-dinner drink. Current favourites, including a delicious basil vodka, are written on the wall.
For something quite special, and spicy, try Source (14 Banchang Hutong). Sichuan cuisine is infamous for its heat and the mouth numbing quality of its prized Sichuan pepper, but there is no need to worry, the kitchen will ask what level of heat you think you can handle.
Source claims the title of most expensive meal of our trip. But at a little over €33 per person, this five-course exhibition of Sichuan cooking was an absolute steal.