While there are many ways to discover Beijing, I always think the best place to begin exploring new cultures is to start with the food. And there are few places that can offer you the same diversity in dishes as the Chinese capital.
Normally we’d simply branch out on our own and sample whatever smells good or is bestowed with an amusing name. But as longterm residents of Sichuan province, we are only too well aware of the perils that can often accompany blind ordering at restaurants in the People’s Republic; that’s how you end up inadvertently chowing down on such delights as curried chicken feet, raw ducks intestines, and on one particularly gruesome occasion, deep fried pigs rectum.
A decision was made. We need some local guidance.
Enter Hias Gourmet, a Beijing located company that offers food tours and cooking classes to the initiated, the adventurous and the culinary incompetent alike. One grovelling email later and arrangements were made to venture forth in to wilderness of Beijing’s food district equipped with a Chinese speaking and highly knowledgeable guide.
Hias suggested two tours ‘Hidden Beijing‘ and ‘Beijing Night Market‘, two very different food scenes offering up a wide selection of the weird and wonderful fare to be found on the streets of the capital.
We began, unexpectedly, with burgers. But none of your Big Mac nonsense, this is China, and these are donkey burgers! It’s always interesting to see what concoctions appear when East meets West on the dinner table and this is a great example, burgers, that great epitome of all things western, but made from donkey, an animal almost certainly never found on the lunch menu back home. After the first mouthful I was wondering “why not?”. It was delicious, like a hot roast beef sandwich but with a deeper flavour and much less chewy texture. Mr Bob approved, and vowed never again to look upon a donkey without thinking “is it dinner time yet?” Sadly, there was neither time, nor sufficient space in my stomach to order up a second plateful and experiment with mustard, mayonnaise and other traditional burger condiments, because there was a long long way to go.
The second stop on our tour brought us to one of the city’s famous muslim restaurants, something deeply missed during our time in China, but the lamb kebabs that Mr Bob most coveted were scheduled for later in the evening. For now it was very much Miss MarieCarmen’s field of expertise: desserts. My personal opinion is that China does not do desserts all too well. Those available in the bakeries of our home town always look amazing but invariably fail at the tasting stage; bland sponge cake, bland cream, and always 18 times too much sugar. So when our excellent guide Shannon returned with a selection of goodies, we were pleasantly surprised.
Nothing like the tasteless cakes of Sichuan, these were the kind of treats that belonged on the streets of Morocco.
‘Sugared Ear’, ‘Rolling Donkey’, they certainly met our criteria for amusing names, and the eternally sweettoothed Miss MarieCarmen pronounced each in turn to be excellent. The favourite by far being an unassuming white ball of rice paste coated in coconut flakes, ‘Ai Wo Wo’, apparently. These little nuggets of deliciousness are filled with dried fruits, sesame and melon seeds, and were quickly added to our list ‘things to purchase in large quantities’, right alongside the donkey burgers.
Back out in to the cold night air, we wandered onward through corridors of hanging meat, past bakers turning out racks of freshly made bread, and countless market stalls and street food vendors, sampling anything that took our fancy enroute. Special mention should be made of ‘Jian Bing’, a type of Chinese pancake made with egg, green onions and hoisin, an excellent cold weather snack food.
While these tours are ostensibly ‘food tours’, the food is really just a small part of the experience, it’s really about having the opportunity to wander through the bustling back streets of Beijing and to see all of the local colour, with a well informed guide on hand to explain everything that you witness. The option of being able to say at any time: “hey, what’s that thing that those guys are making? I want some!” is just the icing on the cake.
With ‘Hidden Beijing’ thoroughly uncovered we said our goodbyes to Shannon and headed across town for tour number two ‘The Night Market’.
The Night Market
The guide ‘Spring’ was waiting for us as soon as we rolled out of the taxi and shepherded us directly to the gate of this famous location in Beijing. Significantly more more crowded and touristy than the first site, but no shortage of scrumptious food on display. Much of it was more easily recognisable than those we’d encountered earlier, such as sausages, meatball soup, chestnuts, and kebabs (ahh kebabs, how I have missed you. . .). But again, this is China so there is also no shortage of bizarre and baffling grub on show too. And, I should point out, I don’t necessarily use the word ‘grub’ here exclusively in the colloquial sense, many stalls were offering just that – grubs.
Roasted insect larvae were a common sight, as were snakes, beetles, seahorses (I didn’t even know they were edible!?!) and scorpions.
Mr Bob is no stranger to unusual food, having partaken of monkey in India, and fried wasps and locusts in Thailand amongst other things, and is certainly not one to be intimidated by a mere three whole scorpions on a stick. Bring it on. Verdict? Well, they’re crunchy as you might expect and with a smoky flavour from the barbecuing, but certainly not unpleasant. If you were handed some in the dark you’d probably think you were eating bacon flavour crisps (potato chips, for those of you on the wrong side of the Atlantic). Even if like Miss MarieCarmen, you can’t bring yourself to try something like this, it’s still a damn good photo opportunity to show your friends back home.
“Yep that’s right, in China they eat beetles and scorpions”. “What? Oh yeah, of course I tried them”. . . .
Anyway, whether you’re the adventurous eaterofallthings or not, there’s plenty to keep the hunger at bay on Beijing’s night market. The Yunnan Pineapple Rice was a particular highlight, as were the extensive selection of juicy kebabs. And once again, it’s less about the food and more about the whole experience, the sights, sounds and smells of a place in the world with a richer history and cultural flair than almost any other. And you can eat scorpions. Did I mention that already?
Would we recommend Hias Gourmet?
In short, yes. Attempting to do something like this by yourself is difficult and time consuming.
Especially when you don’t know what is worth trying or how to order it. Hias’s friendly guides know what food is good and which establishment makes it the best. More importantly, they know where the food is clean and safe, going it alone is something of a lottery in this respect and there’s nothing more sure to ruin your holiday than three days of a stomach bug because you bought your meatballs from a man who last washed his hands in 1993.
You will also learn a lot more this way, not only will you learn the Chinese words for things so that you can request them again, but if there is a story attached to a certain area, building or dish, you can be sure they’ll pass on this information too. All in all, a great experience and if you’re visiting Beijing, I’d definitely suggest keeping a couple of hours free to fit in a food tour.
Where can you taste all those delicacies?
Beijing is located in the North-East of China.
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Disclaimer: This post was sponsored but this does not affect our opinions.