34 Province Project: Beijing 北京

Beijing, the “Northern Capital” of China, needs no introduction, but its food might. What we think of as “Chinese” food in the West tends to originate from southern Canton (Guangzhou) and Sichuan, not the north, where the cuisine of the capital (京菜 jīngcài) runs the gamut from the exquisite banquets of the Imperial Palace to humble street stalls. With influences from not just the surrounding regions but the entire country, it’s hard to generalize, but as elsewhere in northern China wheat predominates: not just noodles and dumplings, but a whole slew of pastries (餅 bǐng) and cakes (炸糕 zhàgāo).

I first encountered the one Beijing dish everybody’s heard of, Peking duck, when living in suburban New York as a child. One day, my father brought back a ready-to-eat platter from Chinatown, and I still remembered being surprised at how odd yet tasty and somehow decadent that the combination of savoury pancakes so thin you could see through them, slivers of fatty skin, slices of scallion and that mysterious brown sauce was. Much later in Singapore, an enterprising Beijinger set up shop near my apartment in the now long-gone Pearl Centre. He spoke no English, and his piratical r-laden Beijing dialect was vastly unlike Singapore Mandarin, but I became a regular patron of his signature zhajiangmian (炸醬麵), or “Chinese spaghetti bolognese”, a simple but delicious dish made of noodles created on the spot using nothing but his hands to tease the ball of dough apart into thin strands, topped with a minced pork and bean sauce and a spray of cucumber.

So when I spent a few days in Beijing back in 2018, my first order of business was to recalibrate my tastebuds against the gold standard: the obligatory but delicious Peking duck at the positively opulent Xiheyaju (羲和雅居), some zhajiangmian, the greasy goodness of fried ròubǐng (肉餅) meat pastries, a 5-yuan bottle of 59° Red Star brand erguotou sorghum gutrot… but to be honest, I was both short on time and a little maxed out on dumplings, noodles and deep-fried things after a week of Siberia & Mongolia, so I didn’t dig in quite as much as should have.

For this project, I generally prefer street food, but you can’t really say you’ve covered Beijing without Peking duck, so I rounded up some friends to try out Tung Lok Xihe (同樂羲和), Beijing Xiheyaju’s collab with the fancy Cantonese seafood empire. (Since my visit, they’ve rebranded as Tunglok Peking Duck.) I had my doubts about this combo, tucked away atop an Orchard shopping mall to boot, but the duck here is the real deal. Available only by pre-order, made from Irish ducks (apparently the wagyu of the duck world) and roasted on site in a brick oven, it’s sliced at your table and served with a platter of 8 condiments. In addition to the canonical cucumber/scallion/sweet bean sauce combo for your pancake wraps (“It’s like Mexican Chinese!”, commented my taco-loving offspring), you can also dip the super crispy skin into blueberry sauce and popping candy (!), getting a gimmicky but fun snap crackle pop experience. Often a crispy skin comes at the expense of dry and rubbery meat, but here the duck was juicier than a Cardi B music video, and we devoured it as is instead of opting for the $12 upgrade to get it made into a stir-fry. All in all, definitely the best Peking duck I’ve had in Singapore, and worth the indulgence even at $78++.

Just about the only other Beijing dish on the menu was pan-fried dumplings (锅贴 guōtiē), and the kids worked their ways through two plates so fast I didn’t even get a chance to sample them. Honorable mention goes to the Braised Spinach Beancurd with Monkey Head Mushroom (猴头菇扒翡翠豆腐), a Tung Lok invention with a less than appetizing English name, where homemade tofu is paired with crispy minced spinach and meaty pieces of Hericium erinaceus. Dare I suggest a rebrand to “Jade Tofu with Lion’s Mane”? For the eight of us with tea & desserts but no alcohol, total damage came to a surprisingly reasonable $40/head.

For a more proletarian Beijing experience, we dropped in for dinner at Hand in Hand Beijing Restaurant (手拉手京华小馆), which occupies a corner lot shophouse at Jalan Besar. It was packed on a Friday night, so book ahead!

Hand in Hand is famous for their handmade dumplings, made on the spot and never frozen, so of course we had to start off with some classic steamed Cabbage and Pork Dumplings (白菜猪肉水饺), a simple enough dish but done very well. More uniquely Beijing, though, were the Beijing Beef Pies. Called méndīng ròubǐng (门钉肉饼) in Chinese, literally “doornail meat pies”, these smallish, cute-as-a-button pies are stuffed with minced beef, shallow-fried on both sides and served hot, giving the dough wrapper a great texture and making them super juicy on the inside. These were really, really good — far better than any meat pie I had in Beijing, in fact — and we had to get more because a single service of 3 just wasn’t enough!

We followed up with some tofu skin cooked with milk cabbage (奶白菜 nǎibáicài), a simple but tasty stir-fry, and a bowl of Old Beijing Soup Pot Noodles (老北京炝锅面). This seems to be a Beijing take on Shandong’s qiàngguōmiàn (炝锅面), a dish whose exact definition appears to elude even Chinese sources. Hand in Hand’s take was a pot with soup, handmade noodles, more milk cabbage, sliced omelette, bits of pork and some clams, and it was rather good. The second hit of the day was our final dish, Shredded Pork with Soy Bean Paste and Popiah (京酱肉丝配薄饼). The soy bean paste here is the same stuff used for zhajiangmian, and with long shreds of pork it’s a classic dish called jīngjiàng ròusī (京酱肉丝, lit. “Capital sauce pork shreds”). In China, it’s typically served with thin sheets of tofu or thick bing bread, but here it was served Peking duck DIY style with the thin crepes and sticks of cucumber, a winning combination. Order extra crepes, you’ll need them!

The bill for 4 came to $110, including a beer to wash it all down. I must sadly note that Beijing’s own Yanjing Beer was not on the menu, forcing us to commit adultery with some Tsingtao from across the province line in Shandong, but rest assured they also have authentically Beijing Red Star rocket fuel/paint thinner on the menu if you’d prefer not to taste or remember your meal.

One more Beijing staple I was keen to try was cornbread, known as wōtóu (窝头) or tóu (窝窝头) in Chinese, literally “bird’s nest heads”. Originally peasant food, a highly dubious legend say that Cruella de Vil Empress Dowager Cixi was treated to some while fleeing the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and brought them back to the Forbidden City on her return two years later. Alas, a task of equally legendary difficulty is finding any staple grain other than rice or wheat in Singapore, and not a single restaurant in Singapore appears to offer cornbread on the regular menu. But once again Dough Magic came through with bags of frozen mini wotou for $9.80, in 5 different flavours to boot: yellow corn (玉米), brown sorghum (高粱), black rice (黑米), purple yam (紫薯) and green shepherd’s purse (荠菜). These conical little cups are hollow on the inside, so after steaming for around 5 minutes, we served them up with an Australianized san choy bau (生菜包) filling of minced pork and mushrooms. Tasty, pretty and fun! Although, to be honest, all five types tasted bland and near-identical, even the texture was ground smooth and not gritty like American cornbread.

Last but not least, I sampled a classic Beijing dessert at Kāng Jì Bīngtánghúlu (康记冰糖葫芦), a little stall down a narrow lorong (alley) in Singapore’s red-light district of Geylang, an area down at heel even before COVID hit and distinctly worse for the wear after two years of total nightlife shutdown. The shop has zero English signage or presence on the English-language internet, and I was rather astonished to find that it was still there. Tanghulu is the Chinese version of candied apples, traditionally made from Chinese hawthorn, but the day I popped in the hawthorn version wasn’t ready yet and the friendly shopkeeper suggested I try a freshly made strawberry one instead. Hot damn, this was a revelation: $5 gets you a skewer of 5 large strawberries, wrapped in an edible sheet of sugar (don’t peel it off!), coated with a slightly salty crunchy shell of rock sugar, and deliciously ripe, warm and juicy on the inside. This rocketed straight up my personal Chinese dessert chart for sure, and on that high note, we bid a farewall to the Chinese capital and plunge onward.

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From Siberia to Tibet: Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

Around 10 PM at night, we trundled across the Mongolia-China border into the dusty town of Erenhot (二连 Erlian).  One of the few pleasures of international train travel is that the border crossings and their inspectors come to you, but China wasn’t having any of it: we all had to disembark with our luggage and go queue up for passport and customs.

And then we waited until 2 AM while our bogies were changed from Russian wide gauge to Chinese standard gauge.  Officially, the sparkly new International Waiting Room had all sorts of amusements including tax-free shopping, a bar and a certified 5-star bathroom; in reality, it lacked all of those as well as air-con, toilet paper and enough seats.  After various conflicting answers and general confusion, I was granted a magic plastic token that let me go outside and check out the jumbled shops and pharmacies, and most importantly, acquire some bananas and the first of many bottles of Yanjing Beer to come.

By the time we woke up next morning, the scenery had changed to rolling green hills, occasional clusters of buildings and factories, and steadily thickening haze.  Viaducts for the Zhangjiakou high-speed rail line, being built for the 2020 Winter Olympics, were often visible and made our clunky train feel rather obsolete.  After arrival at Beijing Station, which seemed to contain more people than all of Mongolia, our host whisked us away for a traditional Chinese welcoming ceremony: foreigner registration at the local Public Security Bureau (公安部 Gong’anbu) cop shop, painstakingly pecked in one finger at a time.  Now we were in China!

Beijing 北京

This was my first visit to the Chinese capital, and I wasn’t expecting much: all you ever see on TV are the inhumanly scaled plazas and buildings around Tian’anmen, designed to make citizens feel like the worthless ants they are compared to the might of emperors old and new.  The shopping district around Wangfujing, all department stores and shopping malls stuffed with name-brand shops, plus the slick modern offices and hotels around Chaoyang, including the dystopian China Central TV aka Big Pants Building (大裤衩 dà kùchǎ), could also have been straight out of Tokyo or Seoul.

But the hutongs around Shizhacai, while now tarted up for tourists and beer-brewing hipsters, remained surprisingly peaceful and lived-in, and the canals and alleyways around Qianhai Lake with weeping willows and pedal boats were green, vibrant and colorful, at least in midsummer.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu (慕田峪), about 1.5 hours north of central Beijing, was a worthwhile excursion, both surprisingly lush and surprisingly smoggy.  Those stairs were a real workout, particularly in the sticky heat of midsummer, and I was glad to take both the ski lift up and the rather ridiculous but still amusing toboggan ride down.  Pro tip: there’s a solitary little snack shop at the top, which will instantly open a frosty bottle of Yanjing for you if you so much as mention the word pijiu (beer) — and attempt to charge you 85 RMB (US$13) for it.  At the bottom of the hill, the same beer will cost you 20, and even that’s pricy by Chinese standards.

Beijing’s other mandatory attraction is the justly reknowned Forbidden City , once the home of the Emperor and now the showcase of China’s Communist mandarins.  There was a queue of several hours to see the pickled corpse of Mao, so when a torrential downpour hit we abandoned that idea and proceeded to the palaces.  The complex is enormous, and despite notional visitor limits (book your tickets online!), it was packed to the gills with local tourists, all armed with pointy umbrellas.   The Outer Court, through which you enter, consists of a series of identical-looking but empty gates and plazas, so there isn’t even much to see.  Mostly to get away from it all, we paid a little extra to visit the Treasure Gallery to the east, and this turned out to be the best move all day: the crowds were thinner and the scale was more reasonable, as this is where the Emperor and his household actually lived.

Xi’an 西安

We ended up in Xi’an through a lucky mishap: the sleeper train we wanted to take from Beijing to Xining was full, and when pondering alternatives, I realized we could take a sleeper to Xi’an, spend a day there, and take an evening bullet train to Xining.  Win!

The thing to do in Xi’an is to visit the Terracotta Warriors, which guard the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the founder of the Qin dynasty and the kind of megalomaniac who makes Mao look modest and reasonable.  In 230 BCE, he unified China for the first time, declared himself emperor, standardized all the things (writing, currency, measures, axles etc) across the vast country, burned all old books and executed those who didn’t comply fast enough, built a necropolis nearly 100 km² in size (the vast majority of which remains unexcavated) and had basically everybody who built it executed.  Unsurprisingly, it’s quite a sight, and enough Chinese agree that it’s now the country’s second-most popular attraction, second only to the Forbidden City.  Don’t expect to have too many moments of peaceful contemplation.

Much further down that list is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, buried in the mazelike depths of the Muslim Quarter (回民街 Huiminjie), and probably the least mosque-like mosque I’ve ever seen.  If somebody swapped the signs, it would substitute quite nicely for, say, a Confucian temple or the Emperor’s former summer residence: for example, the pagoda above is actually a minaret.

Visitors and locals alike do come to the Muslim Quarter in droves, but to satisfy more earthly desires for food and shopping.  Lamb kebabs (烤肉串 kaorou), Chinese hamburgers (肉夹馍 roujiamo), osmanthus cakes topped with dates (桂花糕 guihuagao), crispy meat pies (肉餅 roubing)…  both our quick visit, and this incredible blog post, only scratched the surface.

Xining 西宁

While Beijing and Xi’an are firmly on the beaten track, it’s safe to say Xining is not.  It may be the capital of Qinghai Province, but by Chinese standards its 2.3 million people barely qualify as a city, at least when compared to Xi’an’s 12m or Beijing’s 21m.  What’s more, while it’s been around for over 2,000 years and was a major staging post on the Silk Road, a massive earthquake in 1927 plus Japanese bombing in 1941 means you’d be hard put to find a historical attraction worthy of the name in the city.  The sole reason we were here was that, at an altitude of 2,600m, this gave us a chance to acclimatize a bit, and the only other city in these parts, the industrial center of Golmud, is by all accounts even more dull.

Given these low expectations, Xining was mostly a pleasant surprise, undoubtedly provincial but largely prosperous and with new infrastructure ranging from bridges and highways to trains sprouting everywhere, virtually all of it built since 2010.  Our Taiwanese cracker conglomerate hotel was golden bling to the max, the shopping malls of Xidajie (西大街) were bustling with real department stores and fake Apple Stores, Mojia St (莫家街) was wall to wall with restaurants.  Only slightly off the beaten track did you remember you weren’t in Beijing anymore, with meat hanging on open-air hooks at the street markets of Shuijing Alley (水井巷) and the green signs and ornate skullcaps of Hui Muslims dominating the local culinary scene even more thoroughly than they did in Xi’an.

Xining’s one major draw is Kumbum Monastery, or Ta’ersi Temple (塔尔寺) to the Chinese, some 40 km outside the city.   One of the largest Tibetan monasteries outside Lhasa, this was the childhood home of the Dalai Lama (you can even find a solitary photo if you look very carefully) and, while much reduced from its pre-Cultural Revolution glory, is still an active temple.  I expected to find some Tibetan pilgrims here and did, but I did not expect tour buses full of Chinese pilgrims, herded about by tour guides and stuffing notes ranging from 0.1 to 100 yuan into every nook and cranny of every statue and altar.  Clearly China’s economic boom has also brought with it a surging market for spiritual fulfillment.

Much more sedate, in fact positively comatose, was the official state-sanctioned Tibetan Culture & Medicine Museum in a faux-Tibetan concrete monolith on the northern outskirts of town.  This showcased Tibetan culture as the Chinese government would like it: colorful, safely encased in static glass displays, no actual Tibetans in sight, and with an overpriced gift shop on the way out.

In the evening, we clambered aboard train Z6811 and started our slow climb to Tibet.

Anorak bonus album: Metros in Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

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