After seeing my family (almost all of whom live in China save one branch of our family tree), the best thing about visiting China is the food.
The food game in China is next level. It’s not just about the quality and authenticity, but there are ingredients and entire cuisines that you can’t find in the US. Good luck trying to have homemade frogs legs and haw juice over here.
In Beijing, I had 3 must-eat foods that I didn’t want to leave without:
- Peking duck
- Hot pot
- KFC’s 老北京鸡卷 (or “Dragon Twister”, apparently)
1. Peking duck
Peking duck is a meal I can’t avoid when in Beijing, aka Peking, and I wouldn’t dream of it anyway. I used to be obsessed with Peking duck, to the point where I ate too much too fast in one evening and stopped eating it for a long time. The crispy duck skin, the succulent meat, the sweet bean or hoisin sauce, the fresh cucumber and scallion, all wrapped up in a thin little pancake. It’s one of my favorite meals back home, and there are a lot of restaurants that do it well here in the US. (In fact, I had Peking duck for my 24th birthday dinner.)
But Beijing takes it to that next level, because it is the birthplace of this famous dish. First of all, the history of the dish in this city is extensive. There are several restaurants that have been around for hundreds of years and are household names for Peking duck. Second of all, Beijing hasn’t let tradition keep them from mixing things up, and during my 2014 visit to China, I learned that the toppings game for Peking duck has been elevated. In addition to scallions (mandatory) and cucumber slivers (optional but so common that they’re mandatory for me personally), you can expect to find additional toppings like cantalope melon, rhubarb, mango, and pop rocks.
Pop rocks! This was a thing I discovered a few years ago but the novelty hasn’t worn off for me just yet. The crispy duck skin is served separately from the meat, and you have the option of dipping the skin into pop rocks for a really fun textural party in your mouth. Some of the more traditional restaurants won’t have pop rocks but will have sugar for you to dip the duck skin. Some places have both, like above. (The green thing next to the cucumber is green pop rocks. Pop rocks!!)
Also, Beijing knows that if you have Peking duck, duck-shaped dinnerware makes 100% sense. I don’t know why US restaurants don’t really serve duck on little duck-shaped platters but it’s super logical and I am a little put out that I can’t have duck on a duck-shaped plate in America.
2. Hot pot
Hot pot is one of my all-time favorite meals anywhere. I love doing hot pot at home, because it’s so warming, you control how your food is cooked because you cook it yourself, you control the flavors with your dipping sauce, it’s a communal experience with everyone around a table. I always eat it the northern/Beijing way, and of course, Beijing is the perfect place to return for that.
I’ve been meaning to write up a post about how I like to do hot pot, but Beijing has a ton of hot pot restaurants in many different styles. Above is lunch, less than 24 hours after I landed, and they had all of my favorite condiments for making my dipping sauce, these intestine skewers, and prawn chips which I think are brilliant and will try to include in my home meals from now on! (That crunch!) Hot pot warms you from the inside out, especially if you eat mutton, which is considered to be a “heating” food according to Chinese medicine. Make sure to order a LOT of veggies!
Hot pot is one of those meals with a fairly famous story behind it. Kublai Khan was preparing for battle and, in his hunger, demanded meat, but the hunters were unable to find anything besides a herd of sheep. They brought back lambs and the chef started preparing when Kublai Khan stormed into the kitchen and demanded to know why he was still not eating. He saw that the meat was already sliced and threw it into boiling water, cooking the super-thin slices almost instantly. The meat was served to him with just a little bit of seasoning, he went on to win his battle, and he requested that his chefs prepare lamb for him this way in the future. Above, you can see the traditional way to do hot pot in a traditional steamboat, which isn’t my favorite because the thin slices of meat occasionally stick to the metal in the middle.
3. KFC (… in China)
KFC may be cause for a few raised eyebrows, so let me explain. A few years ago, my cousin took me to a KFC and ordered me the 老北京鸡卷 (laobeijing jijuan, or Old Beijing chicken wrap) and I absolutely loved it. It is Peking duck – pancake, sauce, scallions – but instead of roast duck you have fried chicken. I was eagerly looking forward to eating it during my last trip to China, and was told I’d get to have it.
But I didn’t. And that disappointment had been sitting in the pit of my stomach for over 2 years. I knew that when I finally got to eat it, it wouldn’t be as good as the hype that was building but I couldn’t help it. Fried chicken AND Peking duck?
I told my family during our first Peking duck meal that I wanted to get my KFC this time and I was gonna do it, dangnabit! And get it I did, thanks for my wonderful aunts who were all too happy to oblige my weird American-ness.
We went to the first KFC that was opened in China, which was in fact the first Western fast food restaurant to open in China. To be honest, I don’t eat KFC in America, but I love KFC in China. I love that they were the first ones there, I love how they’ve adapted the menu to cater to local tastes with dishes like the Dragon Twister (I honestly had no idea it was supposedly called that). Once my dad came back with breakfast a few years back and said he got it from KFC. I thought that was excessive and weird and opened my eyes to see traditional Chinese breakfast foods that I know and love!
And I finally got my chicken wrap. And yes, it wasn’t that mind-blowing, partly because it seemed to have been sitting for a little bit and wasn’t very fresh. But I still think it’s a beautiful thing, to take all the fun of Peking duck and then throw fried chicken in there.
I ate so much good food in Beijing, and had a lot of great dining experiences. But when I was in the air, I wanted to make sure I ate these 3 things before I flew back home.
I’m very grateful to my family for making this happen for me, and for spoiling me silly by feeding me so much wonderful, delicious food.
What are some of your can’t-leave-without-eating-this foods and meals?
Do you have any for China? Previously, I had 拔丝地瓜 (basidigua, yams covered in caramel that pulls away from the plate when you try to eat it) on my must-eat list but I think it’s getting too messy for me to enjoy as much as I did when I was a lot younger. However, I still have yet to see anywhere in America offer it on their menu, while it’s still hugely popular in China and I did get to eat it when I went back this time!