Beijing's brave new cuisine

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2005, 12:00am

The city's regional and international eateries make for an eclectic mix

Almost a decade ago, when dining out in Beijing meant eating at a simple streetside stall, chef Viviane Goncalves had a dream. The Sao Paulo native knew she wanted to travel around the world and eventually open a restaurant in Beijing. Today, after nine years of studying and planning, she presides over the kitchen of Alameda, a casual, airy eatery in Beijing's popular Sanlitun neighbourhood, where she creates modern Brazilian fare for a packed house every night.

'Beijing has a lot of fine dining but not too many mid-range options,' she says. 'Alameda is what was missing.'

The capital is attracting young chefs from around the world eager to create the foods of their native countries. Together, they have produced a diverse range of cuisines from Brazil, Serbia, California and Japan with local flavours and ingredients. Add to the menu the vast variety of China's regional cuisines and you have an eclectic mix of tastes that veritably embodies the term renao: hot, chaotic and exciting.

Beijing Bites

The northern diet relies heavily on wheat, and thick-skinned dumplings and hand-pulled noodles star among local cuisine. Dumpling restaurants offer boiled or fried jiao zi stuffed with fillings from the ubiquitous pork and chive to ground mutton, while raucous zhajiang mian joints dish up enormous bowls of doughy noodles topped with a salty brown sauce and an assortment of vegetables.

Hotpot restaurants, which range from the rowdy to the refined, take the chill off Beijing's bitter winters. Though many still feature a communal vat of boiling broth, swankier establishments, such as the bustling Ding Ding Xiang, offer individual pots.

The city's most famous culinary export, Peking duck, can be savoured everywhere, from hutong hideaways such as the cosy, family-owned Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant, to sterile hotel eateries such as Made in China at the Grand Hyatt.

Some of the city's best bites are hawked streetside from portable carts and curbside stalls. Popular are griddle-fried pancakes, including the king of bing, jianbing, an enormous eggy crepe filled with fried dough, and grilled meat called chuan'r.

For a taste of old Beijing, seek out a tangle of hutongs called Dazhalan'r (south of Qianmen, near Tiananmen), where you will find a multitude of streetside vendors as well as restaurants dating back to the Qing dynasty.

Around the country, around the block

For centuries, the capital has supported a diverse mix of regional cuisines, and everything from Xinjiang's cumin-studded lamb to Yunnan's deep-fried twists of sweet goat's cheese is available here. Standouts include Yunnan Yinxiang, a spacious eatery that offers southern specialities such as smoked ham and batter-fried aloe served with an addictive tart and salty dipping sauce. Sample Guizhou's gutsy flavours at Three Guizhou Men, where sour fish soup and strong-flavoured pickles are gussied up in an arty, airy ambience. Or get hot and sweaty in the boisterous restaurant run by the Sichuan provincial government, where you can sizzle your tongue on the laziji, spicy fried chicken.

Contemporary Kitchens

Not long ago, dining out on western food in Beijing meant emptying your pockets at a sterile hotel restaurant. Thankfully, the past few years have seen an explosion of new tastes and textures offered at reasonable prices.

'My target market is foreigners - Europeans and Americans,' says Alan Wong, the owner of Hatsune, an American-style Japanese restaurant.

Always crowded, Hatsune serves the innovative sushi rolls of Wong's native California, complete with playful names such as the Motorola roll, which comes filled with deep-fried tuna and drizzled with wasabi mayonnaise.

'Western food does okay here. It's not wildly popular among locals,' Wong observes. 'But there is a new trend of wanting to be different.'

Kiosk, a tiny restaurant that resembles a seaside snack shack, proves there is fast food beyond the Big Mac. The short menu includes Serbian specialities such as chevapchichi (savoury sausages), and a white bean soup enriched with smoked meats. Owner Sasha Unkovic, a Belgrade native, says, 'My goal was to attract all kinds of people who want something new. Here, you can have a fresh, different meal.'

At casual, modern Alameda, Goncalves changes her menu daily. 'This is not fine dining but simple, honest food,' she says. 'I wanted to create a casual place where people can relax.' She combines Brazilian, European and Asian flavours, blending Chinese spices with traditional dishes. 'What I am doing here - offering simple food in a stylish, comfortable atmosphere - is a trend in New York and London. But everybody is interested in China.'

A vibrant culinary scene is a hallmark of any cosmopolitan city, and Beijing's brave new world of food proves the capital is ready for the limelight.

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