Beijing: Treasure-filled city of secret eats

By Anna Hartley Time of article published Feb 21, 2018

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The problem is obvious: Beijing is full of delicious food, representing thousands of years of culinary history. Beijing is also an immense city of some 21 million people and most visitors are not up to the task of finding the good restaurants among the sub-par ones.

My first visit to mainland China was a short one of just seven days and I wanted to be able to come away feeling like I’d tasted some real Chinese food, the stuff that the locals eat.

Enter Lost Plate, a small tour company that dives straight into the dense alley neighbourhoods (hutongs) of the old city and visits hole-in-the-wall restaurants that visitors generally can’t find.

“Would you like a beer?” our guide Ernestina asked, offering me a can of Yanjing beer. It was only about 6ºC out, but I accepted happily.

My fiancé and I had just emerged from one of the many exits of the Yonghegong metro station in the north-east of the city, where Ernestina easily spotted us among the waves of locals.

Night had fallen by the time the six of us who were taking the tour, plus Ernestina, assembled. We walked away from the unlit sloping roofs of the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple, where two red, motorised tuk-tuks and their drivers were waiting for us. My fiancé and I slid onto a tiny bench seat, face-to-face and knee-to-knee with Gene and Kath from California. We all wriggled down under the blanket and tred not to slop our beers as the tuk-tuk lurched to life and we zoomed towards the first restaurant of the night.

Six sets of chopsticks hovered over six steaming dishes.

“Mix it well until the noodles are coated,” Ernestina instructed. My plate became a blur as I mixed the hot dry noodles, a breakfast dish from Hubei province brought to us by a woman whose head barely cleared the counter between our low, wooden table and the tiny kitchen behind her. The restaurant was also small, with only a dozen places. The noodles were delicious and made entirely using sesame oil, which gives them a rich, smooth texture that a cheaper mix of peanut and sesame oils would not provide.

Our chef moved to Beijing only a few years ago - from Wuhan in Hubei province - but her restaurant, with its addictive noodles, already had a loyal following.

We’d been told to expect plenty of regional dishes like this tonight, but Ernestina made a point of mentioning that there would be no rice - presumably because most Westerners associate Chinese food so strongly with it. Historically, Beijingers have never eaten much rice and the food we ate on the tour reflected that. The dishes were mostly wheat-based, such as noodles, pancakes and dumplings.

“We’ll leave in two minutes,” Ernestina said, looking at her watch. Our chef waved goodbye as we hustled back outside into the cold air and a new customer slid into one of the restaurant’s few seats.

The tuk-tuk train moved on. We’d all swapped places and this time we found ourselves sitting with Kristy and Kevin from Colorado. Like us, they were in town briefly and liked the convenience of a short tour that would cover some of the key bases of Beijing cuisine.

We chatted and laughed as we zigzagged through the mostly unlit alleyways that made up the hutongs. While skyscrapers crowded the horizon of the city, the courtyards housed in the hutongs are low: rarely more than one storey, left over from an imperial rule that decreed the houses, shops and restaurants could not be higher than the emperor’s throne room in the Forbidden City.

Families of Beijingers live in the small, grey stone houses for generations, weighing the advantage of living in the city centre for next to nothing against the inconvenience of using community toilets.

The streets were lined with old shade trees and were surprisingly quiet little patches of ordinary community life in the centre of the vast city. The few cars we saw were covered with protective sheets and a thick layer of autumn leaves and people carefully wove quiet electric scooters between bicycles. As we zipped down yet another narrow alleyway, we passed so close to the people walking by that I could reach out and touch their coats.

Sticking to these dense alleys is key to the success of Lost Plate tours. When the founder of the company, Ruixi Hu, moved to the capital from Chengdu, she discovered that finding good food was hard. The internet didn’t give her the answers. Over time, she was able to ferret out the culinary gems that she knew were hiding just around the corner, known to locals but invisible to outsiders.

Armed with the valuable addresses, Ruixi and her American husband, Brian Bergey, founded Lost Plate in 2014 and have expanded to four cities, having added Shanghai, Cheng-du and Xian.

Restaurant two announced itself with a small chalkboard hanging from a tree, which I was told said “Mongolian barbecue”. At the back of the room, a group of young men grew rowdy, raising toasts with small glasses of clear liquor. Plates with slices of eggplant, onion, bell pepper, lamb and pork belly were arranged next to the huge hot plate in the centre of our table.

Legend plays a large role in any food culture, and China’s is no exception. As our hot plate heated up, Ernestina told the story of a long-gone Mongolian soldier who was fed up with army slop and began to cook his own meals using his metal helmet as a hot plate - the first Mongolian barbecue.

“And what do you think he used for fuel?” she looked to each of us in turn. “Horse dung, of course,” she said with glee. “But don’t worry, they don’t use any horse dung here.”

In reality, other than the lamb we were frying, Mongolian barbecue has little to do with Mongolian cuisine, but it has undoubtedly been embraced by the Chinese. The first Mongolian barbecue restaurants, as we know them today, were opened in Taipei in the early 1950s before spreading back to the mainland.

A large exhaust fan hung down from the ceiling, obscuring my view of Gene, who was helping Ernestina distribute the vegetables and meat on the grilling surface. We plucked fried pieces of meat and vegetables from the hot plate, then coated them in a mixture of delicious spices and bread crumbs before popping them into our mouths.

The black hot plate was scarcely empty when we were given the move-on notice. More food awaited in another pocket of the city.

We were a jolly, increasingly tipsy group, but Ernestina kept us on schedule, herding us on to our tuk-tuks and onward into the night. The bright lights and cold night air added to the feeling of adventure and the tour felt like an exciting race or a scavenger hunt where we needed to eat as many delicious dishes as possible to win.

The large, deep-fried meat buns we had at restaurant three were supposedly a last-minute addition to a great 64-plate banquet for Empress Ci Xi during the Qing dynasty.

According to legend, the empress was so taken with the succulent fried buns that she summoned the chef and asked him what the dish was called. In his panic (he hadn’t cooked them) he spied a huge, golden door nail. Thus the “Door Nail Meat Bun” was born. As large as a man’s fist, my pie had a thick, crunchy outer shell of fried dough filled with tender, slow-cooked beef, spring onions and the restaurant’s secret mix of spices. Many recipes call for pork, but this restaurant was halal. It was also apparently one of two left in the capital that made the buns in the labour-intensive traditional style. Steam rushed out as I pried open a hole in the crust with my chopsticks and drizzled brown vinegar inside. The meat is succulent, rich and delicious.

This restaurant was loud and busy, a ramshackle collection of close-set tables that put diners elbow-to-elbow, but our table became momentarily quiet as we were lost in appreciation of our buns. Ernestina passed around small glasses of baiju, a clear and strong liquor made, in this case, from sorghum, that warmed our bellies even further. The baiju flowed and Gene rhapsodised over his second bun. “This is just so good.”

Suddenly, a young, travel-worn American man stumbled into the room. We watched in fascination as he ordered food in rudimentary Mandarin and slid into an empty spot. “How on Earth did he find this place?” we all wondered. Between the conversation, the tight corners and the beer, we were all disoriented and we hadn’t seen any other Westerners all night. Even if I had known where I was at that point, I wouldn’t tell you. For the Lost Plate tours to work, the restaurants have to stay local and we were asked to keep the itinerary to ourselves.

As a former tour guide and current tourist, I appreciate this approach but it might be unnecessary. Although the Chinese visit the rest of the world in enormous numbers, the reverse doesn’t appear to be true. It might have been a particularly quiet period, but my fiancé and I saw only a few dozen other Westerners during our week-long stay. In any case, the restaurants we saw that night were happy to have our business, but as far as I could see, not dependent on it.

After the dumplings, we had delicate spring pancakes in a family restaurant that was quiet after the dinner rush.

Dessert was a surprisingly delicious cup of sour fermented milk and sweet red beans at another small establishment, whose walls were papered with handwritten thank-you notes, like thousands of colourful scales. We finished with pints of beer at a trendy, dimly lit, Chinese-owned brewery.

By the end of the night, as Ernestina herded us through the winding unlit alleys to the closest metro station, we were all in high spirits. We’d covered a lot of ground - geographically and culturally - and eaten very well indeed.

But if I’m honest, eating delicious food was not my goal. The fun had been in the adventure: the lost-then-found feeling of a night spent blasting through the unknown, punctuated with homey, unpretentious meals. Tomorrow, we would go back to being clueless foreigners in an unfamiliar city, but that night the curtain was pulled back and we lived in Beijing, for a few hours. - The Washington Post

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