Beijing is also an immense city of about 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’ve 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 asks, offering me a can of Yanjing beer.
Night has fallen by the time the six of us who are taking the tour, plus Ernestina, have assembled. Six sets of chopsticks hover over six steaming dishes.
Mix it well until the noodles are coated,” Ernestina instructs. My plate becomes a blur as I mix the hot dry noodles, a breakfast dish from Hubei province.
The noodles are delicious and made with sesame oil, which gives it 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 has a loyal following.
We’ve 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 we sampled were mostly wheat-based, such as noodles, pancakes and dumplings.
The tuk-tuk train moves on. We’ve all swopped places and this time we find ourselves sitting with Kristy and Kevin from Colorado. As we zip down yet another narrow alleyway, we pass so close to the people walking by that I can 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 she was looking for. 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.
Restaurant two announces itself with a small chalkboard hanging from a tree which I’m told says “Mongolian barbecue”.
Plates with slices of eggplant, onion, bell pepper, lamb and pork belly are arranged next to the huge hotplate in the centre of our table.
Legend plays a large role in any food culture, and China’s is no exception. As our hotplate heats up, Ernestina explains 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 hotplate - the first Mongolian barbecue.
“And what do you think he used for fuel?” She looks to each of us in turn. “Horse dung, of course,” she says. “But don’t worry, they don’t use any horse dung here.”
In reality, other than the lamb we’re 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. We pluck fried pieces of meat and vegetables from the hotplate, then coat them in a mixture of delicious spices and bread crumbs before popping them into our mouths. The black hotplate is scarcely empty when we are given the move-on notice. More food awaits in another pocket of the city.
The bright lights and cold night air add to the feeling of adventure and the tour feels like an exciting race or a scavenger hunt where we need to eat as many delicious dishes as possible to win.
The large, deep-fried meat buns we have 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 actually cooked them) he spied a huge, golden doornail. Thus the “Doornail Meat Bun” was born. As large as a man’s fist, my pie has a thick, crunchy outer shell of fried dough filled with tender, slow-cooked beef, scallions and the restaurant’s secret mix of spices.
Many recipes call for pork, but this restaurant is halaal. It is also apparently one of two left in the capital that make the buns in the labour-intensive traditional style. Steam rushes out as I pry open a hole in the crust with my chopsticks and drizzle brown vinegar inside. The meat is succulent, rich and absolutely delicious.
This restaurant is loud and busy, a ramshackle collection of close-set tables that put diners elbow-to-elbow, but our table becomes momentarily quiet as we are lost in appreciation of our buns.
Ernestina passes around small glasses of baiju, a clear and very strong liquor made, in this case, from sorghum, that warms our bellies even further. For the Lost Plate tours to work, the restaurants have to stay local and we have been asked to keep tonight’s itinerary to ourselves.
As a former tour guide and current tourist, I appreciate this approach, but it may be unnecessary.
It may just be a particularly quiet period, but my fiancé and I see only a few dozen other Westerners during our week-long stay. In any case, the restaurants we’ve seen tonight are happy to have our business, but as far as I can see, not dependent on it.
After the dumplings, we have delicate spring pancakes in a family restaurant that is quiet after the dinner rush.
Dessert is a surprisingly delicious cup of sour fermented milk and sweet red beans at another small establishment, whose walls are papered with handwritten thank-you notes, like thousands of colourful scales. We finish with pints of beer at a dimly lit, Chinese-owned brewery.
By the end of the night, as Ernestina herds us through the winding unlit alleys to the closest metro station, we’re all in high spirits. We’ve covered a lot of ground - geographically and culturally - and eaten very well indeed.
The fun of tonight has been in the adventure: the lost-then-found feeling of a night spent blasting through the unknown, punctuated with homey, unpretentious meals.
Tomorrow we’ll go back to being clueless foreigners in an unfamiliar city, but tonight the curtain was pulled back and we lived in Beijing, even if it was just for a few hours.