Beijing is truly the beating heart of China. While Shanghai might be bigger population-wise, it’s Beijing that’s been the center of Chinese government and culture for thousands of years. That fact is evident in the city’s museums, architecture, and of course, in its food!
From fine dining to street snacks, Beijing’s cuisine scene is as varied and complex as the city itself, with many influences and flavors. When I visited the city, my hotel was right down the street from Wangfujing Street. It’s known as the place to grab traditional foods, and trust me, I dove right in! Here are a dozen unique and tasty foods you might want to try if a visit to China’s capital is on your itinerary.
1. Roasted Duck
Traditionally oven-roasted, Chinese duck is widely considered the official dish of Beijing. It’s been served here for centuries, presented whole and then served and sliced for diners tableside. This duck dish is known for its delicious thin and crispy skin, which is enjoyed first as an appetizer, dipped in a sweet bean sauce. When the bird’s meat is carved, it’s rolled into pancakes or crepes filled with cucumbers or green onions and eaten by hand.
Eating this dish — in Beijing where it originated — is an experience in itself. If you’re headed to the Chinese capital, make sure you have traditional duck at least once during your trip. It’s simply a must-not-miss.
Steamed, fried, sizzled … I love dumplings no matter how they’re prepared, and I honestly lost count of how many I ingested while in Beijing. They were all delicious. Some you’ll eat with your hands, others you’ll cut with chopsticks and eat — take a cue from the folks around you on that. They are filled with every savory bit you can think of — meats, fish veggies, egg, and even tofu — and if you’re enjoying them at a restaurant, you’ll have different sauces in which to dip them. If you’re lucky enough to have a guide or friends in Beijing, let them order an assortment for you. That’s what I did, and I had zero regrets.
Bao is rather like a cross between a small sandwich and a dumpling, filled and steamed. The difference is in the dough — it’s fluffy, spongy, and a bit sweet. These round buns are a great grab-and-go option for picnics or sightseeing sustenance. My favorites were stuffed with pork belly, little pockets of deliciousness that powered me through an extremely busy afternoon in Beijing.
4. Zha Jiang Mian
Well, of course you’re also going to have noodles while in Beijing, but perhaps the most popular noodle dish is the delish zha jiang mian, or fried sauce noodles. Check your diet at the door, as this recipe includes ground pork caramelized with ground bean sauce, sweet bean sauce, a bit of hoisin, and its own fat. Once that gets a deep, rich gorgeous brown, it’s tossed and pan-fried with wide noodles and topped with crunchy, slivered vegetables. It’s Chinese comfort food at its finest and is another must-sample while in Beijing.
5. Rou Jia Mo
Known as the “Chinese hamburger,” rou jia mo is a common street snack sold in Beijing. Its fillings and taste can vary from vendor to vendor, but this beloved tidbit usually consists of seasoned, spiced pork belly stuffed into a bread roll that reminded me a bit of an English muffin. You might also find simmered vegetables including onions, peppers, or carrots in the mix. Pick up two or three for a filling on-the-go meal; they’re perfect for a sightseeing lunch break!
Most of us think of rice porridge or pudding as a sweet treat, flavored with cinnamon, honey, or brown sugar. But in Beijing, rice porridge — or congee — is a savory dish, which was certainly a surprise the first time I tried it! In China, the carefully stewed and simmered rice is served with spicy bits including pickles, dried fish, shellfish, fermented bean curd, or sausage. While it’s still a comfort food, expect a decidedly different flavor when you’re in Beijing. Congee has long been considered a super-food in China, and indeed, it’s nourished generations of people for thousands of years. Give it a try!
7. Insect Skewers
I’m a fairly adventurous eater, willing to at least try nearly everything, especially when I’m traveling. But I drew the line — and held it — when it came to one of the odder dishes I saw on Wangfujing Street. I’m talking about fried insects on skewers. Various stalls sold them, and many people (I suspect mostly tourists) took great delight in snapping selfies while gobbling down whole locusts, crickets, scorpions, snakes, and even seahorses. While they were interesting to look at, I was perfectly content passing on this particular culinary custom. There were so many other delicious options to consider on Wangfujing; skipping the Fear Factor dining option was fine by me.
8. Lotus Root
Several times during my visit to Beijing, I was served a strange — white root? pod? fruit? — with a pleasant crunch and mild taste, rather like a water chestnut or jicama. It was round, cut into thin slices, and had a handful of holes in the middle, almost as if a piece of Swiss cheese had run into a potato. I noticed it in salads, soups, and even stir-fry. It was like nothing I’d ever eaten before, or since. When I asked, I was told it was lotus root. The lotus is a sacred flower in Asian culture, and its root as it turns out is quite nutritious. Although more of a supporting, accent player than a main dish, seek it out in Beijing. You won’t be sorry.
You’ll see spiky, shellacked fruit skewers all over Beijing — from stands and stalls to street vendor carts. This old-fashioned dessert is tanghulu, or “Chinese toffee apple.” Assorted fruits are first skewered like a kebab, then dipped in liquid sugar and allowed to dry. The result is a crunchy treat that your dentist would *not* approve of! Tanghulu are especially popular with children in Beijing, so of course, I couldn’t resist trying one. I chose tanghulu with Chinese hawthorn, which had a tart, delicious taste. You’ll also see them made with kiwi, cherries, oranges, pineapples, strawberries, and even tomatoes.
Pro Tip: There is no easy or elegant way to eat tanghulu, so just dive in and crunch away! And ideally, brush that sugar off your teeth as soon as possible after snacking.
10. Glutinous Rice Balls
A bit chewy and a bit sweet, glutinous rice balls are a traditional snack. They are especially enjoyed during the Lantern Festival, the annual event that marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations. These little bites are often filled with red bean cream, sesame paste, or nut butters, giving them a mochi-type taste and texture. People in China believe eating these will bring both happiness and luck in the new year. They were delicious, so I’m inclined to agree!
11. Green Tea Desserts
Of course, green tea was on my shopping list for bring-home gifts. You’ll find tea shops all over the city; tea tastings are as popular here as wine tastings are in the Napa Valley. Each spot sources from its own growers, and you’ll be amazed by the different tastes and aromas of the leaves that make their way into each cup. Many of these shops also offer a variety of green tea-flavored desserts. Look for biscuits, cakes, and tortes … they are all incredible! My absolute favorite: a jasmine green team soft-serve ice cream. It was floral, earthy, creamy, and just a bit sweet, the perfect refresher after a day of adventures … and shopping.
12. Mystery Sweets
This is the part of the article where I admit that I cannot read Mandarin. Granted, this made some purchases in Beijing a bit difficult… but it was also part of the fun. There are sweet shops all over the city, featuring barrels and bins brimming with all sorts of treats. I bought handfuls of “mystery” wrapped candy and treats to bring home to family and friends, and it was an adventure each time we tried one. From green tea biscuits and dried hawthorn reminiscent of a fruit roll-up to sesame candies filled with sweet red bean curd, we had a lot of fun sampling our haul for weeks after I returned from Beijing. An assortment of treats would also make a great take-home gift for a foodie friend.
Pro Tip: When dining out as well as eating on the go in Beijing, keep an eye on the busiest stands, cafes, and restaurants. If it’s packed with locals, you can be sure of some terrific eats. Also, make sure you bring a sense of adventure, and be prepared to push your palate. There were times when my limited Mandarin prevented me from knowing exactly what I was eating, but it was always delicious. One more thing to keep in mind: This isn’t the Chinese food you might be used to back home, and that’s a good thing!