Most Chinese restaurants outside China serve Cantonese, Sichuan or Shanghai food. The typical Beijing food
is rather different. Rice is not grown in north China as abundantly as in the south and the staple cereal is wheat. Steamed bread, dumplings and many kinds of noodles form the basis of any Beijing meal. The most commonly eaten vegetables are those of a northern climate-carrots, spinach, turnips, onions, scallions and large white cabbages.
Beijing has adopted and modified various northern cooking techniques-particularly for barbecuing or boiling mutton-which are not a special feature of its cuisine. But the capital's most celebrated dish, famous far beyond the broilers of China, is Peking duck'.
White-feathered Beijing ducks are raised in the outskirts of the city. One such farm, near Landianchang alongside the Jingmi Irrigation Canal that flows out of Kunming Lake, can be visited on the way to the Summer Palace. For the last two weeks or their life, the ducks are force fed a rich diet of grain and beans. When they reach The kitchen, boiling water is poured over the bird, which is then hung for several hours to dry. The cluck is basted with syrup, and air is pumped into it to separate the skin from the layer of fat underneath, so ensuring that the skin is crisped while the bird cooks on a spit. The skin, which is the delicacy, is eaten with small pancakes, scallions and a thick, salty bean sauce. After slices of meat have been eaten, the rest of the bird is often used to make stock for soup which is served at the end of the meal.
The other Famous dish of Beijing is the shuanyangrou, usually known in English as Mongolian hotpot. More suitable for winter than summer, cooking is done at the table in boiling stock contained in a charcoal-burning metal pot with a chimney. The diners themselves plunge finely sliced mutton into the stock, then vegetables. beancurd, and vermicelli.
Beijing has a long-established tradition of excellent restaurants which offer the best of China's many regional cuisines. This reputation is still well justified and first-class restaurants serve food from Sichuan, Shanxi, Shandong, Hunan, Canton and Shanghai.
Most foreigners traveling in groups drink Chinese beer or sweet Chinese-produced soft drinks. Chinese wines are mostly quire sweet, although dry grape wines, both red and white, are increasingly popular in places where foreigners eat.
There are some excellent rice wines, such as Shoaling. The highly potent Chinese spirit Maotai, made from sorghum, is good for any flagging social occasion and is a great stimulus to speechmaking, but it is an acquired taste. Imported alcohol is widely available in restaurants, as is draught beer. Some Chinese wines produced by joint-venture wineries are quite palatable, especially Dragon Seal and Great Wall wines for between 25 and 50 yuan per bottle.
Most of the restaurants listed below prepare set banquets for visitors, served in private rooms. But while a private room may be preferable for a special occasion or for large groups, the adventurous diner going out alone, or in a small group, should not be deterred from asking to eat in the same part of the restaurant as the local Chinese.
The quantity of food served at a banquet can sometimes be overwhelming-there may be as many as 15 courses. One way co avoid this is, when booking the meal, to stipulate only five or six courses and a low price per head. Banquet prices in Beijing generally range from 50-250 yuan a head, depending on the restaurant. Restaurants tend to close very early in Beijing. Hotel staff are usually very willing to help you book a table.
For more adventurous dining one can stroll past the intersection of Wangfujing and Jinyu Hutong where each evening private vendors set up stalls and offer a wide range of specialities from their various provinces. Here one can spend an evening sampling regional dishes and browsing through the night market which takes over the streets.
Another restaurant area with a fine view of the Rear Lakes is Lotus Lane at Shichahai, which begins across the street from the north entrance to Beihai Park and extends along the shore of the lake for about 100 meters.
In recent years, dozens of privately or cooperatively run restaurants have opened in every corner of the city. Some occupy old residences, others are carved out of unused factory space, but most of Them provide excellent food for surprisingly low prices. Four key areas to look for these restaurants are Qianmen and Dazhalan(Dashilan); the block behind the Beijing Hotel; and in the Dongdan and Dongsi shopping areas. Perhaps the best way to judge a restaurant is whether or not it is crowded with Chinese.
Virtually all international-standard hotels have top-quality Chinese restaurants. although perhaps not as exciting as dining out in a local restaurant. The are particularly safe bets for the visitors staying for just a short while or those with sensitive stomachs. For Canoness food (preparedly under the professional eye of Hong Kong chefs), you could try the Sui Yuan at Hilton Beijing (tel. 6466 2288) which serves a particularly good dim sum; the Celestial Court at the St, Regis Hotel (tel. 6460 6688) the Spring Garden at the Holiday Inn Lido (tel. 6500 6688): the refined Shang Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel (tel. 6831 2211) and Noble Court at the Grand Hyatt Beijing (tel. 8518 1234). For those who can take the heat, the Grand Hotel's Rong Yuan Sichuan restaurant (tel. 6513 7788) sets tongues ablaze.