Beijing (Peking) Cuisine

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Beijing (Peking) Cuisine

The cuisine of the city of Beijing is rooted in the broader tradition of north Chinese food. As the capital of China for most of the last eight hundred years, Beijing has been the beneficiary of two additional forces. First was the development of an imperial court cuisine perhaps unrivaled in the world. Second, as political center of China, Beijing has been a magnet for people from all over the world. Inevitably, they bring their foodways with them. The Mongols who established their court there in the Yuan dynasty brought barbaric delicacies such as wolves and swans, and today MacDonald's hamburgers are familiar.

Beijing occupies a dry, dusty region, oppressively hot in summer, bitterly cold and windy in winter. Nearby hills give relief from the summer heat, but there is no escape from winter's chill. Today, and even to some extent in the historic past, smoke and soot densely cover the city, adding to the discomfort. The familiar foods of China's warmer, wetter regions, such as rice, fish, and subtropical fruits and vegetables, were rare luxuries until very recently.

Beijing's basic foodways can stand as exemplar for the north Chinese style of cooking. This style is found throughout northern China, with outstanding substyles in Shandong and Hebei as well as Beijing. It is China's simplest, and in the northwestShaanxi and Shanxi especiallyit can become very simple indeed. These areas were, and in some areas still are, hunger zones, hard hit by famine. Often, only two meals a day are eaten, and coarse grains (maize, sorghum, buckwheat) are often important foods. Even so, they have their specialties, including Shanxi's outstanding vinegar.

North China produced very little rice until recently. Wheat and soybeans are staples. In early times, millets, especially foxtail millet (Setaria italica ), were staples. Millet has now been almost entirely replaced by maize. This New World crop came north from southern China in the Qing dynasty, but was rare and unpopular. People correctly saw that millet was much more nourishing. In the twentieth century, however, vast increases in the productivity of maize have tipped the balance; foxtail millet has not benefited significantly from Green Revolution research. However, maize is still unpopular as a human food, and is largely fed to animals. Today rice is also produced well north of its historic range, and has become more familiar in the area. At the same time, the traditional oilseed, oil cabbage (rape cabbage), has been supplemented by sunflower, maize, and soybean. Vegetables, until recently, were also rather limited. In winter there was little beyond the Beijing cabbagethe cylindricalheaded form of Chinese cabbage, with pale leaves and greatly enlarged, crisp leaf bases. A conscious effort has recently been made to diversify winter vegetable availability. Melons were major fruits, especially the watermelon, extremely popular in summer for its cooling and diuretic qualities as well as its sweet taste. Their seeds were a popular snack, to the point that some varieties of watermelon were bred only for seeds, having many large seeds and very little flesh. In season, peaches and jujubes ("Chinese dates," Zizyphus Ziziphus chinensis ) were common. Walnuts, lotus nuts, and other fruits and nuts were luxury items.

As in most of inland China, the pig was the main meat source, but beef and even lamb (or mutton) were frequentthe latter especially in Hui (Chinese Muslim) neighborhoods, which are extensive and are famous for their food. Chicken and duck were common, but the ordinary citizen saw them only at very special events.

Standard northern flavorings are ginger, sliced scallions, garlic, sesame oil, Chinese "wine," and soy sauce. Spices were traditionally quite rare. Coriander leaves (cilantro), introduced from the Near East in early medieval times, are a frequent flavoring or garnish.

The long, harsh winters forced the development of a sophisticated pickling and preserving industry. Pickled vegetables, sausages, dried meat, salted foods, and preserved fruits are important.

The court, of course, had far different fare. Exotic delicacies were the rule. Perhaps only the Mongols actually ate wolves. According to a more authentically Chinese tradition, the "eight delicacies" were servedthe list is variable, but includes such things as camels' humps, apes' lips, and bears' paws, as well as various mythological animal parts. At least the bears' paws were in fact eaten; they are cooked long, into a gelatinous state. The appeal of such items is their rarity rather than their taste, but bears' paws are relished also by actual bear hunters in Siberia and north Canada. More prosaic but presumably much more common were rare species of mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other vegetable foods, as well as complex and detailed preparations of ordinary animals such as chicken, duck, and fish. Dishes from the remote reaches of the empire, such as central Asia and Tibet, often graced the table, especially when dignitaries from those areas were being entertained. From southeast Asia came preservable exotica such as birds' nests (edible nests of swifts of the genus Collocalia ) and sea cucumbers. Thus the court showed its cosmopolitan, world-ruling power as well as its hospitality. Many imperial recipes are preserved, and restaurants occasionally arise that re-create them.

History records that many emperors ignored the elaborate dishes and preferred simple fare. This is a formula, meant to indicate the virtue of the emperor; simplicity, indifference to vain show, and empathy with the ordinary people are virtues in all Chinese religious and philosophical traditions. However, the story is told circumstantially enough of some emperors to be apparent literal truth. In these cases, it stands as a telling comment on the quality of the formal service. Kenneth Lo, in Peking Cooking, records some imperial menus and other lore, including cutting remarks on the quality of the pompous feast fare. The last emperor, Aisin Gyoro Puyi, commented: "One big tasteless spread. All show and no flavour!" (1971, p. 24).

More usual farethe fare of the vast majority, including, perhaps, those emperorswas based on wheat products. Noodles in soup, large steamed breads, and filled dumplings were staples. The large breads, usually chemically leavened, were called mantou, which means "barbarian heads." Forms of this word are used from Korea to Greece; the word may actually be from an Altaic language, or it may be Chinese from the start. It used to refer to filled dumplings, and still does everywhere except in China, but at some obscure time the Chinese term came to refer to solid wheat loaves. Today, large filled dumplings (typically with leavened dough) are paozi. Smaller filled dumplings are jiaozi, a term limited to China, but denoting dumplings virtually identical to the mantu or manti of Korean, Turkic, and Greek kitchens. They are also clearly related to the kreplachs, pelmeny, and vareniki of eastern Europe, and to many other steamed or boiled dumplings of Eurasia. The complex history of these foods is still unclear.

The rich had rice congee: rice cooked in considerable water to make a thin porridge. The poor had an equivalent in porridge of millet, soybean meal, or wheat meal. Millet porridge, especially, was the most ancient foodstuff, having been prepared since earliest Neolithic times. It could be thick or thin. Often it was plain, but it could be flavored with sweet or savory ingredients. Cakes of coarse corn meal stood at the bottom of the prestige scale.

For centuries, Beijing has had countless eateries, from expensive and exclusive restaurants to food carts along the streets. Tea houses flourished everywhere, serving varying grades of tea along with snacks. These establishments varied from exclusive and refined, with the finest tea and foods, to rough stands for ordinary workers. They served as meeting houses, poor folks' offices, and centers of political and social activity. Also common are food stalls and small, inexpensive restaurants selling noodles and dumplings. The food at these is consistently fresh and good, but not notably diverse. As elsewhere in China, freshness is an ideal. Fish and poultry are sold alive whenever possible, and even larger animals may be. A new load of vegetables or fruit commands a high price, which may drop by the hour if the sun wilts the produce.

Ingredients in Chinese food are cut or otherwise prepared in bite sizes for ease in handling with chopsticks. Since earliest recorded times, eating large hunks of food was considered barbaric.

More ambitious restaurants have far more varied offerings. Traditionally, restaurants specialize in one type of cuisine. Some offer the dishes of a particular province or ethnic group. Others may focus on only one dish. Several classic Beijing dishes are so elaborate, and so popular, that restaurants focus solely on them.

The most famous such dish was, and is, Beijing duck. Ducks were domesticated in north China, and the most successful variety worldwide remains the "white Pekin" (or, more recently, its improved descendents). A proper Beijing duck is carefully raised from hatching onward. It is specially fed to give it the right amount and flavor of fat and meat. Killed at some three months of age, it is hung for a while, then inflated to separate the skin from the flesh. Preparation is simple: it is seasoned and roasted. As is true with ducks and with marinated pork slabs in much of China, Beijing duck is hung on a hook to roast, so that all sides are evenly cooked. Then the flesh and skin, cut up, are eaten rolled in small wheat pancakes, with fermented sauce (several variants are allowable) and slivered scallions. Some gourmets would eat only the skin, leaving the meat for servants.

Other dishes indicate the strength of Muslim and central Asian influence. Most pervasive are shaobing. These are small raised sesame breads, traditionally cooked Iranian style in a small tandoor oven. They are miniaturizations of Iranian nan, and seem to have been introduced in the Tang dynasty, when the Iranian court took refuge in China from the Arab armies that conquered Iran for Islam. Iranians were to be found on street corners everywhere in Xian (then Chang'an) selling these breads (see Schafer, 1963), which were soon nativized as Chinese fare. In Beijing today, they are often stuffed with meat that is slivered and then grilled or stir-fried. One such dish, of presumptive "barbarian" origin, is "Mongolian barbecue." This dish is not necessarily Mongolian in origin; it seems more likely a modern evolution from traditional Muslim Chinese dishes. It involves meat sliced very thin, drenched in a selection of piquant sauces, and grilled on a metal brazier over a high flame.

Another famous Muslim dish that has its specialty restaurants is lamb hot-pot. Chinese diners love to do their own cooking. Most often, this is done by dipping very thinly sliced ingredients into boiling stock at the table. The slices cook quickly, and flavor the stock, which is eaten as soup at the meal's end. Every province has its own versions of this hot-pot meal; Beijing's is based on lamb. The lamb has to be sliced evenly and very thinly. Chinese cooks spend years learning how to slice properly, and this dish provides a rigorous test of their accomplishments.

From farther afield come such dishes as the sweet-sour fish of Hebei. Made from fresh-water fish (usually species of carp), this is said to be China's best version of the dish. Shandong restaurants provide that province's superior dumplings and fish dishes.

In recent years, Beijing has added American fast foods to its diverse scene. Yan Yunxiang (1997) reports that McDonald's was, in the 1990s, the place to be seenat least, many young people thought so. Young men would spend hours over a cup of coffeeall they could affordsimply to show they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan enough to be there. McDonald's, the symbol of bottom-scale eating in its native land, thus took on the prestige that, in that land, is reserved for exclusive Continental-style restaurants. More recently, Starbucks and other chains have been added to the youth scene.

See also Japan ; Noodle in Asia ; Rice ; Southeast Asia.


Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Buell, P. D., and E. N. Anderson. A Soup for the Qan. London: Kegan Paul International, 2000.

Huang, H. T. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 6, Biology and Biological Technology. Part 5: Fermentations and Food Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Lo, Kenneth. Peking Cooking. London: Faber & Faber, 1971.

Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of Tang Exotics. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1963.

Simoons, Frederick J. Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1991.

Yan, Yunxiang. "McDonald's in Beijing: The Localization of Americana." In Golden Arches East: McDonald's in Asia, edited by James Watson. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

E. N. Anderson