As a bona fide foodie, I was excited about the Chinese culinary scene. While I am a huge fan of eating like a local, I was concerned that exploring the Beijing dining scene on our own could be daunting. Language was certainly going to be an issue since I don’t speak Mandarin. Multiple sites raised concerns about hygiene and food safety. And, while I think I am an adventurous eater, I wanted to know what I was ordering and eating. Doing the old Beijing food tour on our first day in China was the perfect solution.
Unlikely Hutong Food Tour Guide
We were supposed to meet our guide at 7pm outside a train station. Built like a refrigerator with a thick Australian accent, Garth was not exactly the guide I was expecting. Garth’s day job is a restaurant consultant—he tells failing establishments what they need to do to improve. After eight years of living in Beijing, Garth’s fluent Mandarin helped us navigate our hutong-exploring food tour. Old neighborhoods made up of narrow streets and alleys, hutongs are the last remnants of old Beijing amidst an ultra modern city.
First Stop on Our Food Tour
At our first stop, in the middle of the table sat a hot pot surrounded by multiple little dishes. Each plate had something for us to dip into the steaming pot of broth reminiscent of fondue. As we were cooking our food, Garth told us about a Mongolian general abruptly leaving for battle and demanding to be fed. As the general put on his armor, the servant fed him pieces of meat that had been quickly dipped in boiling liquid. I have no idea whether there is any factual basis but it made for an entertaining story. Between the hot pot and free flowing beer, I knew pacing myself was going to be hard.
Quintessential Chinese Street Food
Walking down the street, we stopped to sip yogurt. Sold at stands, in small glass jars, covered with a paper top, the silky smooth creamy yogurt was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t realize it in the moment but there is very little dairy in China. Our next taste was from a stall, no bigger than a phone booth, on a busy street. Jianbing is a savory crepe filled with egg, cilantro, scallions and a crunchy wonton. In less than a minute, a woman worked her street food mastery on a searing griddle. As we devoured each delectable morsel, Garth told us that the soldiers needed to eat something while hastily retreating and, supposedly, they heated a shield. Side note—each street vendor has a different interpretation of Jianbing so try as many as you can. I have even tried making it at home.
While growing up, I had heard that horse was a delicacy but I couldn’t imagine eating it. So when we walked up to the storefront of our next stop, I was a bit taken aback by the neon sign “Donkey Burgers.” Actually, I thought something was lost in translation. Honestly I don’t ethically think that I can endorse eating horse. That said, I was not going to miss anything so I agreed to try the surprisingly delicious burgers.
Biang—The Character and the Noise
Walking several blocks between stops gave us a great opportunity to experience the hutong night scene and a brief respite from the gluttony of our food tour. We stopped to watch a cook as he hand stretched noodles and slammed against the table to further stretch and flour them. Garth instructed us to listen carefully to the sound from the dough. As we approached our next stop, he pointed out, biang, the most difficult Chinese character to write. But, biang doesn’t actually have a meaning. Inside, we tried biang biang mian. Apparently, the dish was named for the sound the noodles make while being stretched. Incredibly intricate, the character is a beautiful symbol for this mouth-watering, Xian-based delicacy. And lucky for us, we would be going to Xian next.
Best Chicken Wings Ever
Garth told us that our last stop made the best chicken wings ever and that the owner gets mad if people don’t eat enough. This argument reminded me of my mother scolding us for leaving food when there were starving children in China. All quips aside, I was not going to miss out. Garth plied us with baijiu, liquor made from fermented grain, reminiscent of the medicinal-tasting herbal vodka that my father-in-law serves. But baijiu was a great appetite stimulant for getting my second wind. Wings with three different degrees of spiciness arrived on huge plates. We savored every bite until our mouths were numb and tingling from the Sichuan peppercorns. Shouting ganbei (cheers), our group we washed down the last bites with beer. Indeed, these were definitively the best chicken wings ever.
Getting Home After The Food Tour
Our evening ended around 10:55pm. Apparently, the subway in Beijing shuts down at 11pm. Literally, it stops. We needed a cab since it was too far to walk to our hotel. But flagging a cab in Beijing was harder than in New York City. First, there are many gypsy cabs with no meter. Second, language is an issue. One word of advice, all the hotels have a card with their name, address and phone number. Ask for it from the front desk before heading out. Garth hailed a cab for us, communicated the directions and made sure the meter was running. Fifteen minutes later we were back at our hotel, bellies full and ready for bed.
Untour Food Tours was such a fabulous experience that we did it again a couple of the weeks later in Shanghai. Do you love food? Want to add a food experience to YOUR trip? I’d love to help you plan it. Book your 30 minute over the phone complimentary immersive vacation consultation with me using my online scheduler to find a time that’s convenient for you.