It is in Beijing that one feels the power that lurks behind the stirring giant. While other Chinese coastal cities, with their glittering skyscrapers and marbled office buildings, express energy and dynamism, Beijing moves at its own steady pace. One needs only to walk around the world’s largest public square, Tiananmen Square, to be reminded of China’s continuing transformation as a global powerhouse. All the major sites within and around Beijing, from the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, to the Forbidden City, reinforce the country’s growing international influence.
OVERVIEW OF BEIJING CUISINE
Generally, food writers classify local Beijing food as northern Chinese cuisine. Food influences stretch as far west as Xinjiang and as far east as Heilongjiang. During the reign of the various dynasties, many cooks and chefs from around the country found work in Beijing; a melting pot of cuisines was created and thus the origin of a particular dish is often from outside the capital.
However, there are several key characteristics of northern Beijing food that distinguishes it from other regions in China: it is the home of imperial cuisine, meals are often wheat rather than rice-based, dishes tend to be heavy with dark sauces, and hot foods, cooked or kept warm at the table, are common.
Before the country was united by modern infrastructure, rice was scarce and wheat-based buns accompanied most meals. Now, rice is widely enjoyed, but steamed buns, both plain and stuffed, continue to be part of a northerner’s diet. Other wheat-based staples are dumplings and different types of noodles with thick dark soy-based sauce. The flavours for wheat-based dishes are often enhanced by chilli pepper, garlic, leek, spring onion, sesame oil and Chinese parsley.
FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
What sets Beijing apart from many other Asian cities is its rich history and beautiful architecture that gives a special ambience to its food and dining scene. A major influence on the city’s food culture is its extreme northern climate that has below freezing temperatures during the winter, with the frost-free period lasting only about 180 days of the year. Given the cold winters, eating hot food, often cooked at the table on a burner or hot pot, is a way to keep warm. Food is hearty and filling with generous use of dark, nearly black-coloured soybean paste – a more pungent and saltier version of the Japanese miso. Lack of water meant that grains are easier to grow than rice and thus, wheat buns mantou, bread pockets xiao bing, and thick noodles are central to the northerners’ diets.
It can be said that until Mao’s death in 1976, Beijing was a culinary desert. Beginning in the mid 1980s, there was a boom in the restaurant and dining culture. Beijing’s position as the capital of a huge country opening up to the world meant the world was also coming to meet China. An influx of foreign investors, tourists and government officials spurred a vibrant dining culture. City residents included a large diplomatic community and an increasingly affluent local society that dined out with greater frequency.
BEVERAGE AND WINE CULTURE
Tea, as well as various alcoholic beverages, were made in China for thousands of years. The complex world of tea is not unlike the world of wine. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, includes over 300 varieties whose final quality is determined by its terroir, cultivation methods, plucking, sorting, drying and firing. Each of the six major classes of tea, e.g. pu-er, green or oolong, has its own specific method of manufacturing. The best in each class is often sold for several hundred US dollars per pound or more.
Prior to the 1990s, Beijing, like the rest of China, consumed mainly beer and grain-based alcoholic beverages such as baijiu and huangjiu. Since 2007, China has joined the ranks of the world’s top 10 wine producers and figures among the top 10 wine consumers. The number of wineries now runs into several hundreds, while the size of the import and consumer markets is increasing so quickly that statistics are out of date almost as soon as they are published. When China joined the WTO in 2001, wine duty was reduced to 14%, however, total taxes add up to nearly 50%. Although Beijing lags behind Shanghai and other coastal cities like Guangdong in wine consumption, domestic brands like Great Wall, with firm government ties, consider Beijing as one of their key markets.
Currently, most of Beijing’s upscale Chinese restaurants offer wine. The list is often monopolised by one of the domestic wineries such as Great Wall or Changyu or by a local importer. The latter option offers a wider selection of wines. However, one feels the strong fingerprint and limitations of the importers’ portfolio when the wine list is repeated in numerous other restaurants around town.
WINE AND NORTHERN CHINESE FOOD
Throughout Asia, there is one common theme among food lovers: they are not concerned about the best restaurants, but about the best dish. They know these establishments have reached their particular status and popularity because there is one particular dish in which they excel. There is the small dumpling house that makes the most amazing jiaozi or the street-side vendor that has the best stinky tofu, chou toufu. When wine is introduced in this context, the best wine is one that takes into consideration the flavours of the restaurant’s signature dish and one that works in that environment and setting.
In a family-style environment, the richness and high meat content in many northern Chinese dishes means full-bodied red wines are often a good choice. In a communal meal with all the plates served at once, it is important to identify the strongest and dominant flavours and the overall weight of the meal.
Northern Chinese food in general is saltier with greater flavour intensity than in the south. Consider also the higher salt and oil content levels. Since salt exaggerates tannins, a very tannic wine should be avoided. High oil content requires sufficient acidity in the wine to cut through the oil; moderate level tannins to some extent can also help balance the oily food. Many southern Rhône and cool climate New World Syrah or Merlot work well since these wines have excellent fruit intensity, with firm but not aggressive tannins, and sufficient acidity to support many salty, oily and flavourful dishes.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR BEIJING CUISINE
- Mature Northern Rhone
- Medium bodied Merlot
- New World Syrah
- New World Cabernet Sauvignon Blend
- Modern Tuscan