Eaten all the 'Wheaten' Food in Beijing

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Written by James
Published on 12th March 2024 at 09:45 • No comments yet, be the first!

China was one of the last places to lift their Covid restrictions in 2023, so in the summer I was off on a long-delayed trip to research a top-secret new project…..

Arriving in Beijing, the first (of many!) surprises is what a fantastic city it is to visit - spacious, green, and now all the motorbikes, buses and nearly all the cars are electric, the air is clean, the traffic is quiet and it’s an absolute pleasure to walk or cycle around. 

It’s an enormous city with over 20 million inhabitants and sprawls for miles into the surrounding countryside, but the most interesting part for most visitors are probably the hutongs (ancient narrow lanes) grouped around the imperial palaces. What were once very cramped little houses with communal washing facilities are now filled with hundreds of craft beer bars, cool restaurants and a couple of very good cooking schools (as well as the president’s mother apparently who lives in a ‘secret’ residence made up of multiple old houses knocked together). 

Beijing has a long and turbulent history of invasion and conquest, and the influence of these various rulers (including the Mongolians who brought with them the religion of Islam and cultural influences from ancient Persia), plus the location at the eastern edge of the mountain ranges that divide China’s fertile coastal states from the dry and harsh climate of the western deserts, all contribute to the local cuisine now. 

This food from the north and west of the country was the main reason for my visit as it’s a cuisine that’s much less familiar than the mainly Cantonese food we’re used to eating in the Chinese restaurants in the UK (most of these restaurants are run by families who originate from Hong Kong and the Southern coastal states rather than inland states of China).

Wheat is the key ingredient here rather than rice as the climate is too dry and cold for rice to grow in the surrounding areas. This means that as well as rich meat stews (often using mutton or beef together with lots of dried spices), there are also hundreds of different breads, pancakes, dumplings and handmade noodles all made with wheat flour rather than rice flour. Collectively it's termed 'wheaten food' and describes a massive range of delicious and hearty dishes with wheat flour noodles and bread doughs at its core. 

A beef and tofu stew cooked and served in a clay pot. Many of the dishes here are cooked like this rather than fried in a wok as in southern China where more seafood, chicken and leafy vegetables are used which only need very quick cooking

A Mongolian style barbeque with slices of mutton marinated in soy, sugar, chilli and lots of ground cumin which shows the influence of the Mongols and is still a popular way to eat today in Beijing as groups gather round a hot plate and grill meat together with a few beers to wash it down!

A Beijing Spicery. Lots of dried spices like star anise, white pepper, sichuan pepper, black cardamon etc plus multiple varieties of soy sauce, cooking wine and black rice vinegar

A stall full of different dried aromatics to add to slow-cooked soups and stews

'Door Nail' meat pies. These are named for their resemblance to the huge nail heads used on the doors of the Imperial palaces. They're made from spicy minced beef or pork, wrapped in a chewy dumpling style pastry then fried to be really crispy and delicious

Jian Bing - a kind of breakfast pancake filled with crispy crackers, pickled veg, fresh spring onion and chilli then coated in egg and folded up to eat on the go

Zha Jiang noodles - a classic dish of Beijing. These are made from chewy wheat flour noodles served with a thick fermented fried bean paste sauce, then lots of fresh raw ingredients to mix in and add texture and freshness

'Tiger' salad -  a side dish from Xianjiang in the far west of China. This is made from shredded raw vegetables tossed with soy, sesame oil, chilli oil and garlic

Peking Duck! It turns out that people really do love crispy duck in Peking/Beijing, and the roasting methods can be extremely complex to achieve the ultimate juicy meat but glass-thin crispy skin

A condiments tray served with Peking duck - cucumber and spring onions plus hoisin sauce, garlic paste, pickles, melon and sugar which is used to dip the crispy skin in!

Noodles and ingredients to make a dressing for a cold salad. You can choose your own types of noodles and specify how much chilli oil, sesame paste, garlic, soy etc to make up your salad

A tofu stall in the market. There must be hundreds of different ways that tofu is prepared here - fresh, pressed, smoked, fried, salted etc etc. They're all used for different dishes but add protein as well as texture - turns out that tofu isn't totally tasteless and pointless after all....

Cured pork, a bit like thick slices of bacon that's steamed and then fried with preserved vegetables

Ding ding noodles. A really homely dish from the far west of China, this is a bit like a Chinese minestrone! Chewy wheat flour noodles (rolled into shapes a bit like gnocchi) cooked in a tomato based broth with vegetables then served with chilli oil drizzled on top

The 'Three Earthly Treasures' - potatoes, aubergine and peppers all fried then combined in a rich thick and spicy sauce

Nan Bing - a Xinjiang bread from the far west of China which is remarkably similar to Middle Eastern flatbread (and the name is of course related to Indian Naans who also shared a culinary history from the Moguls who in turn were influenced by the ancient Persians) 

Spring Onion Pancakes - these are similar in many ways to an Indian paratha dough  where the bread is layered and brushed with oil to form crispy, flaky pastry like puff pastry

An ultra-crispy meat pie made with similar flaky coiled dough - a bit like a spicy meat croissant!

Potato skewers (you can also get mushrooms, peppers as well as diced chicken or lamb served in this style) from Xinjiang with a seasoning of chilli, sichuan pepper and sesame

Paomo - a mutton stew with pieces of bread (a bit like torn pieces of pita) soaked into the broth to make it really thick and filling - perfect for a bitterly cold winters day! Served with salted pickled chilli and garlic on the side 

A fresh noodle stall in the market where you can buy freshly made wheat flour noodles in all sorts of different thicknesses and lengths depending on the dish you're making at home. The process is a bit like bread or pasta making - mixing flour with water and salt to make a dough, kneading, cutting and then rolling out

A neighbourhood dairy stall - the popularity of yogurt in Beijing must be a legacy of the Mongolians (via the Persians) as I don't think it's something you tend to see so much further south and east

Century eggs with tofu - these eggs are cured in an alkaline salt mix to preserve them and give the spectacular colour. They look very dramatic and the slightly jellied consistency takes a bit of getting used to, but the flavour is pretty mild and delicious with the tofu and soy

Ruo Ji Mo - Chinese ‘Hamburgers’. These are made from pork cooked in a rich soy stock flavoured with star anise and ginger, then shredded and mixed with fresh green chillies and coriander then stuffed inside a flatbread (a bit like a Chinese pita bread)

Me rolling out dough to make biang biang noodles - so called because of the slapping sound they make when you stretch and bang them on the work surface

The noodles are boiled then topped with raw garlic and chilli flakes. You then heat a couple of tbsp of oil until it starts to smoke, then (very carefully!) pour the hot oil on top of the garlic and chilli which immediately sizzles and flavours the oil. A bit of soy sauce, splash of black rice vinegar then mix it round and job done!

Thanks to the Hutong and also Beijing Cooking School for being so patient in their classes with me and for their excellent instruction. I'd also recommend Lost Plate Food Tours if you ever visit Beijing (or anywhere in China really) as unless you're a Chinese speaker it's incredibly useful to have such knowledgeable and friendly guides to show you around!


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