When expats first arrive in Beijing, we all tend to learn a list of basic dishes to order in every Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, some people don’t get far past this list of foreigner favourites – garlic brocolli, sweet and sour pork, kungpao chicken, egg fried rice… Not that this is bad food (it’s yummy!) but there’s so much more out there!
I’m going to share just a few of my favourite common dishes with you. Many Chinese dishes have confusing names, but I accidentally picked a series of dishes that all have really logical names! I am also linking to recipe pages – they are in Chinese but have pictures, so you may find them interesting. Besides, there’s always google translate ;)
xī qín bǎi hé
Literally “celery lily” this dish is pretty much what you’d expect – a dish of sliced celery and lily stir fried together. It’s very simple but I love it! Often a few pieces of carrot are added (I presume for colour) and a common variant includes cashew nuts. Since I know you’re wondering, let me explain the eating of lily. It’s not the flower, but the root. It pulls apart into petal-like pieces which can then be easily stir fried (the photos below show the raw root – the whole bulb and the separated pieces). If mishandled they can brown, like bruised fruit, and look less appetising. They are supposed to be good for your health, especially in Autumn or when pregnant. See a Chinese recipe here.
dòu chǐ líng yú yóu mài cài
This name of this dish is literally its ingredients – but these may be unfamiliar to you. 豆豉 [dòu chǐ] is a bottled sauce of salted, fermented soy beans, often known as “black bean” in English. 鲮鱼 [líng yú] is a small, bony fish translated as “dace” or “mud carp” in English. 油麦菜 [yóu mài cài] is a green vegetable that looks like a cross between lettuce and grass; I have no idea what it is called in English. The you mai cai is stir fried with garlic, like a normal simple vegie dish (one I ordered frequently in my first year), then the douchi and lingyu is fried up into a sauce that is poured on top. (You can buy tinned lingyu with douchi in most Chinese food stores so it’s very easy to make.) The result is super salty – which I love! A “language partner” during my first semester in China introduced me to this dish. I took a bus to her neighbourhood in southwest Beijing and this was one of the dishes she ordered for us in a nearby restaurant. It looked scary to this China newbie but it was delicious! See a Chinese recipe here.
guō bāo ròu
Literally “pot wrapped meat,” this dish was a staple of my diet during my first year in China. It’s not on every restaurant’s menu, and it’s made very differently from place to place. It consists of big but very thin pieces of pork coated with batter, fried until crispy, then topped with a sticky sweet sauce, and a few garnishing vegies – thin strips of carrot, spring onion, and/or coriander (cilantro). The sauce ranges from totally sweet, to very vinegary, to all tomato (like a normal sweet and sour sauce). I particularly like it when it’s sticky and lightly sweet with a background tang of vinegar and a hint of tomato, especially when the meat is extra thin and the batter is extra crispy! I measure all guo bao rou by the standard of the restaurant that used to be at the west gate of my university, BLCU. Nothing is ever as good as the original, but since it’s since been torn down I can’t tell you how much of that is naivete and nostalgia :) This photo was taken in a restaurant just outside my new building – I was very excited to find it on their menu, and even more so to find it was pretty good! See a Chinese recipe here.
suān là tāng
Literally “sour spicy soup,” this soup is claimed by several parts of China. This was one of my favourite comfort foods when I had a cold during my first year in China (which was most of the time, that year). It had protein and was always HOT (unlike many dishes that chilled way too quickly after hitting the table) and was soft and gentle on a sickly raw throat. It’s an egg-drop broth, lightly thickened with cornstarch (a pretty standard soup base) and coloured with soy sauce. It is seasoned with brown vinegar and black pepper (enough for a strong kick!) to make it both sour and spicy; sometimes there’s fresh coriander (cilantro) on top. I like that the heat comes from pepper rather than chili, but there are some versions that use fresh chili instead. In the soup are thin strips of tofu, bamboo shoots, and often some kind of mushroom, like wood ear fungus. It sounds vegetarian but while it can be, often the broth is based on chicken or pork stock, and sometimes ham or chicken are added. I’m told that originally it was made with duck blood tofu (made of congealed blood – not unusual here) instead of regular soy tofu, and is sometimes still flavoured with pig blood – thankful that’s not the case in most Beijing restaurants these days!! See a Chinese recipe here.
zhī ma qiú
Literally “sesame ball,” this is a kind of dessert – a fitting place to finish. China is not exactly known for its dessert; of all the Asian countries I’ve visited, it has the least delectable desserts. But there is so much sugar in the main course I suppose it’s not exactly needed. Zhi ma qiu are basically balls of glutinous rice flour dough, with a filling of red bean paste (or black sesame paste, sometimes) rolled in sesame seeds and then deep fried. The ones I buy in markets are generally 7-10cm in diameter; at restaurants they’re often on the smaller side. Good zhi ma qiu are crisp on the outside and sticky-soft on the inside. They can be very oily when cool but are still yummy. This was the first dish in which I enjoyed red bean paste – no pretending needed! See a Chinese recipe here.