Beijing is a city of gastronomic contradictions. The traditional everyday diet of local people is a simple affair: noodles, breads and dumplings, with pork and mutton, beancurd and vegetables.
Typical Beijing dishes and snacks can be delicious, but they are less varied than those of the South, with its rich biodiversity. And yet Beijing has also long been a melting pot of Chinese, and more recently international, culinary influences, and a centre of Chinese haute cuisine. In the past, bureaucrats from all over the empire lived here: restaurants specialising in regional cuisines sprang up to feed them, and many mandarins kept their own private chefs.
Beijing was also, of course, the home of Chinese imperial cuisine, and Fangshan restaurant claims to be the true custodian of palace cooking skills. Fangshan lies on the shores of the lake in Beihai Park; dragons curl across its ceilings and the dining rooms shimmer with gold and imperial yellow. It was founded in 1925 by five chefs who had served in the imperial kitchens, soon after the last emperor, Pu Yi, was evicted by from the Forbidden City.
“For many years after the Cultural Revolution we were closed to the public,” Fangshan's manager, Wang Tao, told me as he sipped from a jar of green tea. “But we continued to cater for important state guests until we reopened in 1989. And although the original chefs are long gone, we have an unbroken chain of culinary teaching.”
China's last dynasty, the Qing, were of nomadic descent: they were Manchus from the northeast, with a penchant for grand meat dishes, pastries and sweetmeats, but over time they adopted many of the culinary predilections of the Han, the native Chinese. Imperial cuisine became a hybrid of both cultures which is said to have found its most perfect expression in the “Man-Han banquet” – a legendary three-day extravaganza of feasting.
Outside the spectacular setting of Beihai Park, other restaurants combine modern design with a magical evocation of old Beijing. Foremost among them is Tian Di Yi Jia, which occupies a grand old courtyard house in a lane just east of the Forbidden City. Arrive at dusk, having walked through the nearby hutongs, and you can forget the maelstrom of development that has swallowed up most of the old city.
The menu here is a thrilling mix of tradition and innovation. Starters include voguish foie gras steeped in sake; bamboo shoots with dried mussels; and slithery-crisp jellyfish bathed in dark, rich Shanxi vinegar. Afterwards, you might try the divine smoked duck, served with a spicy bean relish and cornbread buns speckled with the dark green of wild vegetables.
Banquet cookery is normally far removed from everyday food, but one imperial delicacy in particular made the leap from the Forbidden City into the mainstream: Peking Duck. It was popularised by Quanjude, a restaurant that opened in 1864 with the help of some former palace chefs.
These days, the best place to eat Peking Duck is at the new branch of the Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, which stands amid the former imperial granaries. The restaurant also serves a fine rendition of that old Shandong speciality, sea cucumber braised with white leek, and fusion dishes that reflect head chef Da Dong's interest in cutting-edge European cuisine: cubes of cooked venison and Sichuanese pickled radish, for example, served in glasses of chilli oil with a sprig of rosemary.
Some restaurants have made a point of reviving old-fashioned street snacks and home-style dishes,such as the family-run Hai Wan Ju (the name means “Great Bowl Restaurant”). Here, cheerful young waiters usher you to a wooden table in a clamorous dining room.
“Our aim is to serve Beijing folk food,” says manager Guan Yue. “Little dishes and the kind of snacks they used to sell at temple fairs. Our cooking methods are very traditional – elderly customers say we've got the flavours right, and younger people come here to taste the food their grandparents used to make.”
“In the past, poor people used to eat dou jiang at the New Year,” says Guan. “They made it from dried pig skin that they boiled up with whatever scraps of food they had in the house.”
In a different way, Made in China in the Grand Hyatt in Beijing is helping to reinvigorate the city's culinary traditions, under the stewardship of executive chef Jack Aw Yong and his chefs du cuisine Nick Du and Kent Jin. The restaurant specialises in refined versions of old-fashioned Beijing dishes, augmented by some from other regions. Think, for example, of an utterly seductive starter of aubergines steeped in aged Shanxi vinegar, stir-fried goose breast with Chinese yam and wolfberries, and fast-fried lamb with white leek.
For more intimate dining, Guo Yao Xiao Ju is a tiny hutong restaurant that specialises in Tan Jia Cai – the household cuisine of Tan Zongjun, a late Qing Dynasty official whose kitchen was renowned for its brilliant fusion of Cantonese and Beijing cookery. The place has a direct connection with the famous Tan Jia Cai restaurant in the Beijing Hotel – the owner's brother-in-law once cooked there, and now acts as his consultant. Guo Yao Xiao Ju's menu is rooted in Shandong cooking. Some of the dishes here aresublime, like a melt-in-the-mouth claypot stew of beef and sea cucumber. Another idiosyncratic restaurant is the Red Capital Club , a courtyard house decked out with Mao memorabilia. The food is not exceptional but it is a delightful place to spend an evening. Most real Beijingers, of course, are more likely to go out for a bowl of noodles or dumplings than a ten-course feast of Shandong delicacies. One of the most typical casual eats is the simple jiao zi – a crescent-shaped boiled dumpling that might be stuffed with minced pork and fennel; scrambled egg and Chinese chives. Freshly-made jiao zi can be found at many ordinary snack shops, such as the Shun Yi Fu, a small, clean and delightful establishment in an alley that runs off Wangfujing in central Beijing. Don't expect to pay more than a few dollars per head for a slap-up lunch of dumplings and side dishes.
如今，吃北京烤鸭最好的地方是在北京大董烤鸭店(Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant)的新分店，该店位于曾经的皇家粮仓内。这家店不仅供应精美的老山东特色菜——葱烧海参，同时还有其它混合菜肴，例如红油小鹿肉，它是将四川泡菜和鹿肉泡于红辣椒油中，并用迷迭香点缀其上。这道菜反映了主厨大董对欧洲前沿烹饪方法的兴趣。
北京东方君悦大酒店(Grand Hyatt)“长安一号”餐厅(Made in China)在行政总厨欧阳庆成(Jack Aw Yong)及两位主厨杜津松(Nick Du)和金强(Kent Jin)的膳食管理下，正在复兴老北京的烹饪传统。这家酒店擅长烹饪精致的老北京菜肴，并用其它地区的一些菜肴进行补充。例如，想想极为诱人的凉菜老醋凉茄，还有山药炒鹅片（内有枸杞）、京葱爆羊肉。
至于密友聚餐，“国肴小居”是一家胡同小店，擅长做谭家菜——即晚清官员谭宗俊的私房菜，他的厨房因为将粤式做法与北京做法很好地融合起来而出名。这家店与北京饭店的谭家厅有直接的关联——店主的姐夫曾经在那里做厨师，现在是店主的顾问。国肴小居的菜式起源于鲁菜系。有些菜经过了再加工，像鲜嫩可口的罐焖牛腩、海参。另一家特别的餐厅叫做“新红资俱乐部”(Red Capital Club)，一家用毛泽东纪念品装饰而成的四合院。这里的食物并不特别，但却是一个值得欢度良宵的地方。当然，相比于10道精致的鲁菜大餐，大多数北京本地人更乐意去吃一碗面条或者汤团。其中最为典型的一种随意吃法就是饺子——可能是猪肉茴香馅的、或者是韭菜鸡蛋馅的经煮制而成的新月形状的面食。许多普通的小吃店都会有现场制作的饺子，比如顺一府饺子馆——坐落于北京中心地区王府井教堂南侧胡同里的一家干净的、令人愉快的小店。在这里，不用花上多少钱，你就可以品尝到一顿一流的饺子加配菜午餐。