Ni hao—your duck! Adventures in eating in Beijing.

I just spent 10 days in Shanghai and Beijing. Second to visiting some good friends of my husband who live in Shanghai, eating lots of delicious Chinese food was my top priority for the trip.

There were a few bumps in the road—including an inadvertent trip to Subway and a run-in with some aptly named “chou doufu” (literally, “stinky tofu”) and otherwise forgettable street food on Wanfujing Snack Street—but we mostly succeeded.

Almost everything we ate was yummy, but here are the three most memorable things we sampled.

1. Peking Duck. We went to Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck, listed in Lonely Planet. It was big, bright, busy, and expensive compared to other restaurants we went to in Beijing (but not that expensive compared to restaurants at home). I have no idea if there are better places for Peking Duck in Beijing, but we were totally satisfied with our meal and the ambience.

We ordered a couple of soups and a whole roast duck.

our duck

After the soup, which was tasty, our duck arrived along with the chef who was carving it. A waitress popped up and pointed it out to us with an economical: “Ni hao. Your duck.”

We received a plate of sliced duck and two plates of condiments, some of which we didn’t recognize: sliced onion, plum sauce, thin pancakes, one hollow bun, something pink, something pickled, and so on, including a small amount of sugar.

A waitress popped up again to give us instructions on how to eat our duck. The most surprising part was dipping the skin in the sugar. I’m not a huge meat-eater, and I tend to shy away from things like skin and fat. But the crispy brown duck skin dipped in sugar was a revelation. It tasted like doughnuts, but richer, crispy and melting in my mouth. It was delicious, and unlike anything I’d ever eaten before.

the whole spread

The rest of the meal was also quite fine. I’m still not sure I’m a big fan of duck, but smothered in plum sauce and wrapped in a delicate pancake with fresh slices of onion it was inevitably tasty. The duck was followed with duck soup and fresh fruit.

2. Tofu with chili sauce at Xhang Ma Ma. This was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no English menu or pictures that our hotel sent us to, along with a printed-out order in Chinese characters that we dutifully handed to the waitress after a long wait for table on a Friday night. We tried four dishes and all were delicious, but the tofu dish was the most memorable. I don’t know whether it is a traditional dish or unique to the restaurant, or what the English translation of the Chinese characters on our printed-out order is, but it was slices of fresh, soft tofu served with a chili oil-based dipping sauce.

tofu prior to devouring

I eat a lot of tofu, and this was the best I’ve ever had. I usually think of tofu as an innocuous medium for whatever sauce I’m eating it with, but this had its own delicate, slightly salty flavor. I would have eaten it alone. But the dipping sauce, heavy with Sichuan peppercorn, chilis, and sesame seeds, was intoxicating.

yummy dark-red chili sauce

We inhaled it with tingling mouths and went back the next day to gulp down some more before hurrying to catch a taxi to the airport.

3. “Stir-fried Beef with Pepper.” Alas, I didn’t think to write down the Chinese characters for this vaguely translated dish and again, I don’t know whether it is traditional or created by the restaurant.

We had this at a restaurant called Club Camp, which (according to the internet) specializes in Yunnan food, in Chaoyang. We wandered into it the night we arrived in Beijing. It was late, we were hungry, and we were unsuccessfully looking for a different restaurant listed in our guidebook. Despite the unappealing name of the restaurant, the food was outstanding, and we went back for a second meal when we were in the area two days later.

This was our favorite dish of the several we tried. It was fiery, one of the spiciest things we ate in China, and incredibly flavorful. The second time we dined there, we played food detective and inspected it to try to figure out everything that was in it. Our list includes beef, fresh peppers of some sort, dried chilis, cumin, anise, peanuts, fermented black beans, sesame seeds, and scallions, but I’m sure I’m still missing some things. Suffice it to say, it was a flavor explosion and again unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

In the week I’ve been home, I’ve purchased two Chinese cookbooks, been to the Asian grocery store twice, and cooked Chinese food four times (tonight, Dan Dan Noodles from Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty). Needless to say, Beijing made an impression.

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