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Living in Beijing Guide

There’s nothing more Chinese than socialising over food, and China has one of the richest and most diverse culinary traditions on earth. Beijing, as the capital for centuries, offers the best of Chinese food, served every way imaginable. In imperial times cooks from all corners of China went to Beijing to work in the Imperial Kitchen, bringing with them all the flavours of China. Traditionally, rice is less common as a dish due to the dry climate around Beijing. Noodles have taken their place as the city’s staple. An increasing expat population has led to an abundance of international cuisines – from German brauhauses to Indian buffets – at all price levels. Eating out in Beijing is much cheaper than in other international cities such as Tokyo or London, but if you prefer to cook at home, there are plenty of shopping options. The French chain Carrefour has stores in most neighbourhoods, but it’s worth learning the ropes at local wet markets, where fresh cuts and locally grown fruit and vegetables are a bargain by any measure.

Eating out

Beijing dining can be divided into two peacefully coexisting camps: Chinese and foreign. If you’re moving here long-term, you’ll have the opportunity to experience professionally prepared cuisine from all over China, and the world. Though it may be easy to fall into a routine with your favorite restaurants or food from home (Beijing is sure to have it), try to branch out whenever possible. In the end, you probably won’t have a choice, as Chinese business and social events take place over meals. Remember not to offer to pay if a local invites you out, just be sure to return the favour at a later date. It’s also customary to leave a bit of food at the end of the meal – finishing everything is a sign that the host didn’t order enough food. Tipping is not expected at low- and mid-range restaurants. Service varies tremendously. Don’t expect to be checked on frequently, especially when you’re ready to pay. Smoking is allowed almost everywhere. If cigarette smoke bothers you, ask for an isolated table or avoid dining out at busy restaurants between 6pm and 8pm. Street-side eateries certainly do not comply with Chinese government standards of hygiene. On the other hand, you’re generally safe at any mid-range or high-end restaurant here.

Local food

Beijing cuisine is heavily influenced by the food of Shandong Province and, generally speaking, dishes that are considered Beijingese are usually snacks rather than full dishes. Common ingredients are dark soy paste, sesame paste, scallions and sesame oil. Historically, government officials travelling to live in the capital from all over China often brought chefs with them, who usually remained behind when the official returned home. This culinary heritage has bestowed upon Beijing one of the most varied and delicious sets of restaurants in the world.

International cuisine

It would take an entire volume in itself to do any justice to the international dining options in Beijing. There are outstanding restaurants serving topnotch dishes from all corners of the globe. As Beijing becomes more and more trendy, elite chefs are moving in from places like Paris, New York and Tokyo. For up-to-date reviews and locations, browse one of the popular expat websites that specialise in posting reviews and comments on international restaurants.

www.cityweekend.com.cn
www.thebeijinger.com
www.beijingpage.com

Vegetarian food

Some Chinese cuisine might look vegetarian, but the tofu and string beans have likely been enriched with pork fat. Meat is often the stock of sauces. If you’re at a Chinese restaurant, clearly explain to the staff “wo chi shu” (I’m a vegetarian). If you are then served a dish with meat, politely send it back immediately without paying. Beijing has a growing number of vegetarian restaurants that use tofu to imitate meat. There are plenty of Western restaurants that serve traditional vegetarian standbys such as pizza, pasta and salad. Food shopping is not a problem for vegetarians. Local and international supermarkets are usually wellstocked with a variety of vegetables, and cooks will be more than happy with the variety of soy products.

Delivery

Having food delivered is not as common in Beijing as it is in many Western countries, but it is still available and convenient. Get to know the staff at your favourite local noodle and dumpling joints, ask them, “Keyi wai mai ma?” (do you deliver?) and chances are they’ll be happy to bring a meal to your door for no extra charge, or at most a nominal fee. Most pizza places deliver until late in the evening. For restaurant delivery, Sherpa’s (www.sherpa.com.cn) is a bilingual city-wide delivery service and is popular among expats.

Drinking

All types of alcohol are widely consumed in Beijing. The bar and nightclub scene has taken off in recent years, from a few quiet restaurants and seedy karaoke bars to dozens of dive bars, live-music venues, British sports pubs and trendy nightclubs. The highest concentration of stylish establishments is in the former CBD and Embassy districts.

Chinese red wines such as Great Wall and Grace Vineyard, which used to be unpalatable, have come a long way. Imported wines from Australia, the US and Europe are available at international supermarkets. Chinese beers such as Tsingtao are sold cheaply at local supermarkets alongside imported Japanese beer, and occasionally Heineken, that cost a few RMB more per bottle. Most bars serve a few draught beers, but don’t expect anything like the selection at a pub back home. For something different, try baijiu, a grain-based spirit brewed differently in each region in China. Take the first drink slowly, as some varieties reach 50% alcohol!

Coffee and tea

The Chinese love their tea, and the local favourite is green tea (lucha). There are elegant teashops throughout the city just waiting for you to try one of the hundreds of varieties. Coffee has become intensely popular in China’s major cities and international companies like Starbucks and Coffee Bean are well represented. There are several local chains as well, with prices that are just as shocking as Starbucks.

Food shopping

Beijing is bursting with a ridiculous number of food vendors, and it’s not difficult to find the right foods to stock your pantry. They come in all forms – from street stalls selling roasted sweet potatoes to Carrefour superstores. Due to the density of Beijing urban architecture, many shops and even at times larger establishments are tucked away or easily missed in some of the stimulating neighbourhoods. For bulk food shopping, the French megamarket Carrefour is probably your best bet. It carries a huge variety of local and imported goods, all at reasonable prices. The Market Place is a high-end supermarket specialising in imported novelties. If you really crave pancake mix or an Australian cut, this is the place to find it. City Shop has one of the best selections of imported wine, beer and spirits and it carries a huge variety of local and imported goods. Jenny Lou’s are found all around the expat areas, and will most likely become your local corner shop, as they supply the majority of imported goods, most with a big mark-up. For daily shopping, get to know your local supermarket, as well as fruit and vegetable vendors. The local supermarket is the most convenient stop for toiletries, eggs, milk and all kinds of weird snacks. Local fruit stands offer fresh produce cultivated in the region. Getting to know your local vendors is a great way to eat fresh, healthy food, save money and practise your Chinese.

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