When most people outside of China think of Chinese food, what usually comes to mind is whatever variety of Chinese food they have in their country. Usually this is a version of Chinese food that has been adapted to local tastes. Many people realize that this food is not actually typical of China, but few understand what authentic Chinese food is. That’s why it’s usually a surprise for first-time visitors to China to learn that food is not homogeneous across the country, but actually varies greatly by region. That means that food in the Northeast is different from food in Xinjiang, which is different from food in Yunnan, Hunan, and Sichuan, and so on.
A good way to think of China is like Europe. It’s a huge region that has many groups of people of a similar cultural heritage, but each one has its own culture, history, language and of course, cuisine. In Europe they are countries, in China they are provinces. It is of course not a perfect analogy because China has been politically unified for a long time but it gives you an idea of the amount of variety within its borders. Now imagine that up to now, you’d only had “European food” before in your life, but you are just beginning to discover all of the delicious differences in French cuisine, Italian cuisine, German cuisine, Croatian cuisine, Swedish cuisine… It’s a pretty amazing to think of all of the delicious, hereto unknown dishes out there, just waiting for you to try them.
That’s why we are starting a periodic miniseries on this blog that is dedicated to the regional cuisines of China. We hope to give a bit of background as well as an introduction to their most popular dishes and what makes them unique. Today, we’re looking at the cuisine of a truly unique place in China: Beijing.
In China, it is traditionally considered that there are four major cuisines named after the provinces they originate from, Guangdong, Sichuan, Shandong and Jiangsu. There are of course many other varieties, but these are the official big four. At its earliest origins Beijing cuisine was a variety of Shandong.
One of the most important influences of a cuisine is the climate. Beijing has long summers and winters with shorter seasons between making wheat the primary starch in the form of steamed buns. Root vegetables, corn and other temperate ingredients are prevalent.
A climate can not only influence the ingredients that are available (not surprisingly, there are no mangoes or caribou in Beijing cuisine), but also the cooking styles. The need to preserve fuel meant that Beijing food was cooked quickly at high temperatures. The long winter encouraged the development of preserving techniques such as pickling and drying.
However, Beijing has had lots of unique influences because of its location and status as the capital of the empire. Ancient Beijing was near the frontier of China, bringing contact and influence from surrounding peoples including Mongolians, Manchurians and the Hui. People coming from all corners of China also brought with them their home cuisines and some of the best chefs. And the imperial court itself also made its mark with royal kitchens continuously driving the development of the local food scene (think Beijing duck).
Typical ingredients of Beijing cuisine are mutton, beef, chicken, sesame, scallions, garlic, ginger, wheat, soy sauce, cumin, vinegar, and sugar.
Some common flavor combinations are:
- Ginger + rice wine + soy sauce
- Soy sauce + sugar
- Garlic + ginger + pork
Typical dishes of Beijing are:
- Pickled vegetables
- Beijing duck
- Hot and sour soup
- Fried meatballs
You can check out these dishes and many more on our recipes page. Be sure to check in to this blog in the future to learn more about other cuisines and foods of China!