19 lessons I learned when I ate my way through Beijing

A list of what to eat and avoid when you're on a food trawl in China's capital city
Updated Oct 05, 2018 02:25pm


So you’ve landed in Beijing and suddenly have access to a vast array of food from China’s 30+ provinces – what should you try and what should you avoid?

Here’s a quick breakdown for the average foodie willing to take some risks.

1) Demand tiny lobsters soaked in deadly spices!

Keep in mind, each lobster contains an absurdly small amount of meat; an average person can put away 8-10 easily. Prepare for your tongue to go numb; that’s not an allergic reaction!

2) Avoid the sea cucumber soup…

First off, this uncomfortably squishy ‘thing’ is not flora. It’s a sea slug; a very expensive delicacy in China which is best avoided unless you’re into gooey, somewhat tasteless seabed scavengers.

3) Eat anything and everything from Szechuan province

This is THE spiciest cuisine you can get in China. Prepare to sweat, have your tongue go numb, your lips sizzle – in a good way! Highly recommended for Pakistanis.

4) Give mollusks a try – just don’t eat the (living) décor!

Chinese food has fantastic presentation, but not all parts are meant for eating. Pro-tip: a lot of food may come heaped in dry chilies, but those may largely be for décor. Definitely do not eat any swimming goldfish.

5) When in doubt, order crab balls – the safe play

These are super yummy, not too spicy (unless dipped excessively in accompanying sauce) and familiar.

6) Ask for beef – and ask for Canadian beef!

The food may be cooked locally, but there are often options to select your meat if you ask. And a fair number of restaurants in the big cities have halal certificates.

7) But avoid the beef stew – and stews in general

The stews and more ‘saalan’ type dishes tend to be dull at best. They’re a safe play for the non-adventurous, but nothing to write home about. And they definitely don’t taste like home.

8) Try out warm, comforting catfish soup

The one below is named “Buddha jumps over the wall”, as they say not even the master of meditation can resist its call. It looks like chicken soup and is a similar “I could down three bowls and call it a day” experience.

ALSO: feel free to go for the unique yet ultra-safe chicken broth in coconut.

9) Dare to try spicy frogs

This isn’t for everyone, but it does have brag value. And in truth, frogs taste just like chicken.

10) Speaking of chicken, there are 100s of choices

Those 30+ provinces do often have wildly different cuisine. You could eat chicken across your entire trip and find yourself never repeating a dish. Recommended: Szechuan chicken (top left). Note for those with allergies: most restaurants don’t have any warnings about peanuts in the food and it’s a fairly common ingredient, especially with chicken dishes.

11) Goat/sheep ribs are the way to go!

Beef got nothing on these guys.

12) You can’t skip dumplings – you shouldn’t skip dumplings!

Go for something simple like a leek and eggs filling (below). You can easily pop 4-6 on the side of whatever mains you’ve ordered.

13) Fish. Fish everywhere!

One thing that needs to be understood about Chinese food – there is no “Chinese food”. There is so much variety it can’t be pigeonholed, so generally, anyone saying “I don’t like Chinese food” is actually saying I don’t like the 2-5% of Chinese food I’ve tried. Like chicken, the number of fish dishes is near intimidating.

Look at the difference between the two below!

Recommended: the sweet and sour fish (right).

14) Try the Beijing duck – but only to strike it off the list

This is a wildly popular dish and considered a must-have for any visitor. But the meat itself is surprisingly bland and yes, tastes like chicken.

15) If you must go for steamed food, try steamed beef

While most steamed dishes tend to be somewhat dull, beef is an exception. Especially when its presentation is lotus-wrapped brilliance like that below!

16) No meal is complete without rice

Though rice is definitely not eaten in the quantities we have in Pakistan. Important: there’s no shame in asking for a spoon and fork at this point because it requires some expertise to shovel rice into your mouth with chopsticks!

17) You could skip dessert…

There’s a large amount of dough and far too little sugar in most desserts encountered. They may look pretty but that stomach space is better utilised for downing yet more small lobsters.

18) But don’t skip the mooncake!

It may taste doughy, but the average mooncake is so pretty it’s worth ordering just for the photos.

19) Start it with tea, end it with tea

In fact, it’s quite common to have tea right through meals. China has a fantastic, exotic array of teas so aim to try out a different flower or herb each time.

A straightforward but recommended option: Chrysanthemum tea (below).

If you’ve got other tips to share with those headed to China, leave them in the comments section below!


Disclaimer: These photos were shot on the Huawei P20 Pro, on a non-food related trip sponsored by Huawei Pakistan.