When locals greet one another, they skip the standard formality of “How are you?” and go right for the gut: “Have you eaten yet?” Such gastronomic curiosity reveals much about how Beijing relates to food. It’s nearly an obsession, and exploring local cuisine — from sweet red-bean cakes to succulent Peking duck — requires a hearty appetite (and sometimes a strong stomach). The Chinese believe that foods hold cooling or heating properties that fuel the body’s qi , or energy. As such, they take everything they eat very seriously, and so should you.
The capital has attracted wanderers from across China for centuries, and its kitchens and restaurants are a delectable map of flavors. Cumin- flecked mutton skewers of the far western region of Xinjiang smoke on sidewalk grills, while nearby, Yunnan’s famous pineapple rice is served steaming in the tangy fruit. Down the block, a raucous restaurant offers a myriad of Sichuan dishes, all flaming in chilies.
When I want a guide on my foodie adventures, I head to Black Sesame Kitchen. There are no signs advertising this “by appointment only” gem tucked among the rickety shacks of its neighbors, but that only adds to the authenticity of the experience. BSK was founded by Jen Lin-Liu, the Chinese- American author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China who landed in Beijing 10 years ago and eventually enrolled in a local cooking school to discover her heritage with wok in hand. Those experiences fill her mouthwatering book and sparked the inspiration to open this private kitchen, where chef Zhang Aifeng cooks up 10-course meals right at the communal table, so you can see how real Chinese food is created. I couldn’t stop eating the pork-and-pumpkin dumplings and the fish-fragrant fried eggplant, but the red-braised pork is what’s seared into my memory. Legendary as the favorite dish of former People’s Republic of China leader Chairman Mao (he reportedly ate it twice a day), the diced pork belly is simmered with sugar, star anise and wine for about an hour, and it’s worth a trip to China all by itself.
The Chinese also have a liking for more-exotic dishes, many of which are on display nightly at the Dong Hua Men Night Market. This chaos of food stalls and the accompanying horde of hungry gawkers is a perfect example of the boisterous, crowded ideal the Chinese call renao, or “hot and noisy.” Here you can find ready-to-eat skewered sea horse, sea star, grasshopper, scorpion and snake (the last of which the Chinese believe to be a powerful aphrodisiac). It might be easy to turn your nose up at these delicacies, but China demands an open mind. So, close your eyes and take a bite. If you still have an appetite after that, bowls of steaming noodles and tiny candied-apple skewers await, though they’re not nearly as worthy of a photo op.