From the Humble to the Theatrical
Leaving Beijing without having experienced Peking duck is tantamount to bypassing bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence. Head for Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Beijing (dating back to 1864) and the most popular place to experience China’s culinary gem.
The centuries-old procedure begins at special farms on the outskirts of town, where white-feathered Beijing ducks are raised on grain and soybeans to fatten them up. Once in the kitchen, the ducks are hung to dry and later lacquered with molasses, filled with air, hung on hooks, and slowly roasted over an open fire – which diners can watch through a glass wall.
The entire duck is ceremoniously served in stages – first the plump boneless meat and crispy skin with side dishes of shallots, plum sauce, and crepes. Foreigners will feel pretty proud of themselves for having ventured outside their hotel’s safe, tame restaurants … until they catch a glimpse of what the local family at the next table has ordered: duck’s gizzards, tongues, wings, hearts – everything from the web to the quack.
If your visit to the Forbidden City has fostered a fascination with things imperial, dine at Fangshan Restaurant. Since 1925 this prestigious restaurant has been preserving the extravagant cuisine of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), using the favored recipes of the 19th-century imperial court. In a lavish theatrical setting, the staff (in full vintage imperial garb) shows travelers what it might have been like to dine with the last Dowager Empress, who had 128 cooks.
The kitchen still produces over-the-top banquets, and traditional delicacies such as shark’s fin or bird’s nest soup are fit for a royal palate. Fangshan’s setting couldn’t be more appropriate: an ancient pavilion on an island in the middle of Bei Hai Lake, just past the Bridge of Perfect Wisdom.
For a similar yet less theatrical, more intimate experience, try the Family Li Restaurant, where six family members work around the clock to duplicate the royal recipes of the Qing dynasty for eight to twelve extremely lucky diners. Handed down by a great-grandparent who worked at the imperial court, hundreds of these ancient recipes were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s but have been recalled to the best of the Li family’s ability. The results are worth the two-month wait for dinner reservations. Visiting diplomats, local expats, the occasional Rockefeller, and ardent food lovers from around the world all make their way to this tiny restaurant, where they dine at the lone table lit by a single fluorescent bulb.