Mention Beijing cuisine and Peking duck immediately comes to mind. It conjures the image of sumptuous palace fare and complex cooking techniques. This dish is considered the ultimate of Chinese cooking wisdom and knowhow. Perfectly roasted duck with a lacquer-like glaze covering the skin is the definitive Beijing delicacy prized by connoisseurs. But one would be hard pressed to find another dish from Beijing cuisine that stands out like the duck.
As part of my book research tour to China this spring, I visited Beijing to learn about its cuisine beyond Peking duck. Chef Alan Yang, chef de cuisine at the Fairmont Beijing Hotel, took me into his kitchen to talk about his native cuisine. There we chatted about the two types of cooking that coexist in the capital: palace cooking and common people’s cooking.
Beijing cooking according to Chef Yang was originally based on that of neighboring Shandong province. When the Manchus invaded from the north to establish the Qing Dynasty beyond the Great Wall, they brought their own cuisine with them. But not satisfied with their own simple cooking, the Manchus introduced Han food preparation from southern provinces as they expanded their control in the south. Palace cooking then evolved into a blend of the cuisines from around the empire using many of the exotic ingredients offered to the palace from local warlords and nearby vassal states. Even now the people of Beijing continue to enjoy foods from all over China. In fact most of the better restaurants in Beijing offer Cantonese, Sichuan or the cuisine of other provinces.
To get a better understanding of Beijing cooking one has to also examine the food of the commoners. Very few traditional home-style restaurants remain. My friend Sita, who currently lives in Beijing, helped me find one in her neighborhood. It is called The House of Jomo and I talked with the owner, Lu Dan, and the chef, Liu Kai Feng. Although the menu has a strong Sichuan influence I was offered a few dishes that Chef Liu considered to be traditional Beijing cooking. Among them are two appetizers I found interesting. They are pig skin and beans in aspic (老北京豆醬) and cold braised carp (五香酥魚).
The aspic was made by simmering pig skin in aromatic spices and soy sauce. The liquid produced is then filtered, and slices of the cooked pig skin, soy beans, edamame, peanuts and carrot cubes added. After being cooled and solidified into a jelly, it is cut into cubes and served with black vinegar. The result is an incredibly flavorful jelly with soft tender pig skin and slightly crunchy beans. It has to be one of the most complex flavored aspic dishes I’ve ever tried.
If the pig skin and beans aspic is a study of complex techniques, then the cold braised carp is the model of simple cooking. It is made from a traditional Chinese crucian carp and is braised for more than five hours over very low heat in a liquid of soy sauce, vinegar and spices. By the time the fish has finished cooking the bones are so soft they can be eaten. This dish is absolutely delicious paired with Chinese rice wine.
Like the majority of food eaten by the common people in Beijing, both of these dishes are basic and simple. No one would imagine serving either of them in the palace. It is not surprising then that palace cooking even during the dynastic period developed from dishes imported from other Chinese regions rather than from the local traditional cooking. A true Beijing cuisine exists only from the simple local cooking of the commoners.
Cold Braised Carp (五香酥魚)
- 4 carp small about 8 ounces each, cleaned and scaled
- 1 scallion cut into one inch long sections
- 2 garlic
- 4 slices fresh ginger
- 1 piece cassia bark (桂皮) about 3 inches in length (or 1 cinnamon stick)
- 2 star anise (八角)
- 1/2 cup Shaoxing cooking wine (紹興料酒)
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup Chinkiang black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 6 napa cabbage leaves
- 4 cups water
- 4 cups vegetable oil
- Heat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat until about 300 degrees F. Fry the fish until slightly brown. Drain thoroughly and set aside. If carp is not available perch can be substituted.
- Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil from the wok. Turn the heat to high and add the scallion, garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for about one minute. Add the cassia bark, star anise and continue to stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Add the cooking wine, soy sauce, Chinese black vinegar, salt, sugar and water. Bring the liquid to a boil.
- Turn the heat down to low and line the bottom of the wok with two layers of large napa cabbage leaves. Then arrange the fried fish side by side on top of the napa cabbage. Simmer the fish on very low heat for about five hours. Check the liquid level every 30 minutes and add water as needed to keep the fish submerged.
- After five hours turn the heat up until the liquid has reduced and just covers the napa cabbage. Turn the heat off. Gently remove the fish from the wok and arrange them neatly in a covered container. Remove the napa cabbage from the wok and discard. Pour the reduced bracing liquid and the sesame oil over the fish. Refrigerate covered overnight.
- Serve the whole fish cold on a plate garnished with scallions. Pour a little of the braising liquid over the fish.
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I personally think Pecking Duck is a bit overrated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious but it’s not the best dish in China.
There are two Beijing dishes that went the other way and become popular all over China (家常菜). One is the ZhaJiangMian which was not mentioned here is on the top left of the last photo in the post, and the other is Shredded Pork in Beijing Sauce – 京酱肉丝. Maybe not as common as Kung Pao chicken but both can be found far away from Beijing.
Yes, you’re right that Zhajiang Mian is truly a typical Beijing food. In fact I have a post about this noodles with recipe.
On the other hand Shredded Pork in Beijing Sauce (or 京醬肉絲) is in fact not a Beijing dish. It was created in Sichuan using the classic Beijing sweet bean paste. That is the reason why the dish actually identified the “Beijing sauce” in the name of the dish. It is really a delicious dish!
That’s interesting. I didn’t know that about 京酱肉丝, and I researched it quite a bit. In all the Chinese websites I have checked it’s classified as a native Beijing dish. It did occur to me that it’s a bit redundant to state the presence of Beijing sweet bean paste in the dish but it’s not that uncommon.
Is there a link you can refer me to?
Yes, that’s very interesting and few people really know about it. During my research for my book I talked to Associate Professor Qiao Xue Bin of Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine about Sichuan dishes. Professor Qiao said that 京酱肉丝 was created when Sweet bean paste was introduced to Sichuan. The name specifying the Beijing sauce to differentiate it from other Sichuan sauces. This is not a very well known fact among the public because of the name. But if you look at information from professional sources you’ll see it listed at Sichuan dishes. The list of dishes in the Sichuan program of a Beijing cooking school actually list 京酱肉丝 as one of the dishes to be taught.
I edited my original post, added a paragraph with this exciting new anecdote I learned and linked it back here.
I want to thank you, guys! I was also researching this enygmatic 京酱 for some time, and you’ve just made my day.
But to conclude, please correct me if I’m wrong:
1. When you mention “sweet bean paste”, you mean Tiánmiànjiàng / 甜麵醬 / this one?
2. Then, Peking sauce 京酱 IS de facto tianmianjiang, or more precisely – a Sichuan-originating name for it? Or maybe it’s more a “menu name” for the sauce made with tianmianjiang?
Please share your thoughs on that.
And maybe one question more: is then 京式甜酱 another name or a kind of tianmianjiang?
Tianmianjiang is just one form of bean paste marketed in Beijing. There is also yellow bean paste or soybean paste (黃豆醬, 黃醬 or 大醬). They all have very similar in flavors but usually yellow bean paste is not sweetened. (Japanese miso is in fact a version of Chinese fermented bean paste.)
Yellow bean paste is made from fermented soybean (soybean is known as yellow bean in Chinese) and sometime mixed with corn flour. It is often used for marinating or stir-frying. In fact the cooking term 醬爆 usually refer to using yellow bean paste for stir-frying. But many people substitute it with tianmianjiang because it is more readily available. (Even with yellow bean paste we often add sugar to the recipe anyway.)
Sweet bean paste is made from the same fermented soybean but sweetened. Often thickened with regular flour. 京式甜醬 is just another way of calling tianmianjiang. Just like maple syrup can be referred to as New England maple syrup. This term is usually used by southern Chinese to refer to Beijing style sweet bean paste.
To make it even more confusing… hoisin sauce made by the Cantonese is actually very similar to tianmianjiang. The ingredients are the same, is sweetened and taste basically the same. Many southern Chinese cooks use hoisin sauce instead of tianmianjiang.
The term 京醬 is used in many areas of China to refer to the Beijing bean paste. It is not necessarily a Sichuan term. All these names are very much interchangeable. The only caveat is that when using yellow bean paste one should usually add a little extra sugar.
Thank you for a very interesting post. I am triyng to research the 10 main cuisines of china and the various sub cuisines and its very difficult, but i thought your blog helped me understand more the northern cuisine
You’re right that there are very few sources in English for detail description of China’s cuisines. I had to go to the primary source of interviewing culinary professionals and Chinese text.