The Ultimate List of Cheap and Healthy Beijing Food
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: “a collection of symptoms that some people experience after eating Chinese food. A food additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been implicated, but it has not been proved to be the substance that causes this condition. Symptoms include: chest pain , flushing, headache, numbness or burning in or around the mouth, sense of facial pressure or swelling, and sweating.”
Poor misunderstood MSG. If you read my post about MSG, then you’ll know that it gets snuck into even the simplest, healthiest foods. If you’re so militantly anti-MSG that you can’t stand the idea of consuming trace amounts of it at every meal, the only solution is to cook at home. But when you’re in China, where food is the one aspect of life whose price remains unchanged, it’s actually cheaper and tastier to eat out. So imagine eating Chinese restaurant (or street stall) food three times a day for almost two months. You would think I would be the poster child for “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
But guess what? Other than the occasional sweat (is there anyone who doesn’t sweat after eating hot food in Beijing weather?), I have experienced none of these symptoms. My theory is that what people are blaming on MSG is really due to too much oil, salt, sugar, and just plain eating too much.
This summer, I managed to successfully avoid all of the above, although sometimes I stuffed myself to bursting (and it was all worth it). While you could just request less oil and less salt (the waitress will almost always ask if there are any dietary restrictions), oftentimes the request goes ignored (or if not, I thank my lucky stars that what I ordered wasn’t seasoned with the default amounts of salt/oil).
Another great thing about simple food is the reassurance that whatever restaurant you stumble into, these dishes can be made at the drop of a hat, even if they’re not on the menu (this is great when I don’t feel like reading Chinese characters). This isn’t food you’re going to find at a banquet. In fact, I hate banquet food. The dishes below are naturally a bit lighter, not because they’re aimed at dieters and the health-conscious, but because they’re just plain good. This is simple, fresh, mostly vegetarian food. But don’t think about it that way. Just sit back and enjoy.
Traditional Beijing breakfast (blogged about here) is all hustle and bustle and sharing tables with old men who slurp loudly. If you’re a germophobe, you might want to bring your own bowl and spoon to avoid cross-contamination. The choices are relatively limited and served cafeteria style. I already blogged about the various kinds of Chinese bread, so I’ll skip that. Just know that those are always breakfast options.
Instead, I want to talk about Dou Fu Nao. Unfortunately, the translation, “Tofu brains,” doesn’t do justice to this already unappealing-looking dish. It isn’t brains at all, but soft, creamy bean curd spooned out from a vat of fresh tofu, then doused in a thick gravy of soy sauce and wood ear mushrooms. Adding chili oil only makes it better, of course. I don’t promise that most (or any) foreigners will like this on the first try, especially if you have an aversion to slimy food. But Dou Fu Nao is light, like eating clouds, the salinity of the sauce countered by the tofu’s mildness.
For a blander version, try Dou Fu Nao’s cousin, Dou Fu Hua (Tofu flower), which is seasoned with scallions, ginger, and dried shrimp.
*Side note: not substantial enough to be a meal, but I find a bowl of fresh soy milk incredibly theraputic. More water than soy bean, this is a beverage rather than a dairy replacement. Most places add sugar if you don’t ask for it, but bland or sweet, hot or cold, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.
What’s for lunch, you ask? Contrary to popular belief, Chinese cuisine does include salad! These salads, or more accurately, “cold dishes,” aren’t your typical lettuce and vinaigrette– No, they’re so much more interesting and varied than that.
Eating only cold dishes for lunch would be taking Chinese dishes and eating them Western style, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it. I find it hard to fathom how people can sit outdoors in 100 degree weather wearing long pants, eating kung pao chicken and lamb kabobs. Oftentimes, I don’t bother looking at main courses, opting instead to have a combination of salads. Hole-in-the-walls with more limited menus, however, probably will only have one or two cold dishes: usually smashed cucumber with garlic and boiled peanuts. These are clearly just things to munch on, maybe while downing a cold beer.
Typical for me to do would be to go to a supermarket/food stand around the corner, where there were at least 20 kinds of cold dishes on display: sliced lotus root, long beans, carrots and tofu skin, bitter melon, cucumber, slivered jellyfish (which is just a texture food), etc. After selecting your cold dishes, everything gets dumped into a plastic bag, which you take home and eat as a kind of “everything” salad.
But just say you’re lucky enough to find a restaurant with pages and pages of cold dishes. If the menu has pictures, which is common, the variety of colors and textures is remarkable. Cold salads don’t have to be lettuce or even have a speck of green, but you can find spicy chrysanthemum greens or lettuce in vinegar as well. I’ve also had salads of cooked greens, like blanched spinach with pine nuts and smoked tofu.
Speaking of tofu, it pops up in cold dishes a lot, partly because it comes in so many forms. I already mentioned tofu skin (known as yuba in Japan), slivered tofu, and smoked tofu, all of which are chewy in texture. However, one of my favorite cold dishes, pidan doufu, consists of nothing but silken (soft) tofu topped with chopped thousand-year-old egg. I know these black hard-boiled eggs look like something you’d find in a witches’ coven, but they taste good, I promise. As with all dishes I’ve mentioned so far, each pidan doufu you order will be slightly different: some will have soy sauce, some chili oil, ginger, scallions, sesame oil, and some will have nothing but a sprinkle salt. That’s half the fun of Chinese food: seeing what riffs you can find on your favorite foods.
Although these dishes are meant to accompany a main course or various hot dishes, it wouldn’t be too unusual to see someone in China having a cold noodle-like salad for lunch. I say “noodle-like” because in China, most noodles not made from rice or wheat flour (like glass noodles) are not considered a starch, which makes up the backbone of a meal.
One of my favorite “alternative” noodles are jue gen fen, or fern noodles. Before being softened in hot water, they look like bunches of black twigs. Once soft, they become slightly translucent and glisten like onyx. In restaurants, they’re served tossed with a lot of vinegar, chili oil and chopped chilis, then topped with tiny fried soy beans and something green (cilantro, scallions, cucumber, spinach, etc.). The result is a tongue-puckering, slippery mess that, combined with the crunch of the soy beans, is super fun to eat.
Next, we have liang pi, or “cold skin.” Almost any kind of starch can be used to make this linguini-like noodle, although potato starch and rice starch are the most common. Like Italian pasta, the noodles can also be colored and flavored with vegetables– the food court at my favorite shopping center has spinach, tomato and cucumber liang pi (they taste basically identical). The best liang pi I had were a pale yellow, made from millet. Because they had been made from whole grains, they were chewier and more substantial, definitely a meal on their own. The noodles are prepared in front of you, so you can specify exactly what you do or don’t want put on them. Vegans, take note: this is the perfect dish for you. If you get the standard liang pi, the noodles are tossed with vinegar, roasted sesame paste, chili oil, garlic water, shredded cucumber, and diced seitan (wheat gluten). They’re basically a variant on cold sesame noodles, but with a much more interesting texture.
I think we can move on to hot dishes now.
My all time favorite is probably scrambled eggs with tomatoes, which is as simple as it sounds. The only ingredients are eggs, tomatoes, salt, and sometimes a little sugar or scallions. Who would have thought that a dish with so few components could taste so complex? Eggs have a certain natural sweetness that a tomato sauce can only enhance, and as the tomatoes cook down (but not too much, so they still retain their shape), the dish becomes a thick sauce perfect for cloaking a bowl of freshly steamed rice. Another riff on this is scrambled eggs with cucumber, which isn’t as strange as it sounds. This dish probably needs a bit more flavoring (garlic, ginger, etc.), and only tastes good when the cucumbers cook long enough that they more closely resemble zucchini.
Next, vegetables. Usually, a menu will have a page simply listing what vegetables are available– broccoli, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and spinach, to name a few. You can request them stir-fried with just a bit of garlic and ginger.There are different cooking methods for non-leafy vegetables. Incredibly comforting are various combinations of cabbage and broth, which sounds and looks humble, but warms you from the inside (yes, even in the summer). Shang tang wa wa cai, or cabbage hearts in soup, pale green leaves in a rich (probably pork) stock, scattered with goji berries. Another similar dish I had at a Xinjiang Muslim restaurant (so the broth was probably lamb) almost reminded me of sukiyaki– it had cubes of firm tofu and glass noodles as well as cabbage.
Don’t feel like something mild? How about charcoaled green peppers with blistered skins, dripping with black vinegar?
And if all else fails and you’re still getting greasy, salty food? Leave the city. Climb a mountain. Find a place that serves nong jia cai, or country food. Try to avoid the gimmicky places pretending to be peasant food. Find a place owned by a family with a garden and an outhouse in the back, ideally with chickens roaming around.Feast your eyes:
A flat omelet with scallions, wild nettles and garlic, stir-fried eggplant and peppers, whole trout grilled in front of us with chilis and cumin (another surprising ingredient in Northern Chinese cuisine), and free-range chicken, the leanest ever, in a soy sauce broth.
I hope I’ve exposed you to some new (ish) Chinese dishes, the kind that you’d have to go out of your way to find on a Chinatown restaurant’s menu.
You spoon vegetables and fish onto your last grains of rice. The rice soaks up the vegetable broth and the spices from the fish. You pick up your bowl, place your mouth on the edge and shovel the rest in with chopsticks, the way it should be done.
Life is good.