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Ten Delicacies To Try in Beijing

It's not every day you get to Beijing, so sample the local delicacies while you're there--the ones that aren't looking back at you, anyway.

Beijing's ancient alleyways, known as hutongs, have long been a hotbed of culinary gossip. Neighbors greet each other with "Ni chi le ma?" (have you eaten?), a reminder of the central role of food in daily conversation--and of the tough times when a good meal was hard to come by.

Scarcity--or lack of diversity--is not a concern in the capital's dining scene these days. The huge influx of people from all over China has ensured visitors can experience most of the country's regional and ethnic cuisines without stepping outside Beijing. The only thing you need to know is where to look.

However, a burgeoning expatriate population has brought a glut of high-quality international restaurants, making classic Chinese specialties more difficult to find. Beijing's home-grown delicacies have been somewhat marginalized in recent years--Peking duck excepted, of course--and the number of xiaochi, or snacks, officially listed as special brands has diminished from 300 to 30 since the early 1900s.

One of the more popular snacks surviving the influx of international restaurants is yangrou chuanr, mutton kebabs smothered in cumin, a treat that comes from the far western region of Xinjiang. This and roujiamo, a pita-like bun stuffed with shredded pork, cucumber and chili sauce, which originates from Xi'an and has gained fame as China's answer to the hamburger, and Sichuan's spicy hotpot malatang, a ruby red broth that boils skewers of anything from squid to lotus root, are all available at Beijing's numerous street shacks.

Options Under One Roof
Fortunately for visitors and traditional Beijing foodies alike, such as 68-year-old Wang Yuehui, there's no need to search out the perfect street stall. The city now boasts numerous courtyard eateries offering an array of local delicacies, including one in Xiaoyou Hutong, beside Houhai Lake.

Jiumen Xiaochi, or Nine Gates Snacks, is a Qing Dynasty take on a food court and houses about half of Beijing's most famous specialties under one roof. Throughout the last century, these treats were cooked up in separate establishments in the city's ancient heart of Qianmen until a controversial urban renewal program, accelerated for the Olympics, forced the purveyors out in 2006.

"It's difficult to pick a favorite as there is so much to choose from, but I do like the boiled sheep's head (yang tou) here," says Wang, before moving on to inspect the quick-fried tripe (bao du).

Next door, a pot of bubbling brown liquid containing a hodgepodge of pig's intestines, pork liver, soy sauce and aniseed marks the chao gan stand. "It is important for Beijing to preserve its traditional dishes, as they are part of the city's identity," Wang says.

Some of the snacks now gobbled up by the masses used to be for royal lips only, such as pea-flour cake (wan dou huang), a particular favorite of Empress Dowager Ci Xi.

Worth Seeking Out
While some dishes have become more widely available, the more extravagant concoctions from imperial-style cuisine still come with a degree of exclusivity--and a price to match. These delicacies are confined to some of Beijing's most expensive eateries.

Ni Xiaopei, owner of Royal Restaurant, sought advice from a leading Qing Dynasty historian to create her menu, which features the imperial favorite Buddha Jumps Over The Wall soup. The dish is chock full of 20 premium ingredients, such as shark's fin, quail eggs and abalone, and comes with a $43 price tag. (Versions of this rich soup have been known to cost more than $200 in restaurants overseas.)

Its evocative name is true to the unerring logic of the Chinese language. It earned its title in 1616 when a group of Buddhist monks scaled their monastery walls in search of the aroma emanating from a nearby picnic set up by a group of scholars. The monks promptly cast aside their vegetarian binds and joined the feast.

"Every dish has a story behind it, which is very important in appreciating the rich culture of imperial cuisine," Ni explains.

A few of the city's top Chinese chefs remain faithful to the old school of Beijing cooking while modernizing it, using typical Beijing ingredients in innovative fusion cuisine. Yap Poh Weng, head chef at the prestigious Whampoa Club, blends bean curd with foie gras and whips up a spiced tofu mousse.

"My inspiration comes from traditional Beijing recipes and established Chinese cooking techniques, which I infuse with my own invention," Yap says.

And then there are the offerings geared strictly to those a little more adventurous than most. A world away from fine dining, the daily Donghuamen night market in Wangfujing, Beijing's premier shopping district, offers some unusual--at least for Westerners--eats, such as dog penises, silkworms and snake skins.

However, overseas tourists are often the most enthusiastic and adventurous when it comes to sampling these delicacies. One Chinese pensioner recoiled in horror at the sight of an American tourist biting off the head, and then tail, of a giant scorpion on a stick.

"That scares me," she said, chewing on a rather plain-looking bing, adry pancake.

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