Cuisine in Northern China
The cuisine of northern China is based on Beijing and includes influences from the provinces of Shandong, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and the northeast, which is collectively known as Dongbei in Chinese. The harsh northern climate consists of blistering hot summers and cold dry winters which corresponds with the strong, bold and salty flavours of this region. Stir-frying, stewing and deep-frying are typical ways of cooking fairly basic ingredients such as chicken, mutton, fish and tofu. There tends to be an emphasis on meats, with vegetables taking a back seat. Common condiments include bean pastes, dark soy sauces, vinegar and sugar resulting in dishes with rich brown sauces. Pungent, aromatic and forceful flavours from garlic, ginger and spring onion dominate as well.
Wheat is the staple grain grown here and you'll find an abundance of wheat products in the form of buns, noodles, dumplings and pancakes. Look out for hand made noodles; an exciting demonstration of skill. A master noodle puller can create strands of noodles so fine that they're called "dragon's whiskers". Also, look out for "hand shaved" noodles served with soups or dumplings, which are a simple pleasure served with vinegar and hot chili oil for dipping. Try dumplings with pork and cabbage, egg and chives or pork and black mushroom fillings, which are standard combinations available in most dumpling houses.
There's also a strong Muslim influence which was introduced by Central Asian traders who travelled along the Silk Road. You can taste their influence in the form of barbecued lamb skewers flavoured with cumin seed or lamb stir-fried with vegetables. Mongolian hotpot is a speciality available all year round but is especially eaten in the winter. In the middle of your dining table is a simmering pot of flavourful broth, spiced with hot oil if you deem necessary, in which you cook paper-thin slices of lamb, beef or pork, chunks of chicken and seafood. As well as vegetables, a sesame paste dipping sauce spiced to your liking can accompany this. Nearly anything can be found cooking in a hotpot & for the adventurous try ordering cubes of duck blood.
Lakes and rivers are a reliable source of freshwater fish. Look for "squirrel fish", a dish made with mandarin fish, a type of freshwater bass. Ask to see it before it's cooked to ensure that it is "swimming fresh". Most restaurants expect patrons to ask, and it'll be ceremoniously brought directly to the table for your inspection. The fish is carefully filleted then deep fried and artfully served with a sweet and sour tomato sauce. This is a favourite in Beijing and the Chinese pronunciation is a homonym for "expensive".
Peking duck is the most famous dish in Beijing. For the best quality, you should try to find it at restaurants that specialise in it. After roasting in a wood fired oven, watch a master chef carve the duck by skillfully wielding a thin bladed cleaver to carefully slice it. A combination that offers a fantastic taste is crispy duck skin, paired with scallion, cucumber and sweet bean sauce all wrapped in thin flour pancakes. Peking duck is without doubt a dish that must be tried when in Beijing.
The influence of the imperial court on northern Chinese cuisine is probably the largest in terms of diversity. The standards and demands of this elaborate cuisine are no longer practiced in its full indulgence, but the skills and flavours are extremely important for banquets and celebrations today. For the truly indulgent, an imperial banquet is something to consider taking part in. Recipes are based on those that once graced the tables of emperors.
Ten Representative Dishes of Northern Chinese Cuisine:
Beef with spring onions a dish of beef and spring onions that is flavoured with soy sauce sugar and sesame oil.
Cabbage rolls with mustard oil Chinese cabbage brushed with mustard oil, rolled up and steamed. A simple dish that reflects its humble northern roots.
Earthen jar pork fatty pork belly, the same cut as bacon, is cooked slowly in a clay jar, creating a very rich brown sauce and succulent pork.
Hand pulled noodles in soup literally pulled by hand, this soup is "flavoured" with various things such as red stewed beef or pork, pickled vegetables, or with shredded chicken and a big dollop of chili sauce.
Mongolian hotpot thought to be first practiced by Mongolian soldiers using their helmets to prepare meals, today uses simmering cauldrons of soup over charcoal, used to individually cook all types of meat, fish, seafood and vegetables. Soup may be spicy hot depending on personal taste.
Mu shu pork despite being used on a variety of menus everywhere, this is actually a northern dish originating from Beijing. Pork cut into shreds is combined with black mushrooms, wood ear fungus, cabbage and accompanied by pancakes and hoisin sauce.
Peking duck arguably the most famous dish from Beijing, multi-step preparation is required that results in succulent crisp skin eaten with scallion, cucumber and a sweet brown sauce, wrapped in a thin wheat pancake.
Stir-fried eggs and tomatoes this simple dish is relatively modern in that tomatoes are a New World crop, yet today have become a staple ingredient in the north.
Shandong sweet and sour carp deep fried carp with a sauce based on sugar and vinegar.
Stewed sea cucumber with crab eggs a Shandong speciality, sea cucumber, also known as sea slugs, readily absorbs flavours and have an almost crunchy texture. The crab eggs lend a rich subtle flavour to the otherwise bland sea cucumber.