Whenever my Beijing aunties (aka. my mom’s best friends) invite us out to eat, we know it’s going to be to somewhere special. They’re always in the know as to what’s trending, have GREAT taste in food, and are super generous. ;) (See the very pricey and very fancy Da Dong Roast Duck last year.)
This time, we went to a restaurant called Ju Qi (局气). But this isn’t just any Chinese restaurant, this is an old Beijing restaurant.
As my auntie Jie tells the story: the owner lived overseas for a long time, and upon his return to Beijing, he searched for a long time for a good restaurant that still makes old Beijing cuisine. He couldn’t find one so he opened up his own. He wanted a restaurant that evokes the atmosphere of old Beijing and serves traditional dishes. It was an instant success and there are now four locations.
We went to the location in Chaoyang District (address at the bottom). Upon walking in, a ba ge bird (八哥, literal translation: 8 songs) greeted us under a pomegranate tree – a familiar scene from many an old Beijing family courtyard. This bird is extremely popular to be kept as a pet, and it’s named so because it can be trained to talk. I’ve seen another one talk before, but this one doesn’t!
The restaurant is thoughtfully designed in the style of old Beijing hutongs – the maze of alleyways connecting communal family compounds and courtyards. Hutongs are the life and soul of old Beijing living communities.
All the placards are names of famous Beijing hutongs.
The teapots and water jugs are all remnants of what people used at home back then.
But first, sweet rice wine! Actually, Auntie Jie brought it herself, and this can be bought in any Chinese supermarket. It’s really good.
So what is old Beijing (lao Beijing) cuisine? Even though I grew up eating homemade Chinese food, I’ve never experienced true old Beijing food. In fact, I didn’t even know there was really such a thing. I guess I just thought it’s what my mom used to make at home. So it was fun to learn a bit more about my birth city’s culinary history. I hope you’ll find it interesting too as I explain a little bit about the food & history.
Old Beijing refers to more of my grandma’s generation (not imperial Beijing). Back in the day, the people were poor and there was really nothing much to eat. So the people learned to make sustainable dishes using beans and rough grains. Indeed you’ll see that many dishes contain those ingredients. And even my favorite dish in the world – Beijing zhajiangmian (another old Beijing dish) – is made with a fermented soybean sauce.
And now, let me introduce the traditional old Beijing dishes we tried at Ju Qi:
We started the meal with little ceramic bowls of nai lao (奶酪) for everyone. I must admit that at first, I was more excited about these bowls than the content inside. Seriously… how cute are they?! I would have paid extra to take them home!
What’s inside turned out to be really delicious too! Nai lao is basically yogurt (as it’s made from fermentation of milk), but has more the consistency of custard. If you let it sit for too long, then it will melt down into liquid. I detected a hint of almond flavor in this one – refreshing and delicious!
Ma doufu is perhaps one of the most traditional old Beijing dishes – a strange dish made from fermented mung bean paste. This is a favorite among the old Beijingers. The most traditional preparation method is stir-frying it with lamb oil (which is what we got), but nowadays, there’s a vegetable oil option too for those who don’t like the gamey taste of lamb.
Ma doufu comes out an odd – and frankly unappetizing looking – grey-green mush (and the texture is exactly what you’d imagine), but the taste is better than it looks. But I wouldn’t recommended the lamb oil because the lamb taste is just toooooo strong and overpowering.
Hu bin is kind of like a Beijing pizza! But with a crispy cornmeal base, no sauce or cheese, and topped with egg & leek.
This next one is a sweet sticky millet cake (huang mi gao), beautifully presented in a cast iron skillet and the name of the restaurant written on top. It’s not really a “cake” like a fluffy airy cake; rather, it’s super dense. I can’t even think of anything else similar. The texture is smooth and velvety, but very heavy. Just one small slice will fill up half your stomach. Auntie Ling ate 3 slices!
Guan chang (灌肠) is my favorite lao Beijing snack! Guan chang translates into “filled sausage”. In the old imperial days, it was made with a intestine casing filled with starch, minced meat, and spices. But nowadays, it’s just basically deep fried pieces of starch to be eaten dipped into garlic water (literally just minced garlic and water). Not as fancy anymore and super simple, but SO GOOD! Although this could just be because I like anything that you can eat with raw garlic. :P
I don’t think this next one is really an old Beijing dish, but the way it is presented is remnant of those days.
This dish honeycomb sticky rice (black due to squid ink) is supposed to recall memories of the honeycomb coals from back in the days. Back then, everyone used honeycomb coal as fuel to warm their house, but the fumes that the coal gave off were unhealthy for the body. My mom remembers that my grandma often forbade them from lighting up the coals since it was so unhealthy. In the winter, it’d get so cold that she’d cuddle her toddler brother under one blanket to keep him warm.
To evoke even more of the nostalgia, the sticky rice block was set on fire tableside (don’t worry, no noxious fumes here – only delicious ones)! This little unexpected surprise was definitely a highlight.
And now the other dishes we ordered. These are more or less traditional home-style Beijing dishes. The Beijing style of cooking is with rich flavorful sauces, and often very oily because of our love for stir-frying everything in a lot of oil. Hey, no one said Chinese food is healthy. :P
Vinegar lamb and egg:
Stir-fry vermicelli with cabbage and mushrooms:
A sweet glaze shrimp with lychee:
Stir fry eggplant (a home favorite!):
Veggie dishes: cauliflower and lotus
And a huge fish! Whenever there’s a proper Chinese meal, it’s never complete without a fish dish.
One last thing about Beijing cuisine: we don’t like rice!
Wait, isn’t rice like the stable item in all Asian cuisine?! Not here. Us Beijingers loooove our wheat products – noodles, buns, dumplings, etc. This is because the Beijing climate (in Northern China) is cold and dry for a good half the year and is not ideal for producing rice. So instead, wheat is the main carb source here. Beijingers rarely order rice at a restaurant. And my grandma hardly ever makes it at home; we’ve had it like ONCE in almost 4 weeks. I’m a Beijinger through and through – give me noodles & dumplings any day!
Instead most of the time, we eat our meals with a wheat-based side, such as bin (Chinese layered pancake). Or as long as there’s another wheat product, like a noodle dish or steamed buns, we’re set.
Phew, that was a lot of dishes for just 6 people! My aunties always go way overboard.
A photo of the 6 of us:
I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about old Beijing cuisine. If you’re ever in Beijing, give some of these traditional dishes a try! I think this restaurant is very worth a visit as the atmosphere is so unique. It’s too bad that the Beijing hutongs are rapidly disappearing with the modernization of the city, but we can be thankful for restaurants like these keeping their traditions and cuisine alive.
- Location: Ju Qi has 4 locations:
- NO. 14 Banbuqiao Street, Beijing 100054, China (Xicheng District) – this is the original one
- 91 Jianguo Road, Building 7, 3rd floor Unit L311 (Chaoyang District)
- 21 Taupusi Street in the Hotel (there’s the Xidan Shopping Center close by)
- L6-05B, Block D, Wudaokou Shopping Center, North Fourth Ring Road (Haidian District)
- Wait time: This restaurant is extremely popular so be prepared to wait, or come a little bit earlier. We got there probably around 11:30 am and the Chaoyang District location was still empty.
- Must orders for me: nai lao, guan chang, and honeycomb sticky rice. They also have roast duck, which we didn’t order.
- Price: You can probably except to spend about $15 US per person.
Did any of the dishes catch your eye? Have you tried any?
This post is linked up to Wanderful Wednesday.
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