Hands down my favourite things about the Chinese capital are its traditional old backstreets, the hutongs, and the city’s proud position as the culinary capital of the country. Just by wandering the hutong and eating your way around the city, you could easily spend days, and that’s before you’ve even done any sightseeing.
Hanging in the hutong
The hutong of the central district of Dongcheng are like time capsule windows into old China, a secret (but sprawling) village protectively tucked away from the soaring skyscrapers and smoggy skies. You’ll find gap toothed, white haired old ladies sat in armchairs in the street, tending to their flower gardens or fanning themselves from the heat, or old men squatting in their doorways watching the world go by. People queue at holes in the wall to take home famous steamed buns, noodles and dumplings. Local plastic seated diners spill into the streets with people slurping up noodles and drinking beer. Convenience store owners cook their dinner off hot plates in front of their store. Under umbrellas, board games and card games are played to the echoes of chatter and laughter, oblivious to the chaos unfolding in the main streets of the city.
Then there is the new element that makes this area even more fascinating. I’ll say the dreaded h word, hipster, as their arrival has seen a new wave of development and many old hutong dwellings converted into bars, cafes and boutiques. It can seem strange to be drinking cocktails while old ladies are hanging out their washing across the street, but this juxtaposition adds to the area’s appeal.
Nan Luo Go Xiang, the most famous of the hutong, acts as kind of a Main Street with the other alleyways branching off it like a rabbit’s warren. Since its redevelopment 10 years ago it’s become a place to be seen for young people who, dressed in their best hipster fashions, pack this narrow street by the hundreds to sample strange foods and sip freshly made lemonade. Come Friday and Saturday you can barely move for people and you can just about get a seat at one of the many bars that play live music.
Our hotel, Courtyard 7, is luckily tucked away off Nanluogoxiang and is a welcome retreat from the crowds. Staying here is a sight on its own, with its traditional frontage and distinct Beijing courtyard construction lined with red lanterns and historical paintings. Fit for the emperor himself!
Despite its popularity, Nan Luo Go Xiang can wear you down so it’s worth exploring some of the neighbouring hutong, Fang Jia and Bei Luo Go Xiang in particular, and their array of cosy bars that serve everything from cocktails to craft beer with an edgy underground vibe or kitsch hipster feel. There’s a southern Italian snack bar that opened last year, serving arancini, antipasto platters and grilled vegetables, the King Yue bar with its cosy couches and shisha, and Mai with its classy cocktails and speakeasy feel. You could easily spend a night or two bar hopping! There’s even some street art to boot.
It’s crowded but there’s a reason for it. The street food on Nan Luo Go Xiang is pretty much a fashion statement and if you’re not strolling along holding some sort of weird thing then you haven’t done it right. Half a fried squid on a stick or cat shaped candy also on a stick make for great selfie fodder. Or what about deep fried peach stone? Or fried chicken knee cartilage? Or sweet cheese squares? Or for the less adventurous, you can go for pillowy soft dumplings, fried tofu with chili sauce and rice pie. In the food hall, all kinds of delicacies stretch out in front of you like pick and mix.
Sheep spine anyone?!
It’s pretty easy to get away from Nan Luo Go Xiang and find something a little more rustic. I never thought I would see the day where I would say, ‘I fancy me some sheep spine’, but once we were sat inside the area’s famous Sheep Spine Hotpot restaurant and once that luscious pot was bubbling away, I was eating my words and literally scoffing it. Once you get over the fact you are eating individual vertebrae, the gross factor goes down to zero, especially as the meat is so tender it falls off the bone, and tastes good enough to rival any Sunday roast.
It takes a little while to get our heads around the process being hot pot novices, but you order your sheep spine, as well as what else you want in your hotpot, like tofu, spinach, sprouts or other veggies. Then they fire it up and you let the juicy magic happen before beginning the messy work of tucking in. If you want the waiters will even hand tear fresh noodles straight into your hotpot.
Ghost Street – anything but quiet
With its neon lights, chatty touts, caterwauling entertainers and 24 hour opening, this place is like some kind of Chinese food Vegas. Some restaurants are so in demand there are queues of people sat on plastic seats outside. You can get a recommendation but it’s pretty hard to tell one neon-lit place from another unless you read Chinese, so we just browsed up and down until we found somewhere that looked fun and busy enough without being too crowded. Frog mouth, spicy stir fried kidney and pickled chickens feet are on the menu but we played it safe with the crispy fried fish.
When in Beijing… it’s time for Peking roast duck
Housed at the top of a high end shopping mall, Jingbao Place, Da Dong roast duck restaurant is about as far from the hutong as you can get. No gossiping old ladies or shared squat toilets in here, but rather wet towels on arrival and sleekly dressed waiters ushering you to your gleaming table past the arty projections of flying ducks on the wall. Meanwhile, white hatted chefs are busy transporting rails of ready to cook ducks across the room and expertly carving up those that are ready to eat, caressing them like babies.
We are urged to order our duck right away. You can choose from a small bird, which is said to be juicier and crispier, or a larger bird for the same price. We have spent the day climbing up and down the Great Wall so couldn’t help but order the large one. In its orange glazed glory and with the traditional accompaniments of pancakes and hoi sin sauce, it doesn’t disappoint. The complimentary dessert of fresh lychees and ice cream is also very welcome!
Right, now we need to do some sightseeing to work off all this food…