Choices are growing for dining out in Beijing

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer


Eating out in Beijing nowadays is livelier than the Sichuan peppers that make your lips and mouth dance, the choices more varied than the treasures on a dim sum cart.

Deciding can be tough. Hand-cut Shanxi noodles? Traditional Peking duck? Sichuan hot pot? The kitschy appeal of Serve the People?

Until fairly recently, the choices could be dreary, even in restaurants and banquet halls favored by the Communist elite. The Cultural Revolution stifled culinary creativity (as it did so many aspects of life), and its harsh legacy has been hard to overcome, said Carl Chu, author of the guide “Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles.”

But in the last decade or so, China’s cuisine has been recovering, and with the Olympics set to begin Aug. 8, the whole city has spiffed up. All over Beijing there are inviting places to eat, serving dishes from China’s many regions, as well as the rest of Asia and the world. The prices during my visit last summer were low, though they’ll probably rise with the influx of Olympic tourists.

“Most Chinese love food; we are like Italians,” said Rebecca Hsu, who owns a chic gift and furniture business and is among the city’s trendsetters. “We take restaurants very seriously.”

And now that disposable income is growing, many young Beijing residents eat out frequently. Older women complain, just as they do in the United States, that their children don’t know how to cook, and they worry that traditional recipes could be lost.

“When I was young or in high school, the whole family, we would be sitting together cooking,” said Ricky Li, assistant general manager at Xi He Ya Ju, a restaurant that serves traditional dishes.

“Now people are tired,” he said. “For more than 20 people, who cooks? It’s very hard. And after that, who does the cleaning? So people go out to restaurants.”

The one-child policy plays a role too, said Eileen Wen Mooney, a restaurant critic for Time Out Beijing magazine. “If you have a big family, you want to eat at home. If you are one person, how many dishes can you make?”

But a visit to the Beijing Qu Hao Culinary Service School shows that respect for culinary history did not vanish with Mao Tse-tung.

In a clammy hot classroom, one student has lined up in front of him 13 attempts to turn a daikon radish into a dragon. Another has made an astonishingly detailed god of longevity from a pumpkin. A third has turned a carrot into a graceful, long-necked bust of a woman.

In another room, students demonstrate a sculpting technique using dyed rice flour paste. By hand, they form mermaids, roosters, emperors and other decorations, which remain popular for important meals.

This temporary art has been practiced for more than 1,000 years, and even when there was no official market for it, artists would sell their handiwork on the street, said Qu Hao, an award-winning master chef and the school’s owner.

Rey Lim has watched the changing restaurant scene from one of the loveliest perches in all of Beijing. He is the executive chef at the Courtyard, which overlooks the moat surrounding the Forbidden City.

The Courtyard was an early privately run fine-dining spot, and Lim, a former dentist who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, has fed such notables as Mick Jagger and former President Clinton.

Lim remembers in his early days sneaking maple syrup into China in his suitcase. Back in the day, imported cheese and Serrano ham were strictly black-market items.

Now, ingredients are limited only by budget, and the Courtyard has plenty of company among high-end restaurants. Some -- the Green T. House and the Philippe Starck-designed Lan -- are known as much for design as for food. Others, such as Serve the People or the Red Capital Club, have capitalized, at least in name, on China’s recent history.

From the contemporary offeringsof the Courtyard, diners can travel, culinarily, to the street fare of Beijing, where vendors sell such things as scorpions or starfish on skewers. On summer nights, plastic chairs are set up in makeshift cafes serviced by food trucks. And homegrown fast-food chains, as well as those from the United States, are all too common.

Gu Bo of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.