Ask a visitor to Beijing what northern Chinese cooking is and the likely response is simple and emphatic: "Peking duck!" It's a perfectly valid answer, too, but that wonderful dish is a relatively recent invention, while northern Chinese cooking, better known as Beijing cuisine, is one of the four great schools of Chinese culinary culture.
This cuisine embraces the distinctive cooking styles from the surrounding provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, Henan and Inner Mongolia. It is shaped by the cooking of Chinese Muslims from parts of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, and lamb is their preferred meat. The cuisine has also been influenced by the imperial kitchens, as successive rulers have resided in Beijing since the 13th century's Yuan dynasty. Finally, as the national capital for close to a millennium, foods from all the provinces of China have come to be represented here.
Sadly, our knowledge of northern Chinese cooking in Australia is rather scant. Cantonese, the southern school of cooking, is dominant here, and while northern-style restaurants are on the increase, for now they're relatively marginal and aren't equipped to serve the cuisine's full repertoire faithfully.
Beijing's Sanyuanli food market displays the building blocks of northern-style cuisine. Local greens such as leeks, soy beans, ginger, spring onions and the huge variety of Chinese cabbages are key. Tian mian jiang, the sweet flour sauce, and a host of preserved vegetables also play a role, as does the distinctive flavour of roasted sesame paste.
If you're fortunate enough to stroll through the few remaining hutongs (neighbourhood alleys) with their courtyard homes, chances are you'll find a family enjoying a meal in the open courtyards. On the table could be staples such as wheat-based buns called mantou, cold dishes such as eggplant laced with roasted sesame paste, bean curd cooked in every way imaginable, or potatoes stirfried with soy and hints of green onions.
But to really experience the full intensity of Beijing's flavours, pay a visit to the capital's most happening food street, Donghuamen Dajie in Wangfujing. As you approach the Han and Uighur vendors, the delicious scent of grilled cumin-laden meats wafts through the night air, and the vast array of hawker foods is nothing like what you find back home. From skewered quail to calamari and crisp scorpion to savoury buns filled with pork, the snacks represent the multifaceted nature of this vast metropolis. Beijing's enormous gastronomic range is captivating. After all, I think it was the Chinese who invented the saying, 'you live to eat'.
Join Tony Tan on a 12-day gourmet tour through China, 12-23 September, 2008. For more information go totonytan.com.auor call (03) 9827 7347.**