Gourmet Traveller

Beijing now

“A revolution is not a dinner party,” declared Chairman Mao Zedong, forecasting the famine, violence and destruction that his Great Leap Forward unleashed upon China for almost 20 years, until his death in 1976.

The first private restaurant opened in Beijing in 1980, and since then the city’s obsession with food has triggered a delicious counter-revolution. In the decade I’ve been living in the Jing, the city’s food scene has changed beyond recognition as the appetite for new ideas, new flavours and cool design grows.

The appetite for provincial Chinese cuisines, too, is growing in this city of 21 million, with the distinctive tastes of China’s 34 provinces represented in eateries run privately and by provincial governments. No other Chinese city offers this diversity. Beijingers have an eye for a trend, and the current love affair is with Sichuan’s fiery dishes laden with chillies and mouth-numbing peppercorns. Cantonese, meanwhile, remains an élite treat, mostly relegated to hotels and expense accounts.

The best districts for dining are both in the city’s east: Chaoyang, best known for its modern malls, and Dongcheng, surrounding the Forbidden City, the city’s 15th-century palace. In Dongcheng, some of the best eats can be found in the rapidly disappearing hutongs, the network of residential alleys that once radiated from the Forbidden City. Whether it’s jianbing, everyone’s favourite savoury crepe with egg, or zhajiang mian, the classic saucy noodle dish, or the imperial dish still known abroad as Peking

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