Peking Duck at XiHeYaYuan by East Beijing

“Nine times boiling will make nine kinds of changes, that depends on the fire controlling. Sometimes use high heat in cooking, sometimes use gentle. Clearing the fishy, foul and smell of mutton, the key is to control temperature. Only mastering the law of using fire, can we turn the stinky sweetly fragrant. We usually use these five seasonings, sweet, sour, bitterness, spicy and salty, but when and how many should we put are so delicate and subtly, and it cannot be described. Just like archery on the horse, you must master the skills with facility, Just as the naturally combining of yin and yang, and the natural transformation of seasonings, so that the cooking skill to do boil long but unbeaten, ripe but not mushy, sour but not stimulating, salty but not astringent mouth, spicy but not stimulating, mild but not tasteless, fat but not greasy.

Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals – Original Taste Chapters”

Thus begins the menu at our favourite Peking Duck restaurant, XiHeYaYuan. It’s a quote from a classic Chinese text compiled around 239 BC during the Qin Dynasty and yet it sums up neatly what I learned about Chinese cooking in Beijing in 2013.
I was reminded of our meal there when one of my followers and Twitter friends, Majella, asked for suggestions for restaurants for her first visit to Beijng. Like all major cities, eating out in Beijing can be daunting for the uninitiated. The usual difficulty of finding the really good restaurants where the locals eat is compounded by the language barrier and the fact that most restaurant names and menus are in Mandarin script. On our very first visit over 6 years ago, when Shane had lived there only a short time, we tended to fall back on expensive hotel restaurants or cheap and cheerful spots frequented by him and his student friends. These days we are lucky to have his wife Shan as our interpreter and guide with local knowledge.
With all the great food cooked by Shan’s Mum at home and a new baby in the house, she and Shane don’t eat out very often these days. But no visit to Beijing would feel right without having Peking Duck which is rarely cooked at home as kitchens don’t have ovens. So we did manage to lure them out for one excellent meal at this neighbourhood restaurant.
XiHeYaYuan is a chain of restaurants specialising in Peking duck but they also serve regional specialties from Sichuan, Hunan and other provinces.
We went to the new branch that has opened in the Indigo complex attached to East Hotel. This Swire complex is another of the swish shopping malls popping up all over the city. This one is still so shiny new that more outlets open every day, many of them international chains. A whole upper floor is devoted to baby shops, including a Mothercare due to open shortly, and another to women’s clothes. The top level includes a food mall for Chinese fast food, the inevitable McDonalds and access to a super iMax cinema complex, all a barometer of the growing consumerism and changing tastes of the burgeoning Chinese middle classes. And yet it exists right beside the traditional Jiangtai wet market I visited with Shan’s Mum
XiHeYaYuan is in an outdoor courtyard alongside a number of other restaurants, cafes and bars. Its interior is ornately furnished with rich furnishings and fabrics so that it resembles the inside of an old courtyard house.

Outside XiHeYaYuan at Indigo

Mural at XiHeYaYuan

The menu is in Chinese but features photos of the dishes and some rather entertaining attempts at translating their names into English.
Now what might this be?

It was great to have Shan back in action choosing dishes for us – this is what led to me starting the blog after all. She has a fantastic instinct for judging the balance in a meal. To start we had six or seven dishes to share between five of us:

  • Mixed clam and garlic in wasabi vinegar dressing
  • Fried pork with water chestnut
  • Spicy three delicacies
  • Stuffed pancake rolls
  • Sauteed celery and lily with egg tofu
  • A black fungus dressed with sesame oil
  • Something described as “Caterpillar fungus flowers and green bean with sesame oil.”

Shan commented that for a restaurant that pays such attention to detail and presentation they might have been wise to have someone vet their menu translations but for me the occasional “Chinglish” was part of the charm. She knows me well and several of the dishes had the numbing Sichuan kick that has become more addictive for me than caffeine. I would love to be able to recreate the crispy salt and chilli pork dish and the “Spicy three delicacies” dish of aubergine, clam and pork neck.

Spicy three delicacies

Sauteed celery

Traditional stuffed pancakes

Mixed clam with garlic in wasabi vinegar dressing

The centrepiece of the meal was the “Four-phase” duck carved at our table. All the duck served at the restaurant is raised alongside the Yanqi lake. “Four-phase” refers to the way in which it is meant to be eaten using the condiments on the lazy susan at your table.
Duck carved at our table

First the crispy skin should be dipped in the garlic sugar and blueberry sauce. Shan and I found the blueberry sauce a little too sweet for our taste but it’s an intriguing combination. The duck meat with crispy skin is eaten in the normal way with cucumber, spring onion and plum sauce in plain or spinach flavoured pancakes. Then the lean breast meat is eaten in the pancakes with the pureed garlic and carrot strips. Meanwhile the carcass of the duck is taken away and either deep-fried or made into a soup. Shan opted to have it deep-fried and think of the nicest Kentucky fried chicken you’ve ever had with the bones crunchy enough to eat and you get the idea.
Condiments for the duck

The total cost of the meal for 5 including several beers was about €70. The whole duck, served as described cost 258 rmb or about €28. I’ve had Peking Duck before in Beijing and this was on par or better than the best of it. It rivals Da Dong which is the one that features most often in guidebooks and is considerably better value than many of the restaurants geared to foreign tourists. It’s definitely worth seeking out a branch near you if you get the chance to visit Beijing. There are about 6 branches in all.
By the way, if you are visiting Beijing and need easy access to the airport and the business districts in the north east of the city, I strongly recommend East, near the 4th ring road, as a base. It is a beautiful modern hotel which opened just a few months ago not far from the 798 Art District. It has a bright and airy design and designed with the needs of the business traveller in mind. There is fast free wifi throughout the hotel and rooms feature everything an Apple addict like me could need with, several USB charging points, electric sockets that don’t require adaptors, classy Sony TVs and Bose sound systems and an iTouch in each room which even tells you what’s available from room service – Wagyu burger anyone? Well it will only cost you about €14.
East Beijing

Room rates are very reasonable for a capital city and by Beijing standards, perhaps reflecting the greater distance from the tourist heart of the city. It’s well worth booking on a bed and breakfast basis as the buffet breakfast in the main restaurant Feast is as good as it gets and will set you up for the day. There is also an excellent bar “Xian” with live music and a Japanese restaurant Hagaki which I have yet to try but gets good recommendations. A casual coffee spot, well-equipped gym, swimming pool and business lounge complete the offering.
Breakfast at Feast at East

This is a hotel with style, great art work and a lovely informal but polished service ethos. The staff, dressed casually in sweat shirts and hoodies for the most part, are the friendliest I have encountered in China or anywhere else for that matter.
A bath with a view at East

For first time visitors to Beijing, good Chinese chain restaurants offer an opportunity to have reliable and authentic Chinese regional food at reaonable prices. Others to watch out for are:

  • Yuxiang Kitchen where we dined on our very first night in Beijing last year which is one of a chain of Sichuan restaurants. You can read about our experience here.
  • Din Tai Fung where Claire had the amazing XiaoLongBao soup dumplings in Shanghai recently, now has at least two outlets in Beijing. Go there early for dim sum. You will even get instructions on how to eat them.
  • Hotpot is another “must do” while in Beijing but it works better if you have at least 6 people to share the fun of the experience.

Instructions for eating XiaoLongBao

Yunnan Cusine is one of my favourites. It is lighter than Sichuan and Hunan as the region is closer in style and geography to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. A great place to try Yunnan food in Beijing is at Dali Courtyard down near Nanluoguxiang and Drum and Bell Tower. A set menu is served to every table. It doesn’t change but is consistently good. You can read about my visit to the hutong of Beijing and Dali Courtyard last summer here.
If like my friend Majella you are going to Beijing anytime soon and want a few more insider tips, please do get in touch.

The Art of Pulling Noodles – Hutong Cuisine Cookery School

Two days in Beijing and my clothes already smell of a heady concoction of unusual spices. That’s what comes of spending a good chunk of those two days in the kitchen.
Yesterday it was the turn of Hutong Cuisine and a class aimed at teaching us how to make Shaanxi hand pulled noodles, described on their website as “a difficult class where you roll up your sleeves to knead, drag, pull…” This was not an understatement.
But first there was time for breakfast in Feast the swish restaurant of our hotel East which serves possibly the best breakfast buffet in Beijing not to mention excellent coffee.

Feast at East

I couldn’t help thinking that if there were several million more of the electric cars like the one parked outside our door, Beijing pollution might not be quite so bad.
I wonder how long the charge lasts in Beijing traffic?

Of course a little quality NaiNai time had to be had before I headed for the kitchen. Oh how I love that newly minted baby smell.
Good morning Dermot!

Then fortified by an early lunch from MaMa, or Quin Jia Mu as I must learn to call her as my female in-law, we set off by taxi to find Hutong Cuisine. (I had discovered in Urumqi last summer that it is impossible to get past a half an hour with Shan’s Mum without being fed but it is always delicious and interesting – this time it was simple stir fried bai cai – baby pak choi to us – with mushrooms.)
We found the entrance to Hutong Cuisine in Deng Cao Hutong off Dongsi South St and were welcomed by a friendly dog who wriggled his way under the door to meet us. The lovely Chun Yi who runs the school led us in through the Quing Dynasty courtyard to the cosy kitchen where we were joined by the other participants in the class and her brother who would teach us how to make the noodles. Making noodles of this type is usually regarded as a man’s job because of the physical exertion involved.
Cookery school Chinese style

First for the easy bit – the making of the beef soup stock in which the noodles would subsequently be cooked. I will post the recipe for this soon because it is a lovely versatile stock and I can see myself adapting it for stockpot and other uses. Essentially it was made with a large beef leg bone, some added neck or belly beef, spring onion, garlic and ginger and lots of added spices, all simmered for several hours.
There were a few spices included in it that were new to me and may be hard to get in Ireland. Chun Yi explained that some are used because they are believed to have medicinal properties rather than for flavour. See if you can spot the mountain yam, long pepper, shan nai, bai zhi, sha ren or dou kou below – even MaMa and Shan couldn’t identify all of them!
Some interesting soup spices

Then came the fun bit, the making of the hand-pulled noodles. Tai ma fan – too much hassle, said MaMa when she heard how we had spent our afternoon. These are normally only made in restaurants by masters of the craft and rarely, if ever, at home. They are made with high gluten wheat flour and water, salt to give stiffness and the magic ingredient peng hui, the ash of a type of grass which grows in north west China which the people of that area discovered makes the dough supple and elastic. The main ingredient in the ash is Potassium Carbonate K2CO3 and it’s hard to get even here in Beijing.
As I’ve always loved making yeast bread, kneading the dough until smooth and leaving it to rest was easy peasy and I was beginning to feel quietly confident as Chef used the breathing space to teach us the hand movements we would need to roll, stretch and twist the dough. Now I mean to say, I’ve done aerobics and pilates, I even lift weights from time to time, this couldn’t be too difficult could it…? Well at least now I understand why Chun Yi asked Shane how old his parents were and whether we would be able for the class…
Let’s just say making hand-pulled noodles could be the ultimate cure for granny bingo wings. It’s all in the wrist movement and once or twice I nearly got it but not quite. Chef had to rescue my efforts several times and re-roll the dough, adding water when it got too dry. When you do get a rhythm going it is strangely soothing and satisfying, bringing me back to using hula hoops or skipping ropes as a child. There is also a gorgeous sensation when you feel the gluten stretching in your hands (and not breaking!).
Once your thin dough strips become even, you use only the middle part of the roll and pull them into very long thin strips. This bit is great fun and easy compared to all that rolling, stretching and twisting. Then you rush with them to your pot of strained stock, cook them for about one minute and serve them as below. Phew. Take a bow if you get that far!
The easy bit!

This looks manageable doesn’t it?

Chef rolls the dough

Stretch it out nice and long…

I think she’s got it!

Let’s twist…

Let’s twist again…

There you have it..

Derry could be proud of his efforts

To serve:
Once cooked, for as many hours as you have to play around with, the beef stock is strained into a saucepan and simmered. Beef  left over from the stock is shredded and placed in a bowl along with some daikon radish which has been thinly sliced and blanched for a minute, shredded leek, chopped coriander and home-made chilli oil to taste.
The noodles are cooked briefly in the simmering, strained stock, drained and added to the individual serving bowls and then some of the soup is poured over. To meet the exacting standards for balance in Chinese cooking, the soup should be clear, the radish adds white colour, the leek and coriander green and the chilli oil a dash of red.
Eat and enjoy, that’s if you have the energy after all that hand-pulling of noodles!! (or you could cheat and add a packet of your favourite quick-cook noodles to the soup but shhh… don’t tell Chun Yi I said that!)
Thank you Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a great afternoon.
See – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.

East is East

Hello lovely readers and a big thank you for the warmth of your response to me finally getting to meet my lovely grandson Dermot.
I’m going to try and keep you up to date on #Shananigansontour with brief posts most days to capture impressions of this trip while they are fresh in my mind.
We finally got here late Sunday afternoon after a few hours delay at Heathrow as a result of sandstorms and heavy winds in Beijing the previous day which had delayed our incoming Air China flight. The upside was that the air had cleared and for once I got to see the city on a stunningly beautiful spring day.
We are staying at East Hotel Beijing which opened just a few months ago down the road from where Shane and Shan live. This part of Beijing, in the north east of the city just outside the 4th ring road and close to the airport, is developing rapidly. When Shane moved in a few years ago it was a relatively sleepy outer suburb (well as sleepy as Beijing ever gets), with a neighbourhood feel and local shopkeepers who greet him warmly to this day.

East Hotel Beijing

Now, new developments are springing up all over the place and the city is once more extending its reach. East Hotel is all clean lines and modern high tech fittings – an Apple lover’s paradise of USB sockets, excellent wifi and even an integrated iPod touch with an app on which you can order room service. The staff are warm and friendly, young and casually dressed in teeshirts and hoodies. It’s a far cry from the rundown, older Chinese hotel we stayed in last summer and only slightly more expensive. Young Beijingers are embracing the service ethos with enthusiasm.
Below the hotel sits a modern shopping mall which I haven’t explored yet and behind it a new park is being built which will be covered in winter to allow for seasonal entertainment. The skyscrapers crawl ever further out of the city but the old markets (in the bottom right of the picture below) survive and that’s where MaMa heads every day to buy her supplies of meat, vegetables and spices at a fraction of supermarket cost.
Beijing extending its reach to the North East

Of course yesterday was all about meeting Dermot for the first time and those are special memories that will always be with me.
The moment I had been waiting for

Well hello Grandad!

Nooh… I’m not being rude Grandad.. honest

Best mother’s day present ever

And what’s more I get to see him all over again today.
As always food played an important part in the celebration of our arrival. Shan’s MaMa was on hands to welcome me with a huge hug and within moments, dinner was served – a steaming dish of her version of Big Plate Chicken to which she added home made wide-flat noodles.
This was followed by bowls of noodle soup with lamb and tofu, fulfilling the tradition of serving noodles when visitors arrive for the first time to represent the bonds of family and friendship. But these were also “longevity noodles” which are usually served on the day a child is one month old and on subsequent birthdays. MaMa had saved the ritual for our arrival. We ate the noodles with chopsticks from the bowls first and then drank the light, nourishing broth.
Dessert was a platter of fresh fruit including slices of dragon fruit which MaMa tells me is good for the digestion. I think I will teach her the recipe for Saba’s  Dragon’s Tail cocktail!
Dragon fruit

Of course MaMa served dragon fruit in honour of Dermot’s pet name of Teng Teng or flying dragon which he was given because he was born on the tail of the Year of the Dragon. In China food always has meaning.
Time to face the day now and a lesson in making noodles for which the requirement appears to be strong arms!
This is what smog looks like on a sunny Monday morning in Beijing.
Morning smog

You feel it in your lungs as soon as you step outside the door. With my new found paranoia, I’ve taken to tracking air quality using the CN Air Quality App. This is how it looks just now, depending on who you believe…
Air quality

Until later.