Cai Yi Xuan restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing
IN ALMOST every country town in Australia, there’s a Chinese restaurant. The tastes of China are as much a part of our cultural fabric as Vegemite and spaghetti bolognaise. It’s no secret that Chinese flavours are a culinary obsession for me and I’ve been lucky to travel to many parts of China to experience them firsthand.
And now I’m back in Beijing, which I last visited in 2007. I’m always struck by the equal pull of its history and culture. There are so many wonders to see. The Beijing sections of the Great Wall are a must – imagine what they’ve witnessed over the past 700 years – and the size of the Forbidden City is extraordinary. If you have time, include the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace on your itinerary. And visit the house of Soong Ching-ling, one of three sisters who were prominent in Chinese politics before the 1949 Revolution. The wife of Sun Yat-sen, a founder of the Republic of China, she is known as the Mother of Modern China, as she was heavily involved in its 20th-century social development. Her former residence (now a museum) tells the story of contemporary China and is worth an hour of your time.
But I’m really here for the food. I seek out the ducks first. Traditionally, they’re roasted in square wood-fire ovens, with the fire at the front and the ducks hanging at the rear (this differs from the Cantonese conical oven). The chef hooks the ducks with a long rod and pulls them forward so the flames lick the skin, making it super-crisp.
Beijing has some of the best roast duck in the world but there are myriad other pleasures, too. Here’s my pick of some of the city’s best places to eat, from casual you’llhave-to-queue joints to fine-dining establishments.
IF YOU’VE dined at Lung King Heen at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, you’ll know what to expect here. Cai Yi Xuan is an opulent dining room where the service and wine list match the fine cooking.
We start with wonderfully crisp suckling pig on a little steamed bun with a smear of hoisin sauce. Please may I have this every day for the rest of my life? There are also beautifully executed baked pork buns with incredibly light, fluffy pastry. The crab xiao long bao is excellent, too, as is the yum cha.
But it’s the signature red-braised pork belly with abalone and truffles that I’m here to try and it doesn’t disappoint – melt-in-themouth pork with a rich, earthy truffle sauce and the exquisite texture of the abalone. It’s so good that I’m determined to create a version in the not-too-distant future.
Salt-and-pepper prawns are encased in the most delicate, crisp batter, which provides texture to complement the sweet fresh seafood and salt highlights – they’re irresistible. A plate of crisp-skin chicken arrives next. It’s the ultimate roast chook, with skin that’s crunchy and delicious.
I’m a massive fan of stir-fried snow pea runners. (Snow pea shoots grow into vines, or runners, from which the pods eventually sprout. When young, runners are tastier than snow peas.) Here, served with a dash of garlic and a little shaoxing wine, they have a natural deep-green vegetable flavour with the added sweetness of the snow pea.
The wine list’s by-the-glass selection entices you to lunch in style. I have a couple of glasses of Domaine la Barroche Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the perfect match for the chicken skin and pork belly.
Neil Perry has been in love with the flavours of China since he was a boy. So who better to take us to the best fine-diners and hidden hutong restaurants in Beijing?
Red-braised pork belly with abalone and black truffle sauce at Cai Yi Xuan