China has between four and ten seminal cooking styles, depending on who you ask, but regional permutations, minority contributions, and specialty cuisines like Buddhist-influenced vegetarian and medicinal dishes push the number into the dozens. Most of these have at least passed through Beijing since privately owned restaurants really took off in the 1980s. Below are summaries of the most consistently popular styles, as well as the cuisines du jour, which may or may not be around next time you visit:
Beijing -- This ill-defined cuisine was influenced over the centuries by the different eating habits of successive rulers. Emphasis is on lamb and pork, with strong, salty, and sometimes musky flavors. Staples are heavy noodles and breads rather than rice. Jiaozi, little morsels of meat and vegetables wrapped in dough and usually boiled, are a favorite local snack.
Cantonese -- The most famous Chinese cooking style, Cantonese tends to be light and crisp, with pleasing combinations of salty and sweet, elaborate presentations, and a fondness for rare animal ingredients at the high end. As with Sichuanese food, real Cantonese puts its American version to shame. It's available in swanky and proletarian permutations.
Home-style (Jiachang Cai) -- The most pervasive style in Beijing, home-style food consists of simplified dishes from a variety of regions, primarily Sichuan. It is cheap, fast, and gloriously filling, with straightforward flavors that run the gamut. This is the Chinese equivalent of down-home American cooking, but far healthier and more colorful.
Huaiyang -- This ancient style from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) is celebrated for delicate knife work and light, slightly sweet fish dishes. Vegetarian dishes often make interesting use of fruit. The tendency here is to braise and stew rather than stir-fry.
Shanghai -- These richly sweet, oil-heavy dishes are no longer as trendy as they were a few years ago, but are still easy to find. Shanghainese food tends to be more expensive than fare from Sichuan or Beijing, but affordable Shanghai-style snack shops dot the city. Best are the varieties of baozi, or bread dumplings.
Sichuan -- The most popular of the pure cuisines in Beijing, real Sichuanese is far more flavorful than the "Szechuan" food found in the United States. Main ingredients are vividly hot peppers, numbing black peppercorns, and garlic, as found in classics like gongbao jiding (diced chicken with chiles and peanuts). Spicy Sichuan-style hot pot is the city's best interactive food experience.
Southern Minority -- Cuisine and rare ingredients from Naxi-dominated regions of Yunnan Province are especially fashionable, but Hakka, Dai, Miao, and other ethnic traditions are also well represented. This is some of the city's most interesting food right now, but also its most inconsistent and overpriced.
Uighur -- Uighur cooking is the more distinctive of Beijing's two Muslim styles (the other being Hui), with origins in remote Xinjiang Province. The cuisine is heavy on lamb and chicken and is justly adored for its variety of thick noodles in spiced tomato-based sauces. Uighurs produce the city's favorite street snack: yangrou chuan, roasted lamb skewers with cumin and chile powder.
Vegetarian -- An increasingly diverse style, the Beijing version of vegetarian cuisine is moving away from its previous obsession with soy- and taro-based fake meat dishes. Decor and quality vary from restaurant to restaurant, but none allow smoking or booze.
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