Hutong Eats: Noshing our Way Through “Old Beijing”

If you are in Beijing for even a few days, one of the most fun, and most evocative things you can do is get a glimpse of “Old Beijing”–that is, what China used to look like before the huge tearing down and rebuilding frenzy of recent years. You’ll find this last morsel of traditional Chinese life in the narrow winding alleyways known as Hutongs.

A number of Beijing’s hutongs have been protected from the wrecking ball and preserved into special districts: enter and you enter a different era, a different world: low buildings in traditional Chinese style; humble dwellings and larger grander ones, beautiful tiny temples and dilapidated buildings; all  speckled with shops, both boutique and practical, stalls selling vegetables and fruit, restaurants, cafes, sweets-vendors on the streets, and traffic consisting mostly of bicycles and mopeds with the occasional small motor vehicle pushing its way through the crowded streets to make–or try to make–a delivery.Hutongs are an adventure in traditional foods: but, like many adventures, its good to have a guide. Not only do you want the most up-to-date knowledge on who has the best dumplings, what to order in the steamy noodle shop, but unless you speak Mandarin, you won’t even know what is on the menu. Getting around China can be daunting. My friend, Israeli cookbook publisher and author, Ofer Vardi, (LunchBox Press), who was with me in China, mentioned the tour, I said: “Count me in”. The tours ( ) are Thursdays and Saturdays and last about 3 hours. You can form your own group or see if they have a group already going that you can join. Prices depend upon how many people are on the tour; the more people, the cheaper!

As it happens, I had another, more private, reason to wander through the old Hutongs: an address scrawled on a piece of paper, found in an old box. It was my brothers address when he lived in Beijing. When he died in Bejing. I had shown the address to a number of people who all said: ahh, it is in a Hutong. I wanted to see where he was happy, his last home on earth.

Ofer assembled a group–we were about 6–and met up with our walking/noshing guide, Victoria, near Lake Houhai, in the Dongcheng district, about a ten minutes taxi drive from The Forbidden City.

we met up at this beautiful lake, a world apart from Bejing's hustle and bustle yet 10 minute drive from Forbidden City

At this point I need to say how adorable and helpful, energetic and bubbly Victoria is, as well being as a font of knowledge about Chinese foods and cuisines.

the adorable Victoria offering me some stinky tofu!

Before we started walking and noshing, I showed her my scrap of paper with the address and asked if she had any idea where it was. She didn’t, but the friend she had brought along said: I think its over in a different hutong area, perhaps we can get there on our walk.We’ll look.

Ducking off the major crowded fume-filled road we entered  the tranquility of the lake and the meandering alleys that make up the hutongs; we entered Old China. Houses were small and people sat outside, watching the world; I saw a man shopping for vegetables, carrying a little bird in a cage.  It all seemed so social, and yeah: I was the only one who thought it unusual. “We like to take our birds for walks” said Victoria.

Whenever Victoria found something she thought we really shouldn’t miss, she stopped and bought a plate for us to sample. The kung pao chicken baos were pretty lovely, but the stinky tofu she passed around on a stryofoam container for us to try…..I had tried in in Taipei and a year later was still trying to get over the experience. Perhaps like the durian fruit, stinky tofu and I might not be meant to be. But you know, you gotta try it all: you never know when you’ll taste something that will enrich your life so hugely you won’t even be able to imagine your life without it.

The Hutongs are rich with streetfood, small stalls, little restaurants….You can buy bao at a walk-up window or a huge bowl of steamy spicy soup and array of noodles and savoury pastries at a very humble canteen filled with enthusiastic eaters of all ages; you can sit in a calm and style modern restaurant and eat traditional dishes like pineapple stuffed with glutinous rice or special chicken and seafood soup, or walk around with an ice cream-like tofu pudding known as “Imperial Beijing Custard”.

Did I ever find my brothers old address, the house he lived in at the unexpected end of his life? No, I never did. Hutongs are not easy to find your way around in, and in the end neither Victoria or her friend were able to locate it. I thought if that happened I would be sad, dissappointed, but a funny thing had happened: by spending the day wandering through this world that my brother had once lived in, seen the shops and alleyways and restaurants and tea houses that he might well have walked in, stopped in, sipped, in….you know, I was able to feel the sense of peace I had expected would only come with seeing his actual home. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter in the end. I saw his everyday surroundings, and it was as if being with him again. I know he would have been happy there.

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