Illustrations by Joyce Siu
In the 1960s, a typical office worker in Beijing might have had lunch with colleagues in the company cafeteria. They were drab places, often housed in the basements of buildings and with limited offerings.
But after the market reforms that opened up China’s economy in the 1980s, white-collar workers began leaving their offices for lunch. They were part of the country’s budding private sector and enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts at state-owned companies.
Now, one can find the city’s old hutong alleys packed during the lunch hour with workers grabbing a quick bite at restaurants that offer specialties from all across China.
Most of the food is tailored to the northern diet, given Beijing’s location in the northeast, which means heavy emphasis on wheat-based carbs such as noodles and buns and generous use of seasoning. (The southern diet, on the other hand, is considered lighter and more rice-based.)
Here is a sampling of what Beijing office workers are eating for lunch.
A mid-day pick-me-up
In 2014, popular television host Meng Fei opened a chain of restaurants serving a spicy noodle dish from his native Chongqing called xiaomian (小面), literally “small noodles.”
It became an instant hit and led to an explosion of restaurants in Beijing specializing in the dish.
An aromatic hot oil made with chili flakes, Sichuan peppers, grated garlic, and vinegar is poured over a bowl of noodles. It’s then topped with yellow split peas and minced pork.
It’s fast food served in no-frills surroundings. Most restaurants can have the noodles ready within five minutes of a customer placing the order. The most popular spots get so much traffic during the lunch rush that they set up stools and tables on the street.
“It’s a spicy noodle dish that wakes you up from your mid-day fatigue,” says Gong Yu, a video producer in Beijing.
Hot pot for one
Hot pot is typically associated with communal eating, but there is a popular saying in China that “hot pot is maocai for a group, and maocai is hot pot for one person.” (“火锅是一群人的冒菜，冒菜是一个人的火锅.”)
Maocai (冒菜), literally “blanched vegetables,” is a spicy stew dish that originated in the southwestern city of Chengdu, not far from Chongqing. It’s a hodgepodge of vegetables and meat cooked in a numbingly spicy soup that’s signature to Sichuan province and served with a bowl of rice.
It’s essentially hot pot made to order for the customer. Vera Sun, a client manager at a local Beijing airline, says she likes the dish for its heavy flavor and large variety of choices. She usually requests the same items she might dip herself in a hot pot: enoki mushrooms, Spam ham, potato, broccoli, and bean curd.
Maocai isn’t the only lunch option derived from hot pot. There is malatang (麻辣烫), named after the numblingly spicy soup that is the central actor in this whole affair. Customers select the food they want from a selection of skewers in a fridge. They then give it to the chef, who throws everything into a pot of malatang.
And then there is chuanchuan (串串), which requires the most effort from the customer. The food is presented to them on bamboo sticks for them to cook themselves in a pot of malatang.
The perfect pair
In Beijing, one would be hard-pressed to find a place that served liangpi (凉皮), a noodle-like dish from northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, without also selling its complement: the hefty roujiamo (肉夹馍) sandwich.
Liangpi, literally “cold skin,” is a rubbery cold-noodle dish mixed with shredded cucumber, carrots, and crushed peanuts. The seasoning is a rich mix of sesame sauce, vinegar, and chili oil that’s sour when it touches the tongue but ends with a spicy kick.
Pair the carbs and vegetables with a roujiamo, pork stuffed inside a piece of toasted flatbread. The tender meat is stewed for hours in a plethora of spices and seasonings.
Di Jiacheng, a native of northwestern China who works in Beijing, says he eats the combo at least once a month when he craves food from his hometown.
On why the two always go together, he says, “One bowl of noodles is too little. If you pair it with roujiamo, the portion is just right. Plus, the noodles have a sour taste, so it tastes better when paired with the sandwich’s savory flavor.”
The pull of the noodle
Even if you can’t read Chinese, it’s easy to spot a restaurant serving traditional hand-pulled noodles from Lanzhou. There’s usually a sign with a picture of a grassy plain, blue sky, a mosque, and a cow.
It’s telling of the dish’s origins. Indeed, many people who live in the northwestern Chinese city still make a living off herding cows and growing wheat. This has made hand-pulled beef noodles a signature dish of the region.
Because the noodles are pulled by hand through an involved process of stretching and twisting the dough, customers can request how thick or thin to make them.
Daisy Du, a marketing manager in Beijing and self-professed connoisseur of hand-pulled beef noodles, is particularly fussy about the thickness of her noodles.
“To me, whether the noodles are good depends on how fast they can absorb the flavor of the soup,” she says.
The dish is so beloved that there’s even a rap about it.