Beijing is packed with centuries of history and culinary tradition – and no trip should leave out the Great Wall or Peking duck – but the last decade has also planted the Chinese capital firmly in the modern day. It’s no news that the country has developed on all fronts at a breakneck speed. The era of Imperial Beijing might not have been so long ago, but several thousand years of history and quaint alleyways are now juxtaposed with world-class cocktails, luxury SUVs and – by some accounts – the most billionaires in the world. It may be true that life can now be lived with the simple swipe of a finger or QR code scan – call a car, order a delivery, book a house cleaner, pay for dumplings – but New China isn’t just about convenience through technology, the nouveau riche or increasing luxury.
Modernity means change, change means energy, and the air in Beijing is thick with an intoxicating dynamism – it’s not just the pollution. The city is percolating with a thriving community of young artists and musicians who are connected, receptive and contributing to the international scene. In the culinary world, interest is turning not just towards what is cheap, delicious and filling – or even how many grams of caviar you can afford – but towards what’s local and sustainable. Young chefs from abroad are injecting fresh enthusiasm into the scene and a new generation of bartenders are coming into their own, creating flavour profiles that are truly evocative of China.
Talk about modern Chinese food and the conversation will inevitably turn to Da Dong. Over the past two decades, the celebrity chef’s small empire of Peking duck restaurants has taken the city by storm. Patrons delight in the superlative duck – leaner than most, yet still ultra-crispy and wonderfully juicy – but where Da Dong sets himself apart is in the rest of the menu’s forward-looking Chinese cuisine, tinged with western influences. In two bites, you’ll snap up an exquisite half-white, half-purple oddity – huamei puree (salty dried plum) is paired with mashed mountain yam and topped with kumquat zest. The subtle yam plays a perfect foil to the plum and kumquat’s sweet, sour and salty.
Da Dong is pushing the city’s culinary scene in other ways, too. He hosts a sought-after cooking competition for young chefs, encouraging innovation and creativity – two traits not traditionally championed in Chinese cooking. His own brand continues to evolve. For an ultra-modern twist on Beijing’s most historic and most famed dish, his latest venture, simply Da Dong Roast Duck, takes the revered bird into the fast-casual world, turning out remarkably delicious roast duck burgers served on a sesame studded bun – in a shopping mall setting, no less.
There are those who might turn their noses up at the city’s most accessible modern art district – it’s too commercialised, it’s government-controlled – and while the criticisms have legs to stand on, they still shouldn’t discourage a visit. 798 Art Zone is the true representation of modern China: sprawling, full of contradictions and packed with selfie-taking crowds. An afternoon spent wandering the grounds and popping into galleries will help you work up an appetite.
Housed in a defunct 1950s Bauhaus-style industrial complex built by the East Germans, the arts district sprung up organically in the early Noughties when Beijing’s avant garde found refuge in the vacant buildings. And while property developers and the Government eventually descended, eclipsing the area’s radical origins, 798 still offers some of China’s best contemporary art – including a great noodle-inspired wall of graffiti. Galleria Continua, an independent gallery with locations in Paris and Tuscany, focuses on site-specific works and recently hosted Ai Weiwei’s first solo show in China. International heavyweight Pace Gallery frequently brings big-name exhibitions, such as David Hockney, to its cavernous factory space, while smaller venues such as Whitebox Art Center curate some of today’s most daring Chinese artists. Massive non-profit gallery space the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is not to be missed, having offered everything from a Dior retrospective to a comprehensive overview of the ’85 Chinese avant-garde art movement – and it also has an excellent gift shop.
Opened by two debonair bartenders, Paul Hsu and Kevin Song, this petite and eminently chic bar offers a thoroughly modern cocktail programme with local characteristics. Building on their success at the popular D Lounge, one floor below, the pair have really let loose at Infusion Room and, in turn, made their new venture the cutting-edge of the drink scene in Beijing’s main nightlife district.
The flavour profiles are more gastronomic than anything: think combinations like Papa’s Childhood, comprised of homemade soy milk with whisky, grapefruit bitters, wild honey and sesame sauce. For those who delight in mind-blowing weirdness, there’s the Asian Funky – a revelatory concoction of rum and Talisker Ten-Year-Old with lemon juice, Thai seaweed and an infusion of dried mushroom, kombu (kelp), tomato and jujube. Part of a new generation of Chinese bartenders, Hsu and Song are playful – in winter, a bowl of punch meant for four, titled Bath Punch, features a secret spice bag and the tag line “Shall we have a medicated bath? Why the hell not?” In a city where, until very recently, a G&T normally meant a watery blend of bootlegged booze with flat tonic, Infusion Room is a sensation.
There was a time not so long ago when organic was the norm. Like everything in China, the change happened in a blink of an eye.
Yet over the last decade, interest in clean, safe food has supported the growth and proliferation of Beijing’s small-scale, organic farms, and encouraged the success of a few weekly farmers markets. These sustainably oriented ventures offer a view into an unexpected variation of what ‘New China’ can be.
Inspired by community-supported agriculture popularised in the west, Shi Yan has been pioneering the CSA (community supported farm) movement in China for going on a decade, not only with her own farms, but also by establishing a nationwide network of CSAs – there are now more than 500 CSA farms across China. Shared Harvest, Shi’s second farm, which she started in 2012, has since expanded to two locations. Visit the smaller farm, set on the city’s northeastern fringes an hour and a half from the city centre, where tours are available for a small fee, and a bountiful buffet lunch shows off the farm’s fresh produce.