Since I hardly wrote about my favorite places in Beijing while I was actually there, now’s as good a time as any…
My travel research always seems to focus on two things: (1) spaces for interesting exhibits and (2) food. By necessity—and only later, out of pleasure—I’ve slowly learned how to cook at home, and I wasn’t too worried about exploring the grocery options in Beijing. I was spoiled even, finding as I did an apartment only a stone’s throw away from the Central Business District and gigantic shopping centers and international schools. This meant fellow foreigners, which also meant grocery chains featuring common Western foodstuffs like ketchup, Nutella, and camembert (albeit at inflated prices).
I often braved the crowds at a Walmart-sized Carrefour, and get a bit embarrassed by not being able to reply to the aisle attendants extolling the virtues of X laundry detergent or Y instant coffee. I took free samples of candy when they had some and admired the vast produce and meat section that replicated the environment of the outdoor market. I followed suit and scooped a half-kilo worth of rice into a plastic bag, ordered fried dough balls, bought a pack of chrysanthemum tea. And I would lug my goods up across the pedestrian footbridge and back home, past the hawkers of sunglasses and fake leather wallets and plastic toys, pat myself on the back.
A princely sum by Chinese standards, the salary I received as an English teacher would’ve allowed me, if I’d wanted, to eat out everyday. Had I also further developed in my language skills and were generally less inhibited (about these skills, dining alone, etc.), I believe that I wouldn’t have frequented the grocery store as much.
Then again, I rather like the routine. Laugh all you want, but I liked passing as an adult, looking serious as I considered prices between similar items and passing over chocolate cookies, no matter how cute its packaging was. This implied that I had to be confident in my choices, as well as its consequences. As I’m not the best of chefs, I was glad to be living alone, without anyone else being subject to my sometimes suspect culinary efforts. I can more or less deal with them; I’m not so sure about others.
During the few occassions I received overseas visitors, I made sure that we mainly ate out. I wasn’t just ashamed of my own cooking; I also wanted to emphasize that they were guests. And with all guests, I wanted to show them a place that I could vouch for, because it doesn’t make much sense to do otherwise.
So we would go to Baihe Vegetarian, within the Second Ring Road.
Unless you live in the neighborhood or have a car, Baihe is a little bit of a pain to get to. It’s located in a small hutong (lane) in between the Dongzhimen and Beixinqiao subway stops, and then a 10-15 minute walk from either, then down a typically gray, industrial-looking side street.
But once you’re in, you’re in. If you haven’t arrived during the lunch rush, you will be politely led through the front library to available seating in the charmingly renovated siheyuan (courtyard).
As the menus have English translations and vivid images of Chinese-staples-turned-vegetarian, I’ve had no problem ordering merely by approximating phonemes as well as pointing.
There were many things I’d never eaten prior to moving to Beijing, bamboo shoots being one of them.
Baihe’s offerings are also suitable for vegans, with an expansive and imaginative selection of mock meats (including Peking duck). Although the peppercorn “chicken” basket looks nothing like chicken (I’m glad it doesn’t, actually), I highly recommend it, and apparently had enough room in my tummy to somehow always top it off with a side of mushroom jiaozi (dumplings). The former had just the right amount of zing—for this rather mild foreigner palate, that is—which was offset by the tenderness of the latter.
Perhaps you’re not a particular fan of mock meats and may be disappointed by Baihe’s emphasis on this. Commenting on the “pure” vegetable dishes on the menu, a fellow customer at an adjacent table said that he could “make this at home,” and I only half-doubted him. (At the very least, Baihe doesn’t use any MSG.) If the selection of actual vegetables is lacking according to non-vegetarian, health-conscious clientele, the service may at times also be hit-and-miss. The servers can be that discreet, to point of having to track them down to ask them for another tea. My own experiences, however, have been nothing but comfortable, though this may also be due to the fact that I’d go when it was slow.
It should be no surprise, then, that one of my last meals out in town was at this restaurant, with pretty much the same exact meal I’d ordered on previous occasions. Who knew that I would love what is essentially spicy breaded tofu so much, that I would make a day of it? Should you find yourself vege(tari)an(-curious) in Beijing, why not stop by Baihe?
Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant
23 Caoyuan Hutong, Dongcheng District
Mo-Su 12-15; 18-22