One of the best things about living in Beijing is the food. China’s capital has 30,000 restaurants ranging from one-dish noodle joints to flaunt-your-wealth private dining clubs.
It’s a city that never leaves you hungry.
But all that choice means selecting the best is a challenge. Controversial even, as the publishers of Beijing’s first Michelin Guide found out last week.
Local reaction to the guide was almost entirely negative with one leading chef – whose restaurants actually appear on the list – accusing it of “cultural superiority”.
“Foreigners don’t understand Chinese food” was a common refrain, reflecting a growing view among foodies that Michelin inspectors struggle to appreciate the diversified and sophisticated styles of Chinese cuisine (Michelin would not comment on the ethnicity of its reviewers).
It’s not the first time a Michelin guide has caused consternation in China. When the Shanghai list was published in 2016 locals were offended because the only restaurant to get three stars served Cantonese food. In 2018, Michelin annoyed the people of Guangzhou when none of the city’s restaurants scored above one star.
Many Chinese have preferred to rely on customer restaurant reviews on Dianping and its two curated lists: Dianping Must-Eat and the Black Pearl Restaurant Guide (see WiC397). Chinese users say they still trust Michelin for recommendations when travelling in Europe and other Western countries, however.
So why locals think Michelin got it so wrong in Beijing?
The first thing to know is that Michelin produced two lists: a traditional Michelin Guide to good restaurants (with 85 entries) and a second “Bib Gourmand” list of 15 “affordable” eateries.
The two drew criticism for different reasons. On the first list one establishment – Xinrongji – was awarded three stars. Two others – Kings Joy and Shanghai Cuisine – were awarded two stars. But part of the problem is that each of the top three awardees doesn’t serve traditional northern food. Xinrongji serves southeastern seafood, Kings Joy offers Chinese vegetarian fare, and Shanghai Cuisine serves exactly that.
Restaurants offering traditional Beijing food such as Peking duck were only awarded one star. And while spicy hotpot is a Sichuan dish, Beijingers eat so much of it they were disappointed not to see it included in the elite rankings too.
“This is a guide to expensive food, not good food,” remarked one.
The second list of affordable eateries also appeared to miss the mark by recommending too many places known for serving simple traditional dishes – some of which have now fallen out of favour.
One of the mentions was an outlet which only sells one dish – noodles in soybean paste. Another specialises in boiled lamb tripe. Another sells douzhi – pungent mung bean milk.
For many middle-class Beijingers this is the food they left behind as they became better-off.
Chef Dong Zhenxiang – who was awarded a single star for his popular Da Dong Roast Duck restaurants – penned a critical response to the Bib Gourmand selection, saying it was “discriminatory” and fraught with outdated “novelty seeking” stereotypes.
“Rancid food is a taste memory from the period of material deprivation. It should not be discriminated against, but for food advocates it should not be promoted either,” Dong observed. “This novelty-seeking attitude will make the international community think that Chinese cuisine is about boiled tripe and animal giblets. It does not reflect the elegance of mainstream Chinese food,” he further complained.
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