Beijing's best cold dishes

The ultimate guide to China's tastiest cold dishes and where to find them

Summer is definitely here, but you don't need to wait for your face to melt off to get stuck into cold food. Every regional Chinese cuisine has its own versions of cold side dishes and raw salads, simply referred to as liangcai (凉菜). The simplicity of liangcai makes them a great complement to the more complex flavours and textures of other dishes in a meal. Their adaptability and ubiquity also make ordering liangcai blissfully easy, no matter what your price range.

Many of these dishes are so common they go by a few different nicknames. We have used the most rudimentary iteration, so you can use these names and everyone will know what you’re looking for, even if they call it something else. 

Luobopi (萝卜皮)

Luobopi (萝卜皮)

Radish skin salad

The most common variation of this radish dish, literally ‘radish skin’, utilises fat chips of Beijing watermelon radish, aged vinegar, sesame oil and dried chillies. The radish chunks are not fully pickled or fermented so they retain all of their earthy bitterness, not to mention vitamins. A light, cheap and healthy supplement to any meal.

Where to try? For a salty-sweet take, head to Baoyuan Jiaoziwu; fans of intense spicewill appreciate the luobopi at Zhangmama.

Mala koushuiji (麻辣口水鸡)

Mala koushuiji (麻辣口水鸡)

Cold poached chicken in chilli and Sichuan pepper oil

A popular dish that has been seriously dressed up in some of Beijing's swankiest joints, the most basic form of this cold dish combines a sliced breast of poached chicken, submerged in chilli oil with tingly Sichuan peppercorns and roasted peanuts scattered throughout. Fatty, rich and with a lip-smacking, well-rounded heat, the combo of cool tender flesh and warming spice is hard to match.

Where to try? Head to high-end Sichuanese spot Transit for what is simply the best version in town. For a more casual encounter, your local Sichuan restaurant (chuancai, 川菜) is sure to serve up this favourite.

Souyi huanggua (蓑衣黄瓜)

Souyi huanggua (蓑衣黄瓜)

Woven cucumber

You won't find many street stalls hawking souyi huanggua, mainly due to its time-consuming preparation. A cucumber is finely sliced so that it fans out into a delicate spiral. Topped with a warm sauce of garlic,vinegar, sugar, dried chillies and peanuts (the picture version has a less common tomato base), the narrow folds quickly soak up flavour and make for a fresh, crunchy surprise.

Where to try? A more common version of this cucumber dish – the home-style paihuanggua (拍黄瓜), smashed cucumber with vinegar – is available at most Beijing home-style (jiachangcai, 家常菜) joints. We found this saucy number at Mama de Weidao.

Liangban bocai (凉拌菠菜)

Liangban bocai (凉拌菠菜)

Cold spinach salad

Perhaps the most common cold dish in the capital – second only to fresh peanuts on a plate – wilted spinach comes in myriad forms and with many different accents. Universally dressed with aged vinegar, sesame oil and a dash of seasoned soy sauce, some trumped-up versions are stocked with peanuts, boiled walnuts, dried chillies, and even crumbled tofu. Some known aliases: spinach with nuts (guoren bocai, 果仁菠菜); spinach with peanuts (huasheng bocai, 花生菠菜).

Where to try? No Beijing home-style restaurant is without its own recipe for cold spinach salad; our favourite can be found at Rosewood Hotel's Country Kitchen.

Pidan (皮蛋)

Pidan (皮蛋)

Century egg with vinegar

The hardest part about getting people to love century egg is the first bite, thanks to its creamy green yolk and blackish-brown translucent white. Aged vinegar and sweetened soy sauce give the smooth slices of egg a tangy finish. You'll find pidan crushed with chillies or tofu atop, but we recommend the cold plate of wedges to really appreciate the unique flavour and texture.

Where to try? You'll find pidan making its way into all sorts of dishes around town; we found this gorgeous rendition at Transit. For a fiery smashed version check out The Southern Fish.

Liangpi (凉皮)

Liangpi (凉皮)

Cold starch noodles

Liangpi noodles are more similar to gelatin than conventional noodles. The product of dissolved-then-evaporated wheat or rice starch, the soft, chewy texture soaks up chilli oil, vinegar, and soy sauce. Look for street carts sporting trays piled high with milky white 'noodles.' Beijingers like liangpi mild, with cucumber and salty sesame paste, though Sichuan pepper oil and chilli pastes also match well.

Where to try? Head to your local Shaanxi noodle (陕西面) shop for a slurp of these deliciously chewy noodles. If they are serving roujiamo (肉夹馍), odds are they have liangpi as well.

Bocai liangmian (菠菜凉面)

Bocai liangmian (菠菜凉面)

Cold spinach noodles 

Similar to the liangpi, these spinach-flavoured wheat noodles are common street fare as they’re served cold and make it to the cart pre-cooked. Spinach may give the noodles a fun green hue, but the real flavour comes from the chilli oil, vinegar and cucumber that hide in the bottom of the bowl or rest atop the mound of green. Like any layered noodle dish, be sure to mix these guys well to guarantee an even coating of the bright red dressing.

Where to try? Another popular noodle from Shaanxi province. Look for signs sayingShaanxi mian (陕西面) or carts peddling cold noodles (liang mian, 凉面).

Liangban chuanxinlian (凉拌穿心莲)

Liangban chuanxinlian (凉拌穿心莲)

King bitter salad 

Ignore the English name, this salad of succulent leafy greens is far from being even the prince of bitter. The blanched leaves are tossed in a neutral oil, often sunflower but occasionally corn or soya, then dressed with light vinegar, salt and chopped dried chillies. The sprouts have a pleasing crunch and grassy flavour that is both invigorating and palate-cleansing, rich in vitamins and natural fibre. The dried form of this herb is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s hard to believe we are actually recommending something so healthy.

Where to try? You can find it at In and Out Yunnan or My Humble House – which serves up one of the freshestversions we've had.

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