China can seem as impenetrable as it is imposing. Consider the numbers: it’s the world’s most populous nation (1.3 billion), where more than 100 cities have populations over a million. Fifty-six ethnic groups are spread across 22 wildly distinct provinces and five autonomous regions, in a landmass slightly larger than the U.S. Its history seems limitless and its traditions just as deep. But here and now, change is the only real constant—and it is accelerating at a dizzying pace. (One thousand new cars hit the streets of Beijing every day.)
How do you begin to fathom a country of such extremes? The futuristic cities glittering above timeworn villages; the great rivers and vast empty deserts; the radical new architecture juxtaposed with millennia-old monuments; the ceaseless push-and-pull between Confucianism, Communism, and commerce. Where do you even begin? Have no fear. Start here.
Made in China; meal for two $60.
Chefs sweat over apricot wood-fired ovens in this open kitchen setting to produce ducks with crisp skin and subtle fattiness, served with tissue-thin pancakes, sweet plum sauce, and garlic and sugar for dipping.
Shanghai Soup Dumplings
Jia Jia Tang Bao; meal for two $5.
Firmly off the tourist map is this local favorite, where the succulent dumplings come with a seasonal addition of crab roe in the fall.
Spicy Hot Pot
Huang Cheng Laoma; meal for two $30.
Decorated like a museum with relics and paintings, this cavernous restaurant serves tear-jerkingly spicy hot pot. Ingredients are served by conveyor belt (rotary sushi-style) on one side of the restaurant, while traditional table service is also offered.
Noodle Loft; meal for two $20.
Noodle artists shave knife-grated noodles in the foyer of this hip restaurant, decorated with contemporary Chinese art.
Qin Tang Fu; meal for two $10.
Wheat buns toasted on a griddle and filled with braised pork are served from a take-out window at this popular restaurant. The restaurant is decorated with colorful toys and short-legged tables, making it a good option for families.
Yisilan Fanzhuang; meal for two $15.
Central Asians and Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of northwest China, convene here for large helpings of this stewed dish.
Jen Lin-Liu is the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.