Fire in the Belly

Beijing's grill restaurants are home to China's greatest unsung cuisine

SAV0713_GRILLINGTodd Coleman

When I moved to Beijing four years ago and started to eat my way through the city, I was struck by the absence of grilled foods among the canon of classic dishes. It seemed that food cooked on an open flame was considered barbaric—too crude for the emperor. Even so, grills do burn in China, most often in street stalls and spare dives in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods. Though grilling isn't a part of haute cuisine in China, it is a tried and true technique of regional cooking, existing in as many colorful guises as there are provincial accents. It turns out that Beijing is home to a vibrant grilling culture, if you just know where to look.

My first lesson in finding it was to seek out the glowing red character 串 that illuminates some of the city's narrow, dark alleys. It's the symbol for chuan, a pictorial translation for threaded things, and a sure sign for the presence of smoky skewers. Beijingers go gaga for chuan, and many of the best chuan dian, or grilled food restaurants, are manned by Uighurs, a Muslim minority group from Xinjiang province in western China with a fondness for lamb. At these establishments, you're apt to find blue-eyed Caucasian Chinese aiming hair dryers at the coals inside a long, rectangular blackened grill to amplify their heat, while nimble fingers turn a line of yangrou chuan, skewered bits of lamb, like a game of fiery foosball. Served hot, these tender morsels require little more than a light dusting of cumin, chile, and salt. Chuan dian offer grilled vegetables, too, often flavored to the hilt. Garlic chives, scallions, or green beans on ladder-like double skewers are basted with peppery soy-vinegar sauce and sprinkled with sugar, salt, and sometimes even powdered chicken bouillon cubes for oomph.

Among the city's chuan dian, there are places that specialize in grilled wings, which come seasoned in all the flavors of China and beyond: mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, sweet black pepper and honey, Korean chile paste, garlic, even wasabi. My favorite chicken wing joint, Kuan Dian, is set atop a shack in Xicheng district, near central Beijing. Here, a grill in a makeshift kitchen overlooks a maze of hutongs, the traditional alleyway dwellings unique to Beijing, and rowdy students clamor over chicken wings that have been smoldering over charcoal embers until the blistered skin resembles a crisp veil the color of mahogany. Tubs of hot chile flakes separate the meek from the brash. Each wing is dusted to order, ranging from a timid sprinkle to what some menus call "perverted"—a double dip that coats the meat in vermillion heat.

Compared to the refined dishes of China's imperial cuisines, the method is heavy-handed and the seasonings are over-the-top, but I love this food: Eaten with bare hands, elbow-to-elbow with Beijingers from every walk of life, it's down and dirty and deeply comforting. Every time I go back for more tear-jerkingly hot wings, Beijing feels a little more like home.

Lillian Chou_ is a Beijing-based writer._