Perhaps because Beijing is home to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and other such landmarks that spring to mind when someone says “China,” travelers to China’s ancient, bustling capital may be surprised to discover that the local cuisine bears little in common with the take-out classics many of us know back home. Foreigners are by no means alone in their confusion; even many Chinese tourists and recent arrivals find themselves not entirely sure what to make of the city’s food.

It starts to make sense if you consider Beijing’s history and geography, and understand that the cuisine merely reflects the city’s position as a unique cultural crossroads. Simple cooking styles date back to the nomadic Manchus (who established China’s last imperial dynasty); Middle Eastern flavors are thanks to the Silk Road’s Muslim traders. And as a city with a historically sharp divide between the rulers and the ruled, commoners’ meals were often scraped together with whatever was cheap and available, which more often than not included the livers, lungs, and other offal still enjoyed there today.

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