A beginner's guide to Beijing's Niujie area

Explore Beijing's Muslim quarter this Ramadan

Photos: Erik Eveland
Among the most important dates on the Muslim calendar is Ramadan – a month-long observance during which devout Muslims fast from morning till nightfall, a practice accompanied by increased prayer and charity. While it may sound like one of the world’s slightly more serious holidays, Ramadan’s daytime asceticism is balanced by feasting at night and increased fellowship throughout the month, culminating in Eid al-Fitr (Kaizhai Jie, 开斋节), a day-long blowout celebrating the end of the fast.

The best place in Beijing to take in Ramadan’s festive spirit is Niujie, or ‘Ox Street’, a neighbourhood southwest of Xuanwumen that has long been home to the city’s largest population of the Hui ethnic minority, who are traditionally Muslim.

With Ramadan kicking off on May 5, head down to the Muslim quarter to observe the bustle of worshippers and breaking of fast.

Eat halal hotpot

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Since opening in 1946, Jubaoyuan has had a strong reputation among hotpot lovers in Beijing, who flock here from all corners of the city to experience its heat. Famed for its halal produce and sizzling brass cauldrons, Jubaoyuan’s hotpot is literally spitting as it arrives at your table, ready for ‘lamb-swishing’ (shuan yangrou), as Beijing hotpot is sometimes called. Don’t be surprised if you end up wearing less than you came with, because, trust us, it’s about to get hot in here.

All the classics you would expect from traditional hotpot are on the menu (Chinese only), with a few twists and turns. To experience the real deal, go for one of the coal-heated cauldrons known as tan guo (炭锅) and order the hand-carved fresh lamb (shou qie yang rou; 手切羊肉), which is leaner than at most restaurants and offers a thicker bite than the usual machine-sliced meat. But the real treat for first-timers (and one reason why Beijingers are hopping-mad for Jubaoyuan) is the restaurant’s version of the old Beijing pastry, shaobing.

While it may look like all the other shaobing around town, one bite will change your perception. Inside, a savoury concoction of cumin and exotic spices layered deep inside the dough makes Jubaoyuan’s bing one of the most delectable snacks in town.

The restaurant always has a wait around meal times, so grab a ticket and take a stroll around the area to kill some time. Wander to the side of the same building on Niujiesitiao to see the big brass pots being fired up with coal.

Jubaoyuan Hotpot (聚宝源火锅城) 5-2 Niu Jie, Xicheng district (8354 5602). Open 11am-10pm Mon-Fri; 10.30am-10pm Sat-Sun.

Pay your respects at Niujie Mosque

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Niujie Mosque, the oldest and largest mosque in Beijing, was first constructed during the Liao dynasty (996AD) for the area’s growing Muslim community, of which a large proportion still resides locally. Featuring traditional Beijing-style architecture, the mosque is fully functional, and stands as a lonely reminder of the old hutongs that once filled the area, now replaced by monolithic apartment blocks.

The centrepiece of the mosque is its splendid Worship Hall, found at one end of the main courtyard, which is laid out in the traditional siheyuan style typical of temples. Notice the Islamic inscription and motifs on the double pavilion towers as well as the minaret, from which imams would traditionally call for prayer (today, the imam calls from in front of the hall).

In the corner of the courtyard sits a more-than 300-year-old black copper cauldron that was once used to cook congee for worshippers on the last day of Ramadan, but now serves mostly as a rain catcher.

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Photo: Ken Marshall/Flickr.com

While non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the grand prayer hall, visitors can still stick their heads in to marvel at its interior, which is covered with an impressive fusion of traditional Chinese and Islamic designs. Feast your eyes on the red columns, which are decorated ornately with gold Arabic inscriptions and motifs, and stretch to the far end of the hall. The main worship hall is restricted to men only, though women have a separate (albeit much smaller) prayer hall on the northeastern wing of the complex.

The mosque also doubles as a school of Islamic philosophy, scripture and language, as evidenced by the classroom featuring an old-school blackboard located in the west courtyard. On the way there, you’ll come across the imam’s tombs, where original tombstones for foreign religious leaders are displayed behind glass (in front of which are more modern versions).

For most of the day, the mosque offers a quiet sanctuary from the bustle of street life, but the place comes to life with worshippers at prayer times, particularly during the lunchtime call to prayer beginning at 1.30pm. During Ramadan, the mosque is packed out with worshippers who come to pray and break their fast with post-worship snacks. Come around 7pm during the festive month and you’ll witness religious orthodoxy collide with ravenous feasting. If you’re lucky, you might even be offered a treat by some friendly worshippers.

Niujie Mosque (牛街礼拜寺) 18 Niu Jie, Xicheng district (6353 2564). Open 8.30am-9pm daily; exhibitions close at 5pm. 5RMB for Chinese nationals; 10RMB for foreigners.

Go tea-total

tea

With almost 300 years of history under its belt, Zhengxingde Tea House is as famous for its heritage as its tea. The shop was originally opened in 1739 by a member of the Hui community who wanted to ensure the same quality assurance and halal standards for tea typically applied to food.

Today – like in all high-end teashops – you may find yourself out of your depth unless you know a thing or two about tea. Sourced from Fujian province, Zhengxingde’s tea is prepared on-site in a special environment that ensures purity and adherence to halal principles.

The prices can reach exorbitant heights (we saw one Westlake Longjing that was being sold for 3,800RMB per half-kilo), but there’s also tea that goes for as little as 30RMB for the same amount.

Zhengxingde Tea House (正兴德) 5-1 Niu Jie Shangye, Xicheng district (6355 8399). Open 8am-9pm daily.

Taste tradition

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Beijingers can get a bit fanatical about their snacks – nowhere more so than at Niujie, where the locals are positively mad for them. One good place to find some traditional Muslim bites is the snack vendors inside Niujie Supermarket, where, on the ground floor, you can follow the queues to vendors selling a variety of moreish treats.

Among the Muslim community’s best-known sweets is niangao, a kind of glutinous rice cake layered with red bean and lotus seed pastes. You can pick some up at Baiji Niangao (白记年糕) or Yibaoheye Zenggao (伊宝荷叶甑糕), both of which sell niangao by weight. Baiji also sells freshly made yuanxiao (glutinous rice balls) with a variety of fillings, including hawthorn berry (shanzha), scented osmanthus flower (shenjinguihua) and the classic black sesame seed (heizhima). But probably the most irresistible offering of all is Yibaoheye’s bean cakes, which you can buy individually or in a box, and are so good they positively melt in your mouth.

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Meanwhile, the supermarket sells an intriguing array of imports from Muslim regions: bountiful dried and preserved dates and fruits from Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as whole shelves dedicated to chocolate bars and biscuits from the Middle East.

Niujie Supermarket (牛街清真超市) 5 Niu Jie (next door to Jubaoyuan), Xicheng district (6355 6687). Open 8am-9pm daily.

Milk it

milk

Located in a side street west of the Niujie-Guanganmennei crossing (first left turn after Watsons) is Nailaowei, a legendary Beijing institution famed for its milk curd, the recipe of which was supposedly garnered from an imperial palace chef over 200 years ago.

The ‘new’ improved milk curd was called gongtingnailao, or Imperial Palace Milk Curd. After opening its first store on the famed Dashilan Commercial Street in 1888, Nailaowei soon became a favourite of literary giants like Luxun and Laoshe; it later expanded into a chain. A variety of flavoured curds are on offer, including ‘double-skinned milk’ (shuangpi nai), so called for the thick layer that forms as the milk cools.

Nailaowei (奶酪魏) Room 107, 202 Guan’anmennei Dajie, Xicheng district (6352 2402). Open 9am-9.30pm daily (spring, summer and autumn); 9am-8.30pm daily (winter).

Indulge in a crispy beef sandwich

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This dangerously good Xi’an-style street food is the perfect on-the-go snack. A snail of dough is coiled around ground beef, leeks, medicinal spices and Sichuan peppercorns, then shaped and cooked on a giant griddle press until it’s deep golden and crisp outside with chewy layers inside. At 5RMB, what could be bad about that?

Xi‘an Imperial Fragrant and Crisp Niuroubing (西安宫廷香酥牛肉饼) 14-16 Niu Jie, Xicheng district. Open 10am-10pm daily.

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