One of the highlights of any journey abroad to teach is discovering new and interesting food; maybe even trying something you didn't realize could be food. Spending a year teaching in China provides an opportunity to really get to know local cuisine. You can find great Kung Pao Chicken in Beijing (宫保鸡丁, however, sounds more like Gong Bao Jiding). It will be deliciously spicier and more vinegary than the bastardization found in Chinese take out abroad. Food that is typical of Beijing bears little resemblance to what most of us know as Chinese food. Here are some well-known and readily available things to try as you begin your discovery of food in Beijing.
The Proverbial Peking Duck
While it may seem cliché, roast duck is indeed integral to the Beijing food scene, and boy are they masters of the art. The bronze duck has crispy skin and impossibly juicy flesh. Typically accompanied by a fermented bean sauce, ribbons of cucumber and scallion, and a thin crepe-like pancake to roll it all up in, it is a masterpiece. Knowing how to order the dish and how to dig in once it arrives can be a bit daunting at first. Some upscale places will actually help you out. Serious Eats also has a great article on how to tackle your platter of Peking Duck.
Translated as "Beijing Fried Sauce Noodles", Zhajiangmian is a dish of toothsome wheat noodles topped with pork and seasonal vegetables stir-fried with a fermented bean paste. While neither its translated name nor its coloration seems the least bit appetizing, the dish is addictively tasty and available all over Beijing - from street stalls to 5 star hotels. In summer it can be served as a cold noodle dish, and, unlike roast duck, this dish is offered in a vegetarian version in some establishments. Anyone who is very familiar with Korean food will recognize this as "jajangmyeon".
京酱肉丝 Jin Jiang Rou Si (shredded pork with sweet bean sauce)
You may notice a certain ubiquitousness to the presence of bean paste/sauce in dishes in Beijing, and Jin Jiang Rou Si is no exception. This Beijing-born dish consists of lean shredded pork cooked with a moderately sweet bean sauce. It is topped with thinly sliced scallion and served with thin crepe-like pancakes made from soy (as opposed to the wheat pancakes served with roast duck). It is a very simple dish, and this may account for its widespread popularity. This would be an easy one to try making at home as the only potentially hard to find ingredient is the sweet bean sauce.
Night Market Food Stalls
At night any number of night markets spring up containing rows and rows of cheap and exotic food stalls. Here you will find safer choices like skewered meats from the north of China and endless of varieties of dumplings (饺子, Jiaozu), what the Japanese would call "gyoza" and Koreans would call "mandu". But the night market offers opportunities to jump well outside your comfort zone. Innards of all types, things fermented to the point of decomposition, insects and other crawly things, and exotic fruits and vegetables are all on offer, often for an amazingly low price. It is said that fried scorpion is not unlike softshell crab.