Beijing chow

Apparently a couple folks who’ve read my posts requested that I discuss the food we had in Beijing. Ironic, as thinking about food right now is not high on my list. First, it’s hot in fair Seattle (not as hot as Beijing, though) and no A/C in the house. Even more, I’m recovering from Travelers Trots, which I believe was due to bad airline food.
The question I’ve been asked by several people is whether the food in China is much better than the food served in Chinese restaurants in America. My answer to that is it depends, although the food was generally fresher, had little MSG or gooey sauces. It is common to find that vegetarian items usually have some meat in them. As meat was traditionally scarce, and thus valued, it is unthinkable to many Chinese to not have meat, especially when entertaining. Meat, fowl, and fish usually still have the bones in, sometimes the head too. Some of it was quite good, but nothing really knocked my socks off save for some street dumplings and Chinese mashed potatoes. Organic foods are relatively new here: produce is typically doused with pesticides, and meats are likewise treated with hormones/antibiotics. The water that is used to irrigate fields can contain toxins at levels that would make the EPA faint.
Food is a reflection of culture, geography, and of available resources/ingredients. This is no different in China. As China is family oriented and has a strong history of poverty amongst its masses, it should be no surprise that the food served in restaurants is meant to be shared. Chinese folks usually eat in groups, and order items that are shared with the group. Unless you are at McDonalds, a food court, or other establishment that caters to Westerners, expect to get some odd looks if you go solo or in a twosome.
For breakfast, I tried two types of congee (a rice porridge), one with dark glutinous rice (very bland) and another that tasted like a cross between porridge and grits. There was also some steamed baby bok choy, clay pot tofu with pork (pork too tough). The dumplings were average and somewhat greasy. I’ve had Chinese doughnuts before, and I highly recommend them, but be warned—they are salty, not sweet, fried dough pieces. I tried fruits whose names I didn’t know which caught my attention: a white fruit with black edible kiwi fruit-like seeds, and a pear shaped red fruit that tasted like a cross between an apple and a grape. Lychees were good, too. The hotel had a pastry shop, and sold chocolate croissants and other pastries for surprisingly reasonable prices (unlike the rest of their food), and the coffee wasn’t bad. We ate here for breakfast most days, although a couple of mornings we had Doritos and Pepsi (from a grocery store in the mall)!
I didn’t eat lunch a lot, because usually I was too hot and when I got hungry, didn’t want to ruin my appetite for dinner. Retrospectively, this was a mistake. As most of you know, Kelly is not adventurous in the food department. Moreover, at the end of the day, we were both tired, hot, and hungry, and not in the mood to schlep around looking for food that would please us both.
One day I ate at a Uighur (Muslims whose ancestors settled in NW China near the Silk Road routes) restaurant recommended in a guidebook, and enjoyed the yangrou chuan (grilled lamb skewers with cumin and chili powder). I’m not a lover of lamb, but most of it was tender and not fatty. The bread I ordered to accompany it (nan), however, was meant to sop up sauces, and was simply too dry to eat with the meat. The other diners enjoyed watching me negotiate the meat from the skewers, sometimes with bread, other times with chopsticks. For lunch another day, I managed to find a popular Tibetan restaurant near the Silk Market via the subway (don’t be afraid to try the subway, it’s easy to negotiate). The restaurant was beautifully decorated, and the servers are pleasant, but not warm and fuzzy. Tibetan food will not get any marks for haute cuisine, I’m afraid, but the yogurt was delicious, and I appreciated the opportunity to try tsampa (barley flour rolled with yak butter—it’s a great filler and high in calories, great for the cold), which was very bland. I would’ve tried the butter tea, but it was way too hot that day.
Japanese food seems to be popular in China, although the food we tried one day (in the lower level of the ATC building) tasted more like a cross between Japanese and Chinese food. It was still tasty. The Miso soup was authentic, though, and quite good.
We ate a few dinners at the hotel, whose food was way overpriced (avoid the fake Italian restaurant). The burgers and fries were very good, as was the claypot eggplant. Oxtail soup had a bland broth, but the meat was tender and tasty. One evening we went to a hotpot restaurant, very popular in Northern China and Mongolia, and definitely communal. Basically its Chinese fondue–you dunk veggies, noodles, beef, lamb, tofu, etc. in boiling broth. The staff was very nice in showing us what we were supposed to do. However, the experience was a disaster. Kelly did not like the dunking sauce and he didn’t eat more than a couple bites. I found the food OK, although the broth was not as flavorful as it should have been. Although I enjoy trying new foods (within reason), seeing my love looking bored and/or hungry takes most of the pleasure out of the experience. For that reason, I opted to eat one meal at an establishment I never thought I would set food into in a foreign country: McDonalds. And it tastes the same there, too.
We did, however, have the good fortune to be guests at a banquet that was hosted by Beijing’s Microsoftees. A plethora of dishes were served, including fish in sweet and spicy soup (one of the most popular dishes in China). Incidentally, the word for fish in Mandarin is yu (inflection up). Yu with a different inflection means abundance, so the presence of fish signifies bounty on the part of the host, and subsequently, prestige/face. Other dishes included orange beef, pork wrapped in lotus leaves (pork is the most popular meat in mainland China), cuttlefish (yummy), vegetarian rolls, smoked duck in a szechuan sauce (delicious), fried rice, and Chinese mashed potatoes (to die for!)
We went to the Donghua Market one evening, which is sometimes featured on the Travel/Discovery Channel and saw the “freak show food”. The Chinese claim that they will eat anything that “swims, runs, walks, or crawls with its back to the sun”. They’re not kidding. Many people have seen the episodes or pictures of fried scorpions, baby birds, etc. Didn’t see those specifically, but you could have skewers of dead pigeons/swallows, snakes, roasted silkworms, and all sorts of organs (testicles, bung, etc). You could either have your mice barbequed or fried, the latter with eyes still in (a colleague of mine asked if you would get a rat if you asked to “super size it”). Most of the food stalls, which are decked out in red and white, carried the same foods. There were some “normal” foods (veggies mostly). Lots of tourists, mainly from China, walking up and down, and the one place I observed public drunkenness. The place smelled like bad carnival food and I was not inspired to try any of the fare. I didn’t see anyone else buying it either. We asked our driver Michael if the Chinese “really ate that stuff”, and he assured me that they did.
Fruits are the main feature for dessert. The watermelon was succulent everyplace I tried it, possibly better than Dulcineas here in the States. Ice cream/gelato is also quite popular, the latter very good. Noted that DQ had a couple outlets in Oriental Plaza—avoid the “shakes”—in truth they are flavored cold, slightly thick, milk.
Although tea is clearly the predominant beverage, Starbucks has a few outlets in China—including the Forbidden City. Coffee is also gaining more ground in anticipation of the oft-cited “2008 Olympics”. A couple words about tea: There are several different theories about tea’s discovery, the most popular being attributed to the Chinese Emperor, Shin Nong in 3000 BC, when a leaf from the tea tree fell into the boiling water and he decided to try the resulting brew. The first valid references to it in China start from the fourth century AD. Anyway, the Chinese word for tea is “cha”. In many languages, the word is similar to this, but in others, it evolved into a variant of “tea”. The answer is that many western traders picked up tea for trade in the Fujian province, in which the character for tea is pronounced “deh”. In China, the written characters are the same throughout the country, but pronunciation is different.
My “final thought” on the matter of the food I had in Beijing: research findings suggest that there could be some awesome food out there, but the small sample size and outlier variables indicate more studies on the matter are needed.

wan li chang chung and more

Today we went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu–less crowded than the more popular (and closer) area at Badaling. The surrounding area was gorgeous–mountains, flowers, small villages. The wall itself was incredible. Stairs are alternatingly steep and then smaller and wider without any pattern. Perhaps it was due to building materials, but anyone running on the wall would be slowed by that. The wall was not built for the disabled or the out of shape. Would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t hotter than Hades, either. It must have been hell for the people who had to build it, esp in that weather. On the way down, we rode in a cable car that Clinton rode in when he visited Mutianyu in 1998!
Then we went to the Summer Palace, frequented especially by Empress Cixi, an enterprising concubine-turned ruler. It was beautiful, but the construction, the crush of people and the heat made it less enjoyable. We did have a 8 kuai (one $) boat ride, which was nice. Topped off the day by having a swim in the hotel’s gorgeous pool.
Yesterday went to Factory 798, a cluster of contemporary art galleries in factory buildings. Many galleries have closed, due to government’s desire to screw up the land essentially, but the art in the galleries (and outside) was awesome! Had dinner at a Chinese restaurant close to the Advanced technology Center, and tried multiple dishes–my favorites were the Chinese mashed potatoes and the Szechuan Duck.
Tomorrow we’re off to see a temple in a remote part of Beijing, and do some last minute shopping. Early Monday am it’s time to fly home. While it’s always nice to be home, I’ve really enjoyed this trip, and am grateful for the privilege of having come here.
BTW–the nursing home is actually more like a senior living complex. We were told there were no nursing homes in China like their American counterparts. In China, families are expected to take care of their parents. Even senior centers are not looked at too kindly, and we were told that people talked badly about those who did not take care of their parents. The one child policy adds to the burden, as care cannot be shared. The divorce rate in cities is about 30%, so that adds another wrinkle in obtaining housing for aging parents. In remarriages, some offspring refuse to “recognize” their parents’ spouse. Within the next several years, the elderly population is expected to rise to 14%. Another thing to watch unfold here in the years to come.
All for now–Aimee & Kelly

Beijing blather and assorted musings

As in everywhere else in Asia, you are expected to bargain for items, something I’m not adept at and don’t really like. Guess I’m typically American in that fashion–just tell me what you want for it and I’ll decide if it’s worth my while. I went to the Pearl Market (Hong Qiao) which had lots of stuff, most of it the ticky tacky variety. Got a few things, which I likely paid too much for. In contrast though, I found this low key market in an old temple that is primarily patronized by the locals–some fakes, but basically a smaller version of Panjiayuan (antiques and curios–way overpriced). No one hassled me and I was free to browse–my kind of place.
Of course, Mao items galore are found at these places, as he’s very popular with Chinese and foreign tourists alike. I’m conflicted about this–on one hand, this guy was responsible for millions of deaths and lives otherwise shattered during his Great Flop Backward and the Cultural Revolution (see what happens when teenagers run loose). Hardly things to celebrate. On the other hand, given his abhorrence of capitalism, perhaps it’s fitting that his Cult of Personality is reduced to having his mug plastered on cheap T-shirts, pins, plates, etc.
I’ve had the chance to wander through a few hutong, too (Chinese neighborhoods, a maze of alleyways, etc). As mentioned in my last post, many are being systematically destroyed for beautification–and for the fact that the land is valuable. Since municipal governments are short of funds, they get funds when the land is sold to developers. Now, homes in hutongs don’t typically have plumbing or heating/A/C, and many are dilapidated. But many residents have lived there for decades, and even generations. The NYT printed an article about this two days ago–highly recommended.
A few oddities I’ve noticed or learned of: Beijingers have to pay $800 a year for a dog license. And yet car licenses top out at 120 yuan (about $14) a year. Banks have been liberal with loans, which has also contributed to the ocean of cars on the road.
Many shops have bilingual signs and even sections, such as a bookstore I wandered into. And yet, none of the books were in English or with both languages.
Just as many Westerners mangle Putonghua, Mandarin speakers also mangle the English language in amusing ways. Some signs I saw during my stay here include Beijing Stomatotology (no mispelling), Cloake Shoes, and an add for a cellphone that reads, “I chocolate you”.
Tonight Kelly and I will join a few of the Microsoft employees for dinner on Houhai Lake, which should be fun. Kelly’s meetings have been “very productive” in his words, and this has been a successful week. A lot of accessibility testing is being done here–while he is very interested in this, he’s not interested in moving to China at this point.
All for now and take care–Aimee & Kelly

Starting In Beijing

Aimee tends to send out e-mail on our trips. Here’s her first update.
It’s true about what you hear regarding Beijing’s rapid changes. Traffic is unbelievable, cranes are everywhere, tearing down a lot of old buildings. Lots of bilingual signs, which is good since I don’t read characters (those kind, anyway). Sort of like someone who gets the face lift, boob job, nose job, lipo, etc in anticipation for a class reunion. The 2008 Olympics is on a lot of Beijinger’s minds, and the Chinese govt wants to put it’s best face forward (understandable).
My Putonghua sucks–part of this is my fault for not studying enough, some of this is that unique way of speaking Mandarin that Beijingren are known to do. If you know a couple words, you will be complemented on how well you speak. Just test that theory by saying something else and watch for the puzzled expression. The Chinese are too polite generally to say anything. And yet, I know enough that I’m “making my needs known”, and I’m reminded that the basics for communication require a smile, a sense of humor, & sign language. Knowing a few phrases and numbers help, though, since many do not speak English. And yet Beijing does not feel as foreign as Delhi to me.
Weather is hot and very humid. It’s rained here in the morning a few days–very considerate of Mother Nature to wash the air out, and the asthma has been doing well.
Kelly has, in his usual fashion, been working hard, and I can tell a lot of his colleagues in China are impressed with his knowledge and abilities. He gave a talk yesterday on Diversity that went well.
Sight-wise, the Forbidden City is 20 min away on foot from our hotel. Some of it is under construction/repair, which is likely necessary. It was crowded with Chinese on holiday and of course a few westerners. Tiananmen Square is huge–about the size of 90 football fields. There a mausoleum (mao-soleum?) that has the body–or waxen likeness–of Mao himself. Beijing has some beautiful temples and parks, hope to see a couple more before we return. Great Wall and Summer Palace is for Sunday. One interesting site: a large glass dome about a block west of Tiananmen. Our driver said it was going to be a nursing home! I’ll have to find out more.
Foodwise, have tried a few things, including the “point and shoot” option in a food court. Food court food here is better than its American counterpart. So far have had Beijing home cooking, Japanese food (big here), some delicious jiaozi (fired dumplings) from a street vendor (didn’t get sick so far and I’ve had my Hep A vaccination). Had some greens with small fried bugs in them yesterday–they tasted OK, but didn’t eat many. There’s so much to try and eat, see etc that you can’t do it all in one trip. But me thinks I will be back one day.
All for now–Zaidjan! A & K