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.

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