Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The People's Republic of Food

Beijing is an assault on the senses, a culture shock in the truest sense of the word. Arriving by train into the centre of the city brings this swiftly home. People are just everywhere, throngs of people pushing, shoving, laughing, spitting, picking their noses; everywhere you go in the city you are accompanied by a seething mass of humanity. Perhaps related to this, everything feels big and sprawling. The roads are all at least six lanes wide, the train stations are as vast as airports, and boy do they love a big square in which people can gather and gawp in awe at the majestic greatness of the Republic. The cities feel spacious and generally more low rise, growing outwards rather than upwards as in Europe and America. Our time on trains and buses outside of the city indicates that this outward development is showing no signs of stopping either. Subtlety is not a Chinese trait; neon signs, strings of bright red lanterns, honking horns, blaring music and all this in a language that is as alien to Chris and I as can be. Luckily the Chinese are extremely friendly in the majority and a smile and a few gestures always seemed to do the trick even if they did roll their eyes and sigh at us and our painful attempts at Mandarin pronunciation.

Chris and I are not ones for seeing sights for sight's sake. Don't get me wrong, the Forbidden Palace is stunning, the Great Wall really is 'great' (in the words of Mary Hurd) and Tiananmen Square, well, please see above about epic squares. However, for me, experiencing cities is much more about wandering through the streets, sitting in the cafes, bars, restaurants, meeting the people, popping into the local random shops (kitsch rubbish galore) and, well, 'living'. Actually, on this visit in particular, all that really meant eating and given that we had much time to kill whilst planning our escape from the madness of the impending week long national holiday we did plenty of it.

Having spent my early childhood in Hong Kong I thought I knew what to expect from Chinese food. My childhood recollections of special fried rice, clams fresh from the sea, and delicate Cantonese dim sum, were, however, an entirely incorrect and simplified expectation of Beijing cuisine and Chinese food in general. Chinese is as varied a cuisine as they come. After all, with a population of 1.3 billion people and a country that is almost as big as the whole of Europe, you could hardly expect them to all eat the same thing and the Beijingers have their own way of doing things.

Peking duck is probably the most famous dish to come out of Beijing. In the UK we all know this as the shredded duck pancakes, with hoisin sauce, cucumber and onion - delicious. Chris and I starved ourselves for the day and pottered along to Da Dong restaurant, reportedly one of the best places to eat the famed duck dish in the capital. We waited patiently for a table, watching the cooks work their magic through the glass fronted kitchen and then ordered a whopping half a duck to appease our grumbling tummies. It turns out that Peking duck in Peking is a much more delicate affair than in London. We should have known. The fat glistening half bird was presented to us in a lavish ceremonial display and we watched as a personal carver sliced delicate pieces of duck breast off the carcass. What we were left with when this was over was a tiny plate of paper thin slices of duck, barely enough for one. What a disappointment for our hungry tummies! Still, it was delicious, with subtle flavours of the rose wood that they use for roasting it in giant brick ovens. We also tried a new, local way of eating it, in sesame seed buns accompanied with pureed garlic - very yummy.

Next on the list - dumplings. Chris and I are both huge fans of these delicate dim sum parcels of gorgeousness and were excited at the opportunity to eat dumplings for 3 meals a day if we so wished. The Chinese traditionally eat dim sum for breakfast so our first foray into the dumpling world was a weekend brunch. We found a little local restaurant that had been recommended in time out - it was full of Chinese (always a good sign) and the odd westerner, and only had a few translations into English on the menu. We gambled, pointed at a few things and hoped for the best. What we got was an embarrassingly large feast of about 50 dumplings - a mixture of pork and cabbage, mixed veg, seafood, pork and shrimp etc.. Had these been the delicate things we were expecting we might just about have managed to devour the lot. Instead though, Beijing dumplings are pretty heavy on the pastry, more like momos (for those of you who have been to Tibet or Nepal) and 50 was far far far too many. They were delicious but not quite what we were hoping for. Still, it remains that one of the highlights of the our Beijing visit was the dumpling making evening at our hostel. It turns out Chris can craft a mean dumpling parcel when he puts his mind to it!

By far our most authentic and pleasant chinese eating experience had to be our visit to 'Ghost street'. A road literally heaving with restaurants and filled with locals, this was where we had our most memorable meals. I have to admit that Chris and I were rather tame and stuck to vaguely recognisable items on the menu such as 'beef' or 'chicken' and lots of veg but we enjoyed the experience of being surrounded by countless chinese tucking into bullfrog stew and intestine stir fry. Everything was piping hot, delicious and authentic, unlike the various animals on sticks that you could purchase down in the market, that we suspected were there more for the tourists rather than anything else. We saw plenty of Aussies, Brits and Kiwis chowing down on deepfried scorpion but im not sure i saw any chinese eating them.

Whilst we ate a lot of Chinese food in Beijing it was, surprisingly, our forays into the neighbouring Asian cuisines that really stood out as the gastronomic highlights. Equally surprisingly perhaps, it was our acquaintances and contacts in the city who took us to these restaurants - How glad we were that they did. Our sushi experience was at a restaurant called Haiku by Hatsune. As you've probably gathered by now, I have a bit of an obsession with sushi and this was one of the best restaurants that I have ever eaten in. Their speciality is sushi rolls. They literally have hundreds to choose from, all with inventive names and fillings, such as the popular and delicious Moto-roll-ah! We tried several of these, including one with foie gras which was sublime. The sashimi platter was literally beautiful, with generous cuts of fresh mackerel, tuna, salmon and sea bass attractively presented on a bed of ice. If you are ever in Beijing (or Shanghai where they have another branch) I cannot recommend it highly enough. I actually made Chris go there twice it was so good, which rather hurt our budget (it's about 40 pounds for a feast for two with drinks).

Our final meal of note was Vietnamese. Natalie, an old finance colleague of Chris', very kindly invited us for dinner with some friends of hers at a beautiful new Vietnamese restaurant, Susu. Set in a characterful hutong courtyard that has been elegantly renovated with lots of glass and traditional features, it was one of those places that you would simply never ever find as a visitor to the city. You have to be in the know. It was warm enough to sit in the lovely lantern lit courtyard and as we sat there sipping 'Saigon fizz' cocktails we got a glimpse of what it is like to live the expat life. We feasted on crunchy, fresh spring rolls and bright, tropical salads, followed by a beautifully fragrant 'la vong' fish dish that you mix together in a bowl with vermicelli, fennel, fresh herbs, crushed peanuts, rice crackers, and a lovely shrimp gravy that brings the whole thing together - simply delicious.

So, ten pounds heavier, and several hundred pounds lighter in pocket, Chris and I finally waddled out of Beijing to board the elusive train to Tibet, feeling as though we didn't really feel qualified to comment much on China but that we had certainly sampled some good food.

1 comment:

  1. What a foodie's delight - will just have to hotfoot it off to Bordeaux for some Thai noodles ( nearest place you can get decent Asian food) to fill that spice gap.
    Keep it coming Ems, great stuff
    Love from us xxxx