15 January 2009
eating in beijing
There's something you should know about China.
It's probably going to sound obvious but I consider the following piece of information to be incredibly important.
Chinese food is better in China.
When I say Chinese food is better in China, I don't mean it in that way that Thai food is better in Thailand. Of course Thai food is better in Thailand, but I've also had some respectable Thai food from a storefront restaurant in my old Chicago neighborhod.
But the food we feasted on in Beijing? Not a single meal failed to surprise us in the best ways. We had plates that were light and fresh. Nuanced and complex. Most were steaming, all were delicately seasoned, and none left us starving an hour later. I've never tasted anything like it from a white take-out container.
Our Thanksgiving meal consisted of Peking duck with its luxurious crisped skin, savory sauces, thinly sliced vegetables, coarse sugar that we'd all assumed was salt, and thin pancakes to hold it all gently together. I assure you that no one missed the turkey.
Each morning we would walk around the corner from our hotel and visit a small restaurant run by two young sisters. Each time we came in, the sister with the crimped hair would be snoozing at one of the tables, her head cradled in the crook of her own arm. The other sister would be standing directly under the TV that hung in the corner, staring at whatever drama was playing that morning.
The food that the two sisters would alternately bring to our table was homey and filling. The dumplings were made in a small nook of space near the cashier which was closed in by a wall and the windows, and when the chef finished crafting his savory and wonderful packages of vegetables, or fish, or pork... he would have to leave that space and then leave the restaurant.
He would step out of the front door, turn left, and then walk down the sidewalk past the restaurant's windows. Presumably he would enter a separate door that led to the kitchen. Luckily he could use a small sliding window joining the kitchen and the restaurant to deliver any soup we had ordered. He would pass the bowl through to one of the sisters, its steam leaving a trail.
One afternoon we shared a never-ending lunch best compared to watching a clown car unload. The energetic game of charades we'd played with the waitress to place our order had gone well enough and soon after she left, food started to appear.
And then more food showed up. And then a little more. No one in our party was sure it would ever stop and on several occasions when we thought that it had stopped, we were corrected by the appearance of yet another delicious entrée landing on our table.
We had no real complaints because the food was varied, delicious and dirt cheap. Vegetables were combined with complex sauces but remained light and fresh. Other dishes had a caramelized richness that added flavor but managed not to weigh down the ingredients. There were fish dumplings with coriander, and other dumplings fluffy with the combination of egg and tomato.
We also wandered down a hutong for our second taste of peking duck. The duck was not as delicate as it had been in our first meal but the surroundings were as if we'd plunked ourselves down in someone's back room. The tables were mismatched, the ducks were hanging next to my Mom, and the owner was swatting flies throughout the meal.
Lively surroundings are the accompaniments that make good meals great and China is all about the surroundings. There are people yelling, chomping, and chop-sticking. There are teapots, bicycles, and small pitchers filled with vinegar. You sit on different chairs, you eat from different plates, and the food is - no doubt - better for it.
I don't know what I expected from the food in China, but I know what I'll expect from now on.