China, Part 1: Beijing
Ni hao, friends! As usual, here we are back from a little hiatus. Guess what food adventures Veritasty has been on this time? We've been eating our way through China! Here's the first in a series of blog posts about our half month trip from Beijing to Guangzhou to Jiangmen to Hong Kong and back.
First, some background. I am an ABC: American born Chinese. I visited China when I was two and four, so for all intents and purposes, this trip was my "first time" (I certainly don't remember anything from the other two times). This was Alex's first trip to Asia entirely, so it was a nice major cultural journey for him. We went with my mom, dad, and sister, which was a great bonding experience before my sister heads off to law school next month. Our first leg was part of a tour group, and the rest of the time we were visiting my family, with a little side trip to Hong Kong. We had a wonderful time, and when people ask what my favorite part was, my answer is inevitably: the food. So dear reader, here is our ode to China and Veritasty Chinese food, starting with Beijing.
I'd never been to Beijing and my parents had rarely been either, so we decided on an organized 5 day tour to minimize the planning. The tour was touted as a $100 package deal for hotel, meals, transportation, and entry to sites. The only thing we had to pay for was airfare and gratuity. What a deal, right?
Turns out there are major caveats. First, the reason these tours are so cheap is that the government subsidizes the cost to hotels and restaurants and such. In return, there is an expectation that tourists will spend the equivalent amount back. To ensure this, the tour guide will literally take you to stores (disguised as museums and places of learning about culture) and the bus won't leave until the group had spent the quota for that store. Ugh. Blessedly it wasn't as terrible as I expected, but we ended up wasting a lot of time standing idly in jade, tea, silk, and medicine shops, talking amongst ourselves and trying to ignore the pestering shopkeepers who were trying to guilt us or make us feel awkward enough to give in. Luckily for us (Alex, my sister, and me) we barely understand Mandarin so playing dumb and mute was not a stretch.
The other downfall of these tours was the meals. For lunch and dinner, they brought us to simple restaurants that served basically: rice, some stir fry, plain soup, and other nondescript dishes. I'm sure these restaurants are there mostly for tour groups, and the tourists are powerless to complain about the greasy stir fry or the bland soup. Most of the time I wasn't sure what we were eating. I don't really fault the tour guide or the chefs for this; it's a deeper problem that this developed as an expectation now. Why not up the price of the tour by like $50 a person and bring us to actual authentic better-than-mediocre restaurants?!
There was one glimmer of fun food in Beijing. On the second night, my parents talked the tour guide into letting us slip away from the group to see an old classmate. Let's call him Mr. C. Mr. C is a Mandarin speaking businessman from Guangzhou who was in town for a conference. He was staying at another friend's house in a hutong very close to the center of Beijing. Hutongs look like entire blocks of run down sheds: when we drove by, I was actually feeling pity for the folks who lived there amongst the narrow dusty alleyways and lived in huts with corrugated metal for roofs. A lot of hutongs were razed to build the Olympic stadium and village. It's quite jarring seeing the juxtaposition of shiny new buildings next to these stone walled villages. Well, I stand corrected. This hutong may have been an outlier but the owner certainly had a bajillion RMB and renovated the home into a mansion. You still have to walk through a narrow alleyway to get to this home, but once you walk through the grand wood gate, you're in a majestic courtyard surrounded by red lacquered columns and varnished wood. Underfoot is a koi pond. The rooms are laid out at the four sides of the square courtyard: sitting room (full bar included) on one side, office and bedroom on the other, where The Help live on the next side, and so on. Two alleys snake off the main courtyard: one that lead to an elevator (hello!?) and the other that lead to the most incredible dining room I've ever been in. The elevator went to the second floor, the "real" modern living quarters. Probably the bedroom downstairs was an antique model of a dynastic Chinese bedroom, because the upstairs was decked out to the nines. Marble bathroom, bidet, central air, keurig coffee maker, remote controlled window shades....
Now that we were sufficiently drooling over the house, we were informed that Mr. C had hired a chef to cook for us at home. Here we were thinking we'd go to some tourist trap restaurant! (We didn't catch most of the conversation in Mandarin, and parents were too busy to translate)
So we sat down at this enormous wood slab of a table. Everyone admired the thickness and solidness of the piece of wood. Mom estimated it cost about $150,000. There was a lazy Susan in the middle of the table, decorated with a bright pink pile of orchids. The dining room was lit with warm light from a cloud-shaped chandelier above and red lanterns along the walls. This place was sick. I mean, they decanted wine into a real decanter. We weren't drinking wine straight from the bottle like regular shmucks!
It's hard to remember exactly what we are that night, since we were either super jet lagged (some of us even literally falling asleep at the table) or wasted (my mom's friends thought it would be super funny to keep refilling Alex's wine glass and toasting him and making him drink more and more). I do remember a delicious Peking duck, served in very thin pancakes almost like crepes. Nothing like the fluffy white baos that sandwich duck meat here. I enjoyed taking salty roasted duck meat, hoisin sauce, and green onion and making little duck wraps. Another speciality dish of Beijing is, apparently, cabbage. We'd had a limp oily imposter at one of the restaurants on the tour, but this cabbage was delicious. It was still pretty greasy (is that common of Beijing food?) but richly flavored and the cabbage still had a crunch to it instead of being limp and soggy. We had innumerable entrees one after another and everything now feels like a haze. Perhaps not only did my sister fall asleep at the table (ha!) but I did too? All I know is the meal was hugely welcome after the unmemorable ones we'd had on the tour so far, and one we'd always fondly think of during lame meals after.
Another issue I have, with all of China and not just Beijing, is the water/bathroom conundrum. I drink a lot of water and I feel almost naked without a water bottle close by. I've filled up a Nalgene bottle upwards of three times during a work day. I'm China, the water is not marketed as being potable, so we had to buy bottles of water everywhere we went. The hotels provided a tiny one each day, but it was almost painful to have to ration water supply. Now I truly understand how hard it is to survive in a drought. We are so lucky in New York City to open a tap and have safe clean drinking water. It was especially bad on days when we hiked the Great Wall or did lots of walking. The flip side of my constant thirst is the bathroom situation: enter the squatty potty. Hole in the ground, sometimes no toilet paper, sometimes not even a discernible flush (don't ask). Do I forgo water or do I buy dozens of water bottles and drink water to stay hydrated, wasting money and creating a huge pile of plastic garbage, and risk having to pee in a hole? It was a weird and uncomfortable and cognitively dissonant couple of weeks.
Key takeaways from Beijing food? Not so impressed. Sure, most of our meals were at these bad formulaic menus, but a few common threads emerged that I even gathered from that lavish dinner in the hutong. Ok, so Peking duck is pretty bomb no matter how you slice it. Peking certainly knows Peking duck. A lot of meals are what I'd classify as stir fry, but...how do I describe it...in a way that doesn't balance flavor a and textures very well. Maybe I'm used to the sweeter Cantonese cooking but I found Beijing food to be predominantly salty, spicy, and sour. This sounds harsh and maybe unfair of me to say, having only had a short time and perhaps wildly inauthentic meals there, but there was not much joy in eating food in Beijing.
Luckily for us, and unluckily for our waistlines, this changed immediately when we headed south...