Recently I had the opportunity to visit China over the spring break, and so today I thought I’d take a little break from our regularly scheduled program so that we can re-visit my culinary adventures in the country. This was my first time in China, as well as my siblings’ and parents’. This was also the first time Mr O had ever traveled for any period of time with my family, so that in itself was an adventure. But in this article we will be discussing the food I ate and not the drama that is my family.
First off, a little bit of history so that we can all be on the same page… If you’ve ever had Chinese food in the province of BC, there is an extremely good chance that it was served in the Cantonese style. This probably stemmed from the influx of citizens from Taishan that immigrated over in the late 1800s, which is a city found in the province of Guangdong (Canton). So that being said, since my Momma grew up in Hong Kong, which is practically in Guangdong, I was raised knowing only about Cantonese food. In other words, I was not quite prepared for some of the stuff that came to find its way across my plate as I was about to eat my way through parts of the Northeast coast of the country.
My first impression of Northern style Chinese food is how much greasier and saltier they prepare their food. One tour guide joked that you can always tell how well the economy of China is doing by how much oil and salt they can spare… judging by these words I’d say China is quite the prosperous place right now!
We had touched soil in Beijing finally after 12 hours of being cramped inside the cattle class section of the plane. Although my internal clock was telling me it’s about 2am, I had to accept that it was now really 5pm the next evening. Dinner time! We were left to our own devices for dinner, as our guided tour had not yet officially begun, and we thought to play it safe by eating at the restaurant inside the hotel. Once we were seated, we realised how unprepared we were for Chinese food in China… no one spoke a word of English, nor could anyone understand Cantonese, which is the only dialect my family knows. The wait staff stared helplessly at each other as us foreigners started to pull our hairs out in frustration… and all we wanted was an extra menu to look through!
Names of dishes did not seem to ever truly convey what they were made of… Heavenly Gates of Broken Dreams could mean meatballs for all we knew. But alas, after a series of charades, and with the aide of Momma’s terribly broken Mandarin, we managed to order 5 different dishes to try. We thought we had a rough understanding of what we were getting and ended up having dishes like fried chicken knuckles delivered to our table. Oh well, what can you do but shrug and eat it? Besides, it ended up being quite a tasty meal, even if we don’t know to this day what we ate.
Beijing (formerly known as Peking), the country’s capital city, is famous for the invention of Peking duck. It is duck that is prepared in a way that makes the skin really crisp, and it is served in 2 or 3 stages. The chef prepared the duck tableside to us, and we watched as he skilfully handled a large cleaver around the bird’s carcass. The meat and skin was sliced thin, which you wrap up in a very thin pancake, accompanied by slivers of scallions, cucumber and a sweet-bean sauce. Then they cart the bones away, and later on during the meal a soup that is made from these bones is served.
There was a definite difference in how they prepared it a la Beijing style, versus the variations you’ll find in Vancouver. I’m used to a crispier skin than what we had in China, as well in Vancouver the skin and meat is served separately, with thicker pancakes and fresh iceberg lettuce to use as wraps. Despite these slight deviations, and my own slow acceptance of differences, it was still delicious.
The next meal was a Mongolian style feast that was served inside of a yurt… this restaurant is literally a few acres of land with a small community of yurts! Each yurt, a traditional Mongolian tent, was filled with several huge tables. It was akin to having dinner in a medieval themed setting, but with the obvious Mongolian details instead. At a time during the Ming dynasty Beijing was often at war with Mongolia, and so you can find lots of foods which are heavily influenced by the Mongolian culture. Our meal included goat… and lots of it! In one dish, it was cut up into bite-sized cubes and braised with tomatoes. Another was a hot goat’s milk soup, which was served with bits of crouton-type bread pieces right in the liquid. And the pièce de résistance were the roasted goat legs. At first, I was a bit wary about eating so much goat, because I’m usually not a fan of animals that will eat anything, though I do love pigs hmmmm?… I don’t even care for lamb all that much to be honest. But I have to say I am now a convert. It was absolutely the tenderest and most flavourful meat I’ve ever had! I’d eat it again in an instant. Um… the goat milk soup can stay right where it is though, it literally tasted like hot milk with soggy bread… no thanks.
The next day we found ourselves at the Golden Hans for lunch… a German themed restaurant if you believe it. The waitresses were even dressed up in lederhosen, and the waiters bearing fake moustaches. The set-up here is there are small grills built into the middle of each table, where you are seated before you go off and venture around the “buffet” of raw meats. After making your selections you bring them back to your table and cook. This didn’t sound very German to me, but my very limited experience of German food consisted only of schnitzel, sauerkraut, and bratwurst… anything else was outside my realm of expertise. And although it sounds like a pretty straight-forward procedure, it really wasn’t. Our small group circled around the meat coolers, where individual trays upon trays of thinly sliced meats were stacked, like lost wide-eyed children. Everything was labelled clearly so you can see which tray contained which meats. Unfortunately for us, it was all written in Chinese, which none of us knew how to read. My parents were no help either… much of mainland China has adopted a simplified style of writing, whereas my parents only know how to read traditional style writing… so they pretty much guessed what they were eating too.
After bringing back our small stack of somewhat recognizable meat (the dim lighting absolutely did not help at all), we began to dutifully grill our food and ate what we began to label as “mystery meat”. Some of it was not recognizable to the palate at all, although we knew which mystery meat tasted better than the other. Although I know it would anger some if I did not mention the other Golden Hans specialty that was included with your buffet, all you can drink beer! How long till this great Chinese tradition finds its way to the Puddle? By the time we were done, all full but with uneasy stomachs, the Canadian home-grown team was starting to get a little exhausted by the cuisine in this country and craved for something simple and uncomplicated like a burger. Would we find a Golden Arches in China?
Later that night we visited Beijing’s equivalent of Vancouver’s Robson Street where a permanent night market exists, much like the ones found in Chinatown or Richmond, selling thousands of different foods. Here there would be no mystery about what we were eating. Though I did try to keep an open mind about certain “delicacies” and promised myself that I’d try anything at least once if ever given the chance it was not until this last evening in Beijing that the opportunity came up. We were walking along Donganmen Street, the location of the night market, where food vendors were jam packed next to one another all yelling at you as you strolled by. Enticing promises that their food was the best and freshest all compete for your attention. It was particularly amusing watching them try to get Mr O’s attention with their broken English.
There were stalls and stalls full of kebabs of candied and fresh fruits; skewers of different kinds of meats and seafood just ready to hit the grill; freshly shucked oysters and baked crab; piles and piles of chowmein, and tofu of all sorts. However, what caught our group’s eye were the displays of skewered bugs. Yep, bugs! There were silkworms, crickets, and scorpions of varying sizes. The silkworms were a huge *NO* for us, because they looked too plump and truly too gross to eat, as were the large scorpions with their giant shiny black pinchers. In the end we settled on a skewer which impaled through 3 small scorpions, all for only 15 yuan (which works out to roughly $2.30 CDN). That’s one for me, Mr O, and my kid brother.
We paid for our creepy crawlies and watched in morbid fascination as it was briefly deep-fried and salted before our very eyes. Mr O bravely took the prepared skewer from the vendor and we scurried off to the side, out of everyone’s way, to furiously take pictures of it… even some of the locals had to stopped to watch us eat it (although I suspected what they really wanted was to watch the white guy eat a bug). One by one, we each took turns to dropping these crispy arachnids down the hatch. Kid brother ate it first, and you can literally pin-point when his expression of trepidation became one of “Hmm… not bad.” Seriously, it wasn’t bad at all… a lot of crunchy, and a little salty… it’s like eating a deep-fried prawn tail from the end of a sushi roll. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again though, as a huge picture of a scorpion kept flashing in my mind with every crunch that I took.
The following morning we had a 4 o’clock morning wake-up call so that we could prepare for our morning flight out of Beijing to Nanjing. It’s the capital of duck, apparently. Stay tuned!