The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, December 21, 2013

你吃了吗? Have you eaten? Best and Worst Food Moments in China

As this seems to be the time of year when every newspaper, magazine, journal, website and blog descends into 'best-of' list territory, why should I resist? And as my brain is addled by the general craziness and mild panic of this festive season with its worries over whether the oven is big enough to hold the turkey (or, in the case of my planned meal, enormous hunks of lamb to roast slowly for hours on a day that I hope will not hit the 40 degree mark of Australian Christmases past) what better list than one involving food? Food in China, to be precise. In a culture where it is not uncommon for people to greet each other with "你吃了吗? Have you eaten?" it is evident that food is taken very seriously. Go out to a restaurant with Chinese friends and you find the perusal of the menu is not taken lightly, often involving a debate about the merits or otherwise of particular dishes.To the point of tedium, sometimes, or to the point where I begin to think that I will be willing to eat the boiled frogs, the donkey pastrami, or frankly ANYTHING AT ALL.

In my first 2 weeks in Beijing, while I found my feet and learned to navigate the city from my base in Tuanjiehu, I was restricted to what I could buy in my local supermarket, or in the streets of the neighbourhood. Breakfasts for a while consisted of 'Bimbo' brand bread (awful!) with marmalade or 'Skippy' brand peanut butter (also awful) with black Nescafe. At first I couldn't find anywhere to buy milk, butter, real coffee or decent bread. The moment, 2 weeks into my 2 month residency, when I found a lone packet of Lavazza coffee on a hidden shelf of the Jinkelong Supermarket was a very joyful one. I embarrassed myself by loudly exclaiming "Yes! Thank God!" Locals doing their shopping stared for a moment, then put it down to the general weirdness of foreigners. One memorable dinner was intended to be Pasta Napoletana, until I discovered (after I had sauteed onion and garlic) that my apartment had no can opener to open the tinned tomatoes. And then I boiled the pasta and found I couldn't turn the gas off, or relight it. I struggled in a quiet sweaty panic for 20 long minutes with all the windows open and gas leaking into the kitchen, then ate cold spaghetti with onion and garlic. Yum.

But I soon enough discovered that in today's Beijing you can get pretty much anything you want - although I never did find Vegemite, that Australian staple that people from anywhere except the Antipodes think is like eating axle grease. And, of course, eating local foods - even moving right outside your comfort zone of language and food experiences - is all part of the adventure. I came to love the local markets and snack stalls, as well as all the many different restaurants - northern Chinese, Uighur, Cantonese, Sichuan, Japanese (controversial, this one!) and Shanghainese - in my immediate surroundings. A little further afield, just across the 3rd Ring Road, I could find Mexican, Italian, Thai, or rather the Chinese-infused versions of these cuisines. And watching people at the noodle stands stretching the noodles ever thinner between outstretched arms, and whirling them about over their heads as if in some kind of strange Olympic event like ribbon twirling gymnastics, never fails to fascinate.

Having returned to Sydney (summer mangoes, peaches, cherries, salads - ah, so good after 3 months away!) I herewith present a list of my own personal top ten food-related experiences in China. The sublime to the ridiculous, the (relatively) expensive to the ridiculously cheap. So, in no particular order.

  1. Dinner at 'The Temple Restaurant', Beijing. This was definitely in the sublime category - food, architecture, impeccable service, atmosphere. All extraordinary. I enjoyed the sommelier who basically ignored my order of a second glass of pinot gris and brought me different wines to try throughout the meal, including some Mongolian red (not bad!) from a wine label launch happening in another part of the restaurant. None of these extra glasses of wine, nor the sparkling wine at the start of our meal, nor the additional dessert brought to me because they didn't want me to miss out, ended up on our bill. It was restaurant theatre in the best possible way. Check it out here: The Temple Restaurant
  2. Fruit from my local street market - apples, pears, pineapple, pomegranates and best of all, the tiny, intensely sweet mandarins
  3. The discovery that egg fried rice for breakfast is GREAT!
  4. The craziness of the 4-storey 24-hour Cantonese restaurant, Jin Ding Xuan, which has several branches in Beijing. I went several times, alone sometimes and at other times with fellow Redgate residents, to the one on my street. Lots of shouting is involved and a somewhat brusque ( for delicate western sensibilities at least) method of slapping down food on the table, and some degree of surprise at the entry of westerners has to be anticipated, but good, clean and cheap. The branch at the entrance to Ditan Park is more spectacular. Neon lit, in the manner of completely over the top Christmas decorations, with flaming urns outside, this is unbelievably noisy ("renao", just the way the Chinese like it!) Waitresses finish the meal by saying "Do you like me?" and then ask to have their photograph taken with you and give you a heart-shaped sticker to be placed on their incentives chart. Great dumplings and wonderfully sticky black sesame buns in soup, which I have hoped in vain to find elsewhere.
  5. A huge Sichuan restaurant in Chengdu with a stage on which performances of fire-breathing, acrobatics and face changing Sichuan opera were taking place to the delight of the local crowd, all armed with mobile phones to record the experience. Enormously crowded and noisy, great fun, and with the best 'Mapo Doufu' I have ever eaten.

6. A tiny local restaurant in Xi'an where I ate fabulous dumplings filled with lotus, fennel and spinach with my translator 'Rocky' and his young female friend who drove us around the city in her brand new car. She had just got her licence, so the drive was somewhat nerve-wracking. Rocky didn't hold back with the driving advice either - despite not having a car or a licence himself. And also in Xi'an, the Xinjian flat bread sold in the Muslim Quarter, cooked by sticking round discs of dough on the inside curved surface of a metal drum over a fire. Flavoured with fennel seeds and salt, they are chewy and delicious, best eaten hot straight from the oven.

7. Lunch at the bizarre 'French' chateau and winery 2 hours outside of Xi'an, where I ate with a property developer, two Xi'an artists, a Chinese movie producer and 'consultant' who had spent 25 years in Hollywood, and my translator 'Rocky'. The purpose of this meal remained mysterious, and the location was, frankly, bizarre, but the food was fabulous. Local produce, beautiful fresh flavours, and every time I thought the meal must have ended, more dishes were brought to the table. We finished with beautiful noodle soup, and much toasting with bai jiu and very strange red wine. Gan Bei! You can read more details of my trip to Xi'an here: Beijing Diary: Suddenness Happens

8. The tiny noodle and baozi stand right near a friend's apartment in the back lanes of Tuanjiehu. Really good hand-shaved noodles made from scratch in a bowl of broth for 5 kuai (that's less than a dollar.)

9. Din Tai Fung. Always good, every time, in every city, despite being ludicrously expensive by Chinese standards. Love those Xiao Long Bao, shrimp and pork wontons, and black sesame buns.

10. The duck restaurant, Jing Yaa Tang, in The Opposite House Hotel in Beijing. In an interesting building designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the hotel is filled with contemporary art and the interior spaces are very beautiful and restful in a sparse way intended to reference traditional Chinese simplicity. New, and strangely empty on the night that I visited with friends, the food was beautiful, as was the design of the restaurant. I have never been a big fan of duck before, but this was a revelation. As were the noodles in a tiny space called The Noodle Bar in the 1949 Hidden City, which is a serene space of courtyards, gardens, restaurants and bars behind the crazy traffic of the 3rd Ring and Gongti Bei Lu. You sit at a three-sided counter (there is space for a dozen patrons at a time, at most) and watch the chefs making the noodles from scratch. And those noodles - oh my God! So good!
Foyer. The Opposite House, Beijing

And my least favourite food moments?
  • The ridiculously expensive and pretentious Italian restaurant in Shanghai where they strangely served the bread (slightly stale) with tiny bowls of what was very unmistakeably tinned tomato soup. Not olive oil. But tinned soup.You read that right. By this stage my husband had joined me in China and was keen to have a western meal. We were so flabbergasted by this culinary aberration that we decided not to question it. The chef then appeared at our table and in a highly theatrical Italian accent told us all about the provenance of the mozzarella and prosciutto. I just wanted to know "Heinz or Campbell's?" Perhaps it was a postmodern Warhol 'hommage'. Or, as my husband suggested, a mean trick to see if they could get away with it. He suspected they were all falling about laughing in the kitchen.
  • The platter of ducks' tongues served up as an appetiser at the Sichuan hotpot restaurant in Chengdu. Even to be polite to my hosts I could not take one.
  • The mystery meat in a bowl of soup in a randomly selected restaurant in Xi'an where everyone stopped eating and stared when I entered, some openly giggling and whispering. I asked the waitress what meat was in the soup and she said, "Maybe pork?". I had already scanned the menu and rejected boiled frogs in broth, tripe, brains, pig kidneys and was desperately hoping for vegetables with noodles. The 'maybe pork' was the best option. But not a good option.
  • I still hate: stinky tofu, hundred day eggs, beef tendon, goat's feet boiled with chilli, and offal of all descriptions. Sorry to be unsophisticated and all that, but I just can't do it.

All photographs, Luise Guest, shot in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Xi'an, October - December 2013
  • And I never did find out what 'pale baby soup', a mysterious and terrifying menu item seen in a Sichuan restaurant near Nan Luo Gu Xiang in Beijing, could be.