A SOJOURN IN BEIJING
A Cuisine Fit For Dynasties And Communists
I have a veteran musician friend whose gigs over the years have taken him around the world several times, playing trumpet in all varieties of jazz bands.
He had a saying about the cultural scope of his travels:
When he was young, he saw the planet through its brothels.
In middle age, he experienced it through its museums.
Older still, he tasted the world through its restaurants.
By my reckoning, I’m quickly transitioning from the middle chapter to the last, especially when it comes to China.
Because if you think you’ve eaten in Chinese restaurants in the West and experienced all the taste sensations the Middle Kingdom has to offer, well, then, you obviously don’t know your baozi from your jiaozi.
China quite simply has the most varied cuisine of any nation on earth. The sheer size of the country, reaching from the subtropics north to the high-latitudes, means that the bounty of the food grown here is vast. And the country is comprised of so many peoples and subcultures that there are endless varieties in how to cook it.
The various cuisines have been honed over 5,000 years of trial and error, though numerous feudal dynasties, and sometimes lent to the rest of the world. Marco Polo discovered pasta here and took it back to Italy and Europe, need I say more?
Today, China’s food variations are usually named after their home region. Hunan. Szechuan. Cantonese. Shanghai. Walk through any market here and you’ll find cartoonish-looking vegetables that are staples of the unique Sino taste: Bamboo shoots, Lotus roots, the stalks of strange lettuce plants, all served as side dishes to the main meal of chicken, duck and pork.
There are snow peas, fungi, bok choi, leeks, bitter melon, sea cucumbers, wood ear mushrooms, mung beans, radishes, not to mention those wonderful peppers grown here in the southern climes that leave a tell-tale numbness on your tongue found nowhere else.
The Chinese are voracious, strategic eaters.
When my wife serves us pork chops back home, we have this unstated agreement: I trade her my bone and in return get her medallion of meat. The first time we made the trade, I thought “Sucker!”
Bone for meat? A no-brainer! To her mind, however, the sweetest meat can be found on the bone, so she sacrifices quantity for quality.
Who’s the sucker now, huh?
For the Chinese, bones are a healthy part of any diet, right down to the marrow. Whole fish are served, skeleton and all, and part of the eating process is to artfully separate the bones from their meat.
There are, of course, other odd delicacies here that find their way onto the Internet, weird food websites and episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s foodie travels, from deep-fried scorpions to, ahem, insects served in lime juice.
At a dinner party, I once offered my Western point-of-view on the culture’s strange culinary habits. China, I said, has suffered its share of economic hardship, war and famine. The fact that the Chinese will eat just about anything, comes from necessity, that idea that poor people have always made do with what they have.
An older woman then gave me a dismissive wave of her hand.
“No,” she said, “it’s something else entirely.”
Something I guess I have in short supply.
I joke with friends about what it’s like to live with a Chinese-born woman. Home alone, you have to beware when you open doggie bags in the fridge. Rather than yesterday’s pasta or pizza you’re liable to unearth scary things, like chicken feet, fish heads or the remains of a dish known as stinky tofu, so odiferous, so stinky, that many restaurants make you eat it in a separate room.
Chinese breakfast takes some getting used to. Forget eggs, toast and coffee. Here it’s baozi, steamed buns with stuffing, porridge, rice noodles, tofu pudding and the venerable steamed rice. My father-in-law, who is something of a health fanatic, recently sat down to a soupy mixture of cow brains, bone and spinal marrow.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Which is just the kind of attitude that makes many Westerners miss out on some wonderful food sensations: If we don’t eat it at home, the we believe, it can’t be any good.
I’ve wolfed down some delicacies plopped upon my plate for fear of insulting my foreign hosts. In southern Italy, one meal consisted of calf’s brains, horsemeat and formaggio con vermi, cheese with worms you can see skitter and withdraw each time you shave off a slice.
So many visitors bypass Chinese food for the western fast food outlets that have multiplied here. The first McDonalds arrived in 1990, when Mao was still relatively warm in his grave, soon joined by the Colonel’s chicken and even — gasp! — several Hooters.
We’re all critics. But here’s the thing: In America, a nation that eats copious amounts of chicken, the world’s dirtiest animal, we have little room to criticize the food peculiarities of other countries.
I make no such complaints at my mother-in-law’s table. By now, she greets me each morning with my favorite pan-friend bread from her kitchen. Or she makes a run for fresh jiaozi, Chinese dumplings.
She’s an exquisite cook, who once dreamed of opening her own restaurant. An average meal features a half-dozen different dishes, such as stewed pork, braised fish, sour cabbage and pork bellies. Her cake contains little or no added sugar and has none of the sickeningly sweet aftertaste they have in other lands.
Despite her Chinese kitchen exploits, even my mother-in-law has pangs now and then for a new taste sensation.
The other day, she asked us to take out on a little food excursion. We took a cab to a major retail store/hotel complex and immediately got lost. We asked one man on the street, who said the restaurant we looked for had closed.
Undeterred, we wandered further and asked again. A security guard barked and pointed, as though he had no time for a group of lost sheep.
We went inside a hotel lobby and asked at the bar. Finally, a manager took pity on us. She escorted us through the hotel’s fine-dining establishment and out a door. Then she pointed down an escalator.
We descended and finally found our prize, a taste sensation that in all her years my mother-in-law had yet to try:
TOMORROW: The Politics of A Chinese Meal