Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Come to the supermarket in old Beijing

We ate like royalty in Japan, in Nagoya, Kyoto, and Tokyo. We were treated to “course meals”—banquets, really—seemingly endless processions of tiny, exquisite dishes that nonetheless tested the capacity of this wide-body American. The subtlety, variety, and artistry were wonders to behold. In comparison, even very good Japanese restaurants in the US now seem merely pedestrian. And in between course meals, the cheap meals from any of the ubiquitous convenience stores in Japan were pretty darn good.

In Seoul, street food was more uneven, and the best meal we had was in a Chinese restaurant. We enjoyed some good Korean meals as well, but I’m home not writing about them, so I guess they were nothing to write home about. The tastiest Korean meals we had were served to us by Korea-based Asiana Airlines.

And then there’s Beijing. Cole Porter’s lyrics still ring true. Food there is incredibly cheap (and so is most everything else, which is why we took taxis everywhere instead of exploring the subway). One night we went with a friend (fifteen years there, fluent in Chinese) to what is considered the best Peking [sic] Duck place in Beijing. Big, crowded (forty-five-minute wait), top-notch service, top-notch chef, inventive, elegant dishes (we had braised cabbage [baby bok choy] and chestnuts in a saffron sauce that was to die for as our side dish with the duck), and the bill came to about $50 for the three of us, which is considered a very expensive meal in Beijing. We walked into a McDonald’s just to see what they were selling, only to discover that the menu is virtually identical to the US and a Big Mac meal (sandwich, fries, soft drink) is about three bucks, regular price.

On the other hand, street food is scary—and not just in terms of health. We decided to brave street food in Beijing for lunch one day. Several of the stalls in Wangfujing street were offering skewers of various meats, grilled to order. Pick out your skewers and hand them to the proprietor, who will then cook them. The selections included fairly benign-looking (if unrefrigerated) beef, lamb (mutton, described euphemistically), chicken, and so forth. But there were several stalls with skewers featuring live scorpions writhing on skewers. There were also starfish (dead, I suppose), seahorses (certainly dead—endangered, too, but that’s of no concern in PRC), and silkworm larvae (apparently dead). Not to mention all manner of whole squid, eel, crab, and various unidentifiable kinds of seafood. Even dumplings were a crapshoot. The locals were lapping this stuff up, but if you didn’t grow up thinking of scorpions as food, watching people eat them won’t necessarily convince you to try, even if someone tells you they taste like lobster. We settled for meatballs and corn on the cob.

On our last day, our friend took us to the neighborhood wet market. This is a stall market, open every day, where vendors display all manner of mostly fresh foods (there was a general merchandise alcove and there were a few vendors with dried spices, medicinal herbs, teas, and the like). Some of the vegetables were unfamiliar, but a vegetable stall is a vegetable stall is a vegetable stall, worldwide. Even if it includes various types of fungus. Other stalls offered freshly hand-cut noodles; steamed buns; hot bread; poultry, pork, and beef (none of it still alive, although some of the poultry vendors left the heads on); and several kinds of fish and seafood. Most of the latter were swimming in tanks, although the majority of at least one species were, um, sleeping. Yeah, that’s it. Sleeping. Belly up. Nobody seemed to mind. The meat vendors displayed their wares on open counters. Some meat was in display cases; a quick touch convinced me that the cases provided light but not refrigeration. The meat looked good, though. Not to worry; you were going to cook it anyway, right?

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