Sunday, 29 November 2009

Eating Beijing

While reading Anthony Bourdain's The Nasty Bits, I was intrigued by the piece written on China. Although just a brief chapter in the book, Bourdain tells of a small restaurant called Li Qun's which is hidden away in a hutong in central Beijing. My wife and I had been planning on checking out the city for a while and with the added enthusiasm of my taste buds we booked a week out and jetted off to the far side of Asia. I'd had visions of small kitchens on every alleyway, each cooking up different and individual dishes passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately almost all the eateries I found in the hutongs just sold pork stuffed dumplings of varying quality. The Donghuamen night market was like a theme park and although I succumbed to the intrigue of silk worm cocoons, scorpions and snake among other things, the honest truth is that they all taste incredibly similar due to the very dirty oil everything is cooked in that has been reused for days. The snake had a texture similar to a rare steak and was very tender and moist, probably the best of the street food I tried, shortly followed by the sea urchins whose gooey, orange insides engulfed my mouth with a clean, refreshing ocean flavour. On Wangfujing snack street I tried the deep fried baby seahorse I'd often heard about, let me warn you now, this is absolutely not worth eating at all. I bit down on the cute little ocean critter and almost shattered my teeth.
It was solid, but I had committed now and so had to finish it, I wasn't going to loose face in front of all these Chinese vendors. I battled on through the ordeal best I could, managing to grind its body down to a powder between my teeth before it formed a paste in my mouth which tasted slightly of seawater with an aftertaste of the aforementioned dirty cooking oil. I found a lot of the restaurants in Beijing to be flat and dull with menus the size of encyclopedias and all looking the same. The obligatory cream walls, red lanterns and an abundance of waiting staff.

In Eat My Globe, Simon Majumdar warns that the sound of China is a man spitting. This prepared me a little although I didn't expect it from women. Perhaps that's just the English prude in me but I disinfected my shoes when I got home all the same. Mr Majumdar had also written of an underground food hall he had found beneath a shopping mall called Gourmet Street. When I found the sign above a set of stairs my heart rate quickened and I ran off ahead to see what was below. Gourmet Street was a fantastic place to escape the drab restaurants on the high streets but amidst all the food stands offering dishes from every region of China, I still felt that I was in a fast food market and in all honesty it is just that, but I wasn't here for silver service I was here to eat and so I got on with the job in hand. Forget the snack streets and the dirty oil, put a little effort into finding some of these underground food halls and try a little of everything, the dishes are small and cheap so you can work your way around China in the confines of a basement beneath a mall.

One evening we took the subway (20p a journey) to Ghost Street, a street around a mile long which has thousands upon thousands of red lanterns strewn across the road. There literally must be a restaurant for every lantern, with staff outside each one touting for your business, at one point even pulling me by my arm to try and force me in. I was looking for one dish in particular though, the hotpot, and after about forty minutes we found somewhere. I took a sichuan hotpot and ordered some cuttlefish and fish balls with a Yangjin beer and some erguotou. For those of you who don't know, the hotpot arrives at your table, a pot of spiced bubbling oil and stock. You then order your food which comes raw which you drop your into the boiling broth cooking pieces of food to your liking right at the table. The cuttlefish, although difficult to pick up with chopsticks, was gorgeous. Like a very silky and tender squid with no chewiness. I was sold. We were brought a complimentary dish of dry, spicy cooked prawns which you eat with the shell on. This may sound a bit weird but somehow the way they cook them makes the shells extremely brittle and you don't even notice the texture alongside flakes of chilli and sichuan pepper. The meal was amazing and although the wife found a cooked maggot in her noodles, I ensured her that it was cooked and therefore any harmful bacteria would probably have been killed during the cooking process. She still didn't look too happy about it and after the obligatory photo of said maggot she drank her water and we left. It turns out that by pure coincidence, sitting the other side of the room was an American photographer that I have been in contact with for some time. Oliver had been living in Beijing for six months and it turns out my gut instinct to eat here was a good one as he and his Beijinger girlfriend frequented the place saying it is one of the best in the city. Another great find, perhaps Beijing wasn't as dire on the food front as I had first found. You certainly have to put a bit of effort in to eat well in the city though.

Finally I come to my most memorable meals of the week, both at Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. As I mentioned before this was part of the enthusiasm for our visit. After feeling very lost wandering through the hutongs south of Tiananmen we spotted a duck painted on the grey wall of an alleyway, the tell tale sign we were near. We followed the painted ducks that led us to a small door with Li Qun written above it in red. Upon entering you walk past the wood oven where all the ducks are cooked, the smell instantly wetting my appetite. The atmosphere in this place was phenomenal and filled me with so much excitement. Having spent all week in the shiny false plasticness of Beijing, with government owned and provided eateries I finally felt like we had found something that wasn't tarnished by the red flag. We were seated next to a mother and daughter in the courtyard that has an old glass roof over it like a Victorian greenhouse. I ordered the Roast Duck, the reason for such a pilgrimage and had the chilli duck wings, duck livers and duck feet for appetisers. Let me start with the ducks feet, had I known they were cold and raw, only being marinated in a vat of horseradish then perhaps I would have been better prepared for the assault on my senses that followed. I had thought they were going to be hot and by the time I popped the first deboned and de-cartilaged duck foot into my mouth it was too late. My nose felt like it was going to explode from the horseradish and the texture of the feet were, lets say, new to me. The heels of the feet crunch which is a bit off putting but once you get used to it they aren't all that bad, but I wouldn't order them again. It was time for the duck. They bring the roasted bird to your table side and show you it whole with its fatty skin all shiny and amber. Once given the nod your server slices your duck up in a very precise way leaving nothing but the head and carcass, all within about a minute. I suppose they get plenty of practice. Peking duck in Peking, if i'm going to taste the best roast duck surely it has to be here? In my mind, any food you eat with your fingers is always going to be good and rolling one of these pancakes packed with slow cooked duck straight from the ancient wood ovens, was perfection of the dish. I loved it and have not since had duck pancakes that come close to Li Qun's. Obviously it's not just the duck that made it taste so good, the surroundings, company and service all play their part equally too. I will warn you though that if you have a bit of an upset stomach, that through the twisted corridors the only toilet has a great big mesh over it with a sign that reads in english, "NO SHIT." So make sure you go before, or take plenty of Imodium. We came here twice during our stay as it was so good. Quanjude is another favourite in the city but as it has several sites and is completely government owned, I favoured Li Qun for round two rather than risk being let down by Quanjude, after all I already knew how much I loved Li Qun's. It's hidden away, a bit shabby and understated. A place you go informally with family, friends or on your own. Dare I say, it has that authentic chinese feel that I was craving for. Bourdain had my attention with some wistful writing but Li Qun had my heart with two roast ducks and some nosebleed-inducing ducks feet.

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