Beijing: Where Food is Heaven*
Grilled Spicy Fish with Pineapple; Grilled/Roast Pork with Chili; Sticky Rice Steamed in Pineapple; my own personal pot of rice noodles in tomato/vinegar/chili sauce. Heaven indeed.
But I get ahead of myself. Almost since I began my assignment here in India, I have been looking for opportunity to travel to China. It’s only 2 1/2 time zones away; my IBM division has a sizeable presence in IBM’s China Development Lab (CDL) in Beijing; and, my IBM Sametime product line has many customers in China – so a visit would be a great chance to connect with the team I have worked with remotely for so long, and also to learn about the China market.
Work-wise, I think the trip was a great success, both with customers and with the team. In this post, though, I want to share some experiences of the trip itself.
First order of business is I need to extend my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague, Yu Y Wang, aka Charlie (many Chinese people who work with Westerners adopt a Western name to simplify communication). Here’s a pic of Charlie and myself at Beijing’s Olympic Park, in front of the famous Water Cube and one of IBM’s buildings in Beijing:
Not only did Charlie create an excellent and detailed agenda for my trip, all the time I was there he extended the greatest, most famous hospitality of China.
He fed me.
Back in USA you may get a sense of how food is viewed by Chinese people, by going to better Chinese restaurants and seeing the round tables with the carousel, packed with numerous plates of food and many people deftly wielding chopsticks to pick off morsels as the food travels by. One of our team lunches during my stay was exactly that:
Here we had: Duck Braised with Fish (anchovy size fishes you ate head, bones and all – I probably ate more than my share), Soup, Green Vegetable with Chili and garlic, Noodles, more Braised Duck, and Chicken with Peanut. And a few more dishes were added as the lunch progressed. There were about 10 of us but still, it was a hearty meal.
Talking to my teammates I find that lunch like this is pretty common, maybe not every day, but many days. What a fantastic change from our typical American work lunch of hastily grabbed pre-prepared sandwich, eaten at your desk, while you attempt to catch up on email. This lunch connects you with your teammates, clears your mind for the afternoon’s work, and just tastes really great.
My first night in Beijing Charlie took me out for one of the culinary must-dos of a Beijing visit: Eating Beijing Roast duck. This we did at Jiuhuashan Roast Duck, one of the top duck restaurants in all of the city:
The duck here is fantastic: The skin has a flavorful crunch, but with just the perfect amount of oil so that is seems each mouthful melts as you taste it. And we had not only roast duck but duck intestine – sautéed with vegetables and chili, amazingly tender – duck gizzard – roasted and sliced paper-thin, chewy and full of duck flavor – duck tongue – small, chewy bits in agar jelly – and duck soup – very rich duck flavor and also with the right hint of ginger and scallion.
Charlie is from Sichuan Province and after a few tentative inquiries – “Do you really like spicy food?” – on Tuesday night he shared with me the signature dish of Sichan: hot-pot at one of the branches of Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant. Haidilao is an award-winning place, and deservedly so – the service, quality and ambiance was outstanding. We arrived a bit early so there was no wait for us, but when we left we saw the large waiting area was filled with 100s of people, playing cards and other games, and having free snacks while they waited for tables.
The whole point of hot-pot is, well, the pot:
We got a pot with 2 separate soups, a peppery, vinegary soup on the left and a rich, mushroom-flavored soup on the right. I saw other diners using a single type of soup.
While your soup is heating up, the servers bring the ingredients:
From left to right they are: Duck throat, Catfish, Pork intestine, Duck intestine, Pork Sausage. And these are only some of the ingredients; we also had beef, vegetables, shrimp dumplings, and tree-ear mushrooms.
You probably can guess how this works, but if you can’t: The soup comes to a boil, then you grab a fresh ingredients with chopsticks and plunge it into the hot soup. After 1 –2 mins, it’s cooked, and you can dip it into a bowl of other sauces, or just eat it hot from the pot. The various ladles can be used to rescue lost morsels – of which I created several, as my chopstick skills are not as great as Charlie’s.
Another great treat at Haidilao: hand-stretched noodles. I should have captured a pic, but here’s one from the web:
In this “noodle dance”, the noodle-guy will stretch one noodle using moves half rhythmic gymnastics, half wu-shu – the noodles fly around like lassos till, when finally stretched enough, they gather up the long strand and drop it in the soup.
My last night Charlie took me to the Middle 8th Restaurant (a name I still don’t understand) which specializes in Yunnan food; Yunnan is just to the south of Sichuan and Charlie explained the food was similar to that is his home province, though not quite as spicy.
The picture that introduces this post was taken at Middle 8th … I should have taken more, but even though I was at end of my trip and had tried more dishes than I can remember, I was still more eager to eat than to photograph. In addition to the grilled fish, roast pork, and pineapple rice, we had cold noodles, a kind of cold spicy grain dish (not sure if it wheat or some other grain) and “steam pot chicken”, the famous soup of Yunnan, which looks like this:
That was my trip: 5 days and 50 dishes, and each dish delicious. I hope to be back in the spring. Till then … thanks, Charlie, and thanks everyone at CDL – you can be sure I’ll bring my appetite with me when I return.
* In China there is a proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.” There is a book of this very title, which I have, written by AP reporter Audra Ang about her experiences as an expat journalist in China.