We’re going to be writing a lot about food here – it’s pretty much our favorite part of traveling. So here are some quick observations about food in Beijing after two days.
First, breakfast. I love breakfast. Anywhere. It’s probably related to being a morning person, but pretty much anywhere I am I love breakfast. Bacon and eggs at home (when we had a home…), croissants and baguettes in France, pho in Vietnam, espresso and cigarettes in Italy – it doesn’t get better than that. And breakfasts in Beijing have been every bit as good.
So far we’ve gone to the same place both mornings, a no-name place down an alley where much of the food is cooked in the street.
Yesterday we had things that we could see and point to, but I watched people getting a soup-thing that I really wanted, so that was today. Some boiling cauldron of stock out on the street, to which she added dumplings of some sort and greens. Boiled for a few minutes and … ahhh, I’m a happy man. Not sure how safe it is, but until I get sick that’s what I’m doing.
There can be, of course, a real challenge eating in a place like China, where we not only can’t speak the language, we can’t even begin to read it. Last night, for instance, we stopped in a place we thought we’d like, but we ultimately couldn’t make heads or tails out of the menu. The young woman trying to serve us would try to explain something, entirely in Mandarin, and when we made it clear we couldn’t understand it she’d write it on a piece of paper, as though we’d certainly get it if we just saw some Chinese symbols. Finally we just had to leave; it was a case where we weren’t getting anywhere. Instead we went to a place where they showed us how to cook and eat the hot pot – again, a boiling cauldron of stock, thin slices of beef and lamb, and a ton of vegetables. Definitely worth waiting for.
Lunch today was pretty great. It was in a very cool, hip “alley,” really one of the oldest streets in Beijing. Feeling noble, I ordered crispy spinach. Turns out the crispy is all about coating it in something good and then frying it. Not too healthy, truth be told. There was an OK eggplant dish, but the star of the meal was chicken with szechuan peppers. Or, more accurately, szechuan peppers with some chicken added. It was amazing. When you got beyond the piles of hot red peppers, you noticed little black peppers – szechuan pepper, with the unique taste, as Mark put it, of cleaning fluid. “But in a good way.
One other thing we learned there. Two young people sitting next to us ordered a ton of food, including a pizza. Did you know Chinese – at least these two Chinese – use chopsticks to eat their pizza?
Dinner tonight was at a really nice Peking Duck place, though we didn’t have any duck at all. Most amusing, though, was the street food area we went through before dinner. They had stuff you’ve never quite imagined eating, all ready to be grilled. Not just lots of octopus – that’s pretty normal – but scorpions, silk worms, sheep balls, snakes, and, yes, tarantulas. By those standards the pork liver we had for dinner was pretty tame!
Finally, the prices are really amazing. Lunch – three dishes, two bottles of beer, two bottles of soda – was about $26. Dinner was $32. And breakfast is pennies – less than four dollars for both of us. It’s as though you can’t afford not to come to China!