Friday, May 7, 2010

Eating in the East

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series about the Beijing Blogger’s mom and brother’s recent visit to China.

One thing I love about Beijing, aside from the history and culture, are the endless eating variety of restaurants and eateries. Along the main road near my apartment – a famous food street -- there are over 100 places to get a bite to eat. So when my mom and brother visited earlier in April, I had quite a few places picked out and limited time to show them Beijing’s dining scene.

Before my brother even got off the plane at Beijing International Airport he was sick. Plane food usually doesn’t sit well for anyone, but for Mike it was all but dancing around in his stomach causing him considerable distress. I had to rethink my dinner strategy since I was certain the line-up I’d arranged in the coming week would kill him, or at least make it an unpleasant experience for my mom and me.

Luckily, there was a small café that specialized in Western food a block from the hotel. So instead of going crazy on spicy Sichuan or sweet-tasting Yunnan delicacies, we kept it simple for a while with burgers, burgers and more burgers.
But once Mike’s stomach sickness passed, he was able to fully enjoy the foods of Beijing.

Throughout the week, we ate of various Chinese restaurants. It was nice to show my mom and brother what real Chinese food was like. Gone were General Tso’s chicken and pork-fried rice, replaced instead with gongpao jiding (kung pao chicken), mian tiao (noodles) and an assortment of dishes with funny names, funny smells but delicious tastes.

Chopsticks were new to my mom. I could tell she hadn’t practiced – bits of food fell out from between the two sticks on their way from the plate to my mom’s mouth. But not once did she ask for a fork or spoon.

No foreigner can say they’ve experienced Beijing’s food culture without dining at one of the hundreds of Peking roast duck restaurants. I chose one of the nicer ones, a restaurant that was true to the ancient technique of preparing the waterfowl.

As we entered the courtyard restaurant, we saw the ducks hanging inside a large stone oven, simmering slowly. After 45 minutes, our duck was done and we watched the cooks carve it up. Meat from the neck and back were placed on two plates, followed by the duck’s crispy skin. The head – brains, eyes and beak – was neatly cut in half and placed gently in front of us. My brother, still sick at the time, took one look and placed his head down on the table in gastronomic despair. We’d return to the restaurant later in the week when he was feeling better.

As much as I enjoy true Chinese food, my favorite variety comes not from the Mandarin dominated east, but the western regions of China –Xinjiang. So to spice things up, I took them to my favorite restaurant in the city, Xinjiang Muslim Restaurant, for fiery kebabs, special bread and other salty dishes. But what really draws me back to are the performers – Uyghur (the indigenous people of Xinjiang) drummers and guitarists playing ethnic tunes and even covers of Frank Sinatra, and beautiful belly-dancing women clad in skimpy outfits with the occasional snake around their neck.

During our visit, the belly dancer with the snake picked us, the only white people in the crowd, for audience participation. I had turned my back to the stage for only a second when I felt pressure on my shoulders and knew instantly what was around my neck. I remained calm but my mind repeated the thought “There’s a snake on my neck” over and over while my mom and brother, both wide-eyed, raced for their cameras.

When planning out of dinner evenings, I’d feared we’d inevitably end up in McDonald’s or KFC. But I was proud of my mom and brother’s tolerance of Chinese food and we were able to avoid the golden arches and colonel’s enclave all together. And while my mom’s chopstick abilities were below par, I’m sure she’ll practice and reach pro status by the next time she visits.

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