When I visited Beijing in late 2001, I certainly knew more about authentic Chinese food than the average American, but classes in Chinese cooking hadn't prepared me for what turned out to be the food adventure of a lifetime. This was before my food-blogger-with-digital-camera days, so I couldn't photograph my Beijing experiences, but plenty of other food bloggers have shared about food adventures in Beijing.
Before I send you off reading about the food, let me share a few of my impressions of the city that's hosting the Olympics. I went to China in November 2001, when my brother was living there and airline prices were cheap in the aftermath of 9-11. I spent most of my time in Hong Kong, but the few days I spent in Beijing were memorable. As I think about my impressions of Beijing, I'm curious about how much the city may have changed due to China's well-publicized Olympics clean-up.
My most vivid non-food memories of China's capital city include the famous hutongs, narrow streets with row-houses that have thick walls and no indoor plumbing, just a communal outhouse on each corner. I saw entire families living in a room the size of my bedroom. In Beijing's downtown area, the wide main streets were incredibly crowded with bicycles, most of them old-style bikes with fenders. The air in the city was visibly polluted, and we were amazed that people could ride bikes there.
My scrapbook notes on Beijing say "Everyone smokes, and those who don't smoke, spit." The loud sound of someone clearing their throat to spit in the gutter was common, and taxi drivers would spit out the window many times during a ride, something we found hard to get used to. There were soldiers everywhere, and we stood in awe in Tiananmen Square (pronounced tee-un-ahn-men by the Chinese.) We saw many Chinese couples with one little boy, and were constantly approached by students wanting to practice their English. I was particularly enchanted with the beautiful mongolian facial features of many people we saw on the street.
The art of bargaining was even more pronounced in Beijing than it had been in Hong Kong, and buying things from street merchants or local shops was a lot of fun. Shopping in state-run stores was a different experience entirely. Every transaction seemed to require a form or special procedure, and all the tourist attractions also had long lists of posted rules. We did come home with beautiful lace tablecloths, silk bathrobes, and blue-and-white chinese pottery, despite our feelings of concern for the Chinese people, who we knew must be earning only pennies a day based on the absurdly low prices we paid.
My food experiences in Beijing started out with an amazing meal of Hot and Sour Soup, Beijing Duck, Chinese Broccoli, Fried Rice, two Diet Cokes, and tea for only 112 Yuan (about $15 USD in those days.) However, when we walked out the door of the restaurant there was a sign that said "Visit out sister restaurant in New York City." That was our first realization that we'd been eating Americanized Chinese food. When we did venture out on our own, one night we tried three different restaurants, where we would be served beautiful stir-fried dishes which looked delicious, but when we tasted them there was an unidentifiable but odd flavor that we finally decided must be the cooking oil. These experiences became a cultural sensitivity challenge, and I would adopt a pained look on my face, while my brother would politely explain "My sister is not feeling well" and we would pay for the food and leave.
The abundance of American food, especially fast food, was one of the biggest surprises in Beijing, and on the night we tried the three places we finally resorted to cheese fries at Outback Steak House. In vivid contrast to the Americanized fast food offerings were the unusual foods we saw on Beijing's Snack Street, where every night food stalls form a row down the middle of the street and many interesting foods are skewered on sticks and grilled, to be eagerly devoured by Chinese people gathered there. We were advised not to eat this food, and probably wouldn't have been brave enough to try things like grilled scorpions, slugs, lizards, starfish, or sparrow embryos anyway. We did look longingly at the enormous skewers of fruit and lamb kabobs. (Great photos of the Beijing foods-on-a-stick from Muffin Top, and another photo of Beijing Street Food from Wino Sapian.)
Despite some rather too-memorable Beijing food experiences, I wish I could go back to Beijing with one of the many food bloggers who have wonderful examples of Beijing food to share. Bee of Rasa Malaysia obviously knows where to find good food there, and her Beijing food memories include a fantastic dinner at a chic Beijing restaurant called paper, and a fabulous photo set on Eating Beijing. (Also don't miss her photo tour of Beijing and her photos of people in Beijing.)
Mochachocolate Rita is a blogger who lives in Hong Kong, but recently she returned to Beijing and noticed how Olympics preparations have changed the city when she visited the famous roast duck restaurant. Rita also shared her experiences of the Dong Hua Men Night Market, and Tibetan food on Beijing's hippest street.
Lucy from Lucy's Kitchen Notebook lived in China and shares her memories of Beijing, including a late-night trip to the Great Wall and how to make her favorite Beijing tofu dish.
At Umami I found a post about One Night in Beijing, with great photos of food experiences and the famous Beijing hutongs.
Susan from Porcini Chronicles enjoys Beijing Hot Pot, a dish I really had fun trying in Hong Kong. Small pieces of meat and vegetables are simmered in various types of broth and eaten with different kinds of sauces.
Finally, one of the widely reported stories on the web related to Beijing food and the Olympics is the fact that China has provided restaurants with an official English translation of the names for Chinese dishes so Olympic visitors can order Kung Pao Chicken and get what they're expecting.
(Edit) After I published this post I discovered A Foodie's Guide to Beijing by blogger Diana Kuan. If you're going to Beijing, or just interested in Chinese food, it's a very interesting read.
Kalyn Denny writes about food and at BlogHer.com and shares her passion for cooking at Kalyn's Kitchen. Come back on Sunday for her next post on Chinese food, when Kalyn will share some tips for stir-frying and a few easy recipes for Chinese dishes from fellow food bloggers.
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