Taste-Testing My Way Through Beijing, While Watching Out for Pollution and KFC's
I’ve long wanted to visit China before the new completely overwhelms the old.
So last Sunday night, my wife, Jean, and I arrived in Beijing. Our first stop was to be a food tour of Beijing’s Hutongs--one of the fast-disappearing areas of traditional homes, shops, and restaurants. These older areas are being torn down and replaced with modern apartment buildings and shopping malls at a rapid pace. Just drive around Beijing for a day, and you are blown away by the scope of the development. The gleaming office and apartment buildings extend for miles and miles and miles--multi-block-size furniture, jewelry, and electronics markets, along with universities and five-star hotels. A tidy city of 20 million.
So what were were doing at the start of our food tour at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet? Like in the U.S., fast-food locations make good meeting places, since it’s easy to find a place to sit down, and to use the toilets. But more significantly, fast-food places are spreading like topsy in China, and one of the biggest is apparently Kentucky Fried Chicken. Indeed, it even has a location adjoining august Tianmen Square.
The rapid spread of fast-food places is symptomatic of changes in traditional eating habits. Large supermarkets are full of glistening plastic packages of meats, of cartons of milk imported from Australia. There is concern everywhere about the quality of all food, thanks to previous food adulteration scandals and recurring poisoning of the soil.
But once we met our tour guide, Adlyn (of Hias Gourmet), and escaped the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, we were able to appreciate traditional Chinese eating habits. The Chinese, of course, have a proud and diverse culinary tradition. Madlyn quickly had us sampling all kinds of fried tofu and red bean snacks and various dumplings and fish and chicken dishes. Among the traditions that stood out to me:
*The preference for fatty meats. Chicken legs and thighs are more expensive than breasts, and pork bellies, which have lots of fat, are similarly highly prized, versus lean cuts.
*What you see is what you get. The Chinese like hard evidence of their food’s origins. So when I ordered some filet of fish at an area restaurant, it came with the heads. This is a lot different from Americans, who generally want the fish heads and other messy evidence of where their food came from to disappear, and certainly not show up on their plate.
*Nothing goes to waste. The Chinese are proud consumers of the innards of all animals they consume. Tripe is a popular dish, as are various concoctions based on pig and other animal blood.
*All kinds of animals are fair game for different tastes. At Beijing's famous Night Market, we saw live scorpions and worms on sticks, ready for frying. At another place, there were goat testicles--all I had to do was give the order and they'd be cooked right up. Our guide insisted we sample a “hamburger” at one small restaurant. It tasted somewhat “beefy” when I bit into it, but not quite the same as ground beef I am used to. “What animal do you think it comes from” she asked. Uh-oh, I thought. Dog? Cat? No...donkey. I have to admit, my stomach turned, and I left the remaining half of the concoction on the plate.
*Fermented foods are still big. Stinky tofu, fermented bean curd, and yogurt (at least in the north of the country) are all big-time foods.
There is a big issue around food safety, as in intentional adulteration and contamination of the soil and food with all kinds of toxins and pollution. And the air pollution in and around Beijing is as bad as advertised--it smells awful, it looks awful, and cars and plants of all sorts are quickly coated in dust and dirt, giving them a gray-green look. This past week I've been in Beijing was supposedly a "good" week pollution-wise...I'd sure hate to see a bad week.
Just as big a threat, though, seems to be those all-pervasive fast-food places. One of the biggest landmarks at the Great Wall? A Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.
And if you want a taste a blatant censorship, try to access the New York Times on your hotel (or any) Internet connection. It won't come up, apparently because of reporting the Times did on hacking of its news site by Chinese operatives recently.