Beijing Part 5: Regional Chinese Food

As I finish my summary of eating in Beijing, China for eleven days last fall, I contemplate the irony of the fact that an 11 day trip took me 11 months to finish writing up. Yet, the impact that the food of Beijing made on me is fully worth the patience of my readers and time I’ve spent thinking about what was so amazing about it.

While I’ve already written about the foods from two regions, Sichuan and Xinjiang, as well as Beijing’s Street Food and own cuisine, the thing that truly floored me, amazed me and made me feel as though I knew just so little about the cuisine of such a vast country was all the regional dishes. I knew the basics, Peking duck is from Beijing, Sichuanese food is common in Seattle, I knew Cantonese, but with the guidance of my amazing friends, Nick and Even, we took a tour of the foods of so very many different foods.

In summarizing the foods of these various cultures, it is hard to get beyond broad generalizations. The foods of Sichuan were hot with spice and cool with Sichuan peppercorns. The foods of Western China, aka Xinjiang, were closer to Indian or Afghani or even Turkish food than anything else I’d had. Those I at least had known something about before the trip. Then Nick led us down a whole new path. I’ll be summarizing a few of those ‘new path’ meals here.

With a group of six people–assorted ex-pat friends of theirs joined us–at a Shaanxi restaurant, we were able to order a good amount of food. The restaurant was a great little spot, just off of a main road, where I never would have thought to look. I took a card to remember the name of the place, so I could recommend it in the future–I can still remember the frustration when I opened a coat pocket, months later to see the washed, shredded, card. Fear not, the powers of Google returned it to me! (Yeah, I just spent 20 minutes Google-ing it so you can get to it. Thank me later). This was probably the first recommendation I’d give for a traveler to Beijing, as it was totally different from anything you get at home, yet totally identifiable. And totally, completely and utterly delicious.

From the top left corner, you can learn that I have no idea what that first dish is. But it involved noodles and spicy sauce. Next to it was the century egg, my first experience with them, which I enjoyed, despite their reputation for stinkitude. In the bottom right is longevity noodle, which is all one noodle. Yeah, that was hard to share between all of us (especially since it was topped with an egg). The fourth dish shown here is a wasabi buckwheat noodle, which reminded more of Japanese food than anything else. I always find experiences like that refreshing, to remember that no culture is in isolation–authenticity is such a relative term. But before we dwell further….the rest of the dishes (not all of them. I spared you photos of the more boring looking, but no less tasty dishes, such as bitter melon).

Okay, now we’re at the good stuff. In the bottom left, you see Brett and I looking extremely apprehensive at the amount of food that has just arrived and continues to arrive. By the minute! Next to that is a mutton and dumpling soup. That is, mutton, in dumplings, in soup. On the top right is one of my favorites from a meal that was full of amazing food, the green noodles (okay, them being green helped them in that favoritism) which you pulled out, dunked in to the murky, chile-spiked sauce next to it, then ate. The real winner, though, overall, was the lamb-burgeresque thing pictured on the top left. Like a soft, buttery English muffin, filled with tender, savory, roast lamb, topped with cilantro. Oh, damn, I just drooled on the keyboard remembering that dish. Unrelated: I think we’re planning a return to China soon. Oh, wait, that was totally related.

At this point we took it upon ourselves to continue exploring regional foods and ended up at the rather upscale, highly recommended, Three Guizhou men. I knew basically nothing about Guizhou food, so it was a learning experience, for sure. What I found so interesting as I traveled the various culinary regions, was, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. For example, that dish in the upper left? For all the description I could give you, it was basically a sweet corn tamale. A damn good one. Lower right? That’s a potato pancake. I’ll hesitate to say ‘latke’ and give away my own heritage, but the similarities were there. Note to self: this Chanukah, add spicy chili peppers to latke plate. The other two pictures are a dish that, as it arrived we slowly realized was basically hashbrowns and bacon. And chilis, of course. Okay, conclusion? American breakfast+chili peppers=Guizhou food. Overall the food was good and quite spicy, but I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you were specifically seeking out Guizhou food and a nice meal. Also–it was hard to find, hidden in an alley behind an Olympic venue.

After having ventured on our own, we decided to return to the wisdom of Nick and Even for a little weekend lunch. Even had lived in Yunnan province prior to finishing school and moving to Beijing, so she offered to be our tour guide through the food.

This food was slightly more towards Thai or even Vietnamese food, I thought, especially ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’, not shown, which are the signature dish of the region. Basically a big bowl of noodle soup with stuff in it, but I agreed with Even when she said she didn’t think it was really the highlight of the cuisine. We did learn some really great things at the meal, and I enjoyed the food that was further from what I’d had before. We started with a salad of Chrysanthemum greens (bottom right), which were lightly dressed and slightly spiced. The texture was surprising, not at all reminiscent of the frisee which it resembles, but lighter, friendlier. We had a few other, non-pictured dishes (the noodles, a purple fried rice in a pineapple), but the chicken in the bottom left was one that stood out as being exceptionally perfectly cooked and spiced. The whole fried fish (served with spices) on the top left was a favorite of mine–though whole fish always will be–and it taught us a great fact: in China, you don’t flip the fish. You have to pick the meat on the bottom from the top, because if you flip it over to get to that meat, you flip the boat that we are all in. Makes sense to me, I sure as hell haven’t flipped a fish since then. Lastly, in the upper right, you’ll find Yunnan Fried Cheese. Somewhere between doughnut and mozzarella stick, lies these. Crunchy on the outside, stretchy on the inside and dusted with what I think is a combination of sugar and MSG, I secretly loved them. Though we all know I have a mozzarella stick issue.

What, you’re still reading? You’re either bored, hungry, or planning a trip to Beijing. Okay, here it is though, the final meal to go up on the blog, the final meal we ate on the trip. Before leaving, Nick insisted on taking us to one more stop, lunch on the way to the airport, at a Hunan restaurant. There are a million restaurants in the U.S. that use the word Hunan in them. Very few of them serve Hunanese food. I’m eternally thankful that I had the chance to experience real Hunan food though, because I now understand a tiny fragment of this wild, mysterious cuisine.

What do I mean by wild and mysterious? Well, on the upper right, you’ll see a dish that I am told is “wild Hunan vegetable”. No other info and no English name, because, well, why give an English name to something that only grows in Hunan Province? It was sort of halfway between a mushroom and a green, which only belabors the point that in addition to having no English name, it is very difficult to describe. So I won’t. Below that, you’ll find stir-fried donkey meat, which was far better than I would have guessed. Donkey seems to do very well at absorbing the flavors around it, so the meat was fragrant with the peppers that surrounded it. Cold tendon, bottom left, is fast becoming my go-to dish on any Chinese menu that has it, and this Hunan version was up to par. Above that is a classic Hunan dish, a special, Hunanese type of bacon, with a deep, rich, smokey flavor. I believe here we had it over tofu, which soaked up additional smokiness from being cooked with the bacon. Imagine the best bacon you’ve ever had? Now imagine better: Hunan Bacon.

And with that, we hopped in the cab and headed to the airport. Arriving back in Seattle, we made our next meal the same as the one before we left for China: Sichuanese Hot Pot. Yeah, we’re incorrigible.

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