Let's Eat: Life in China

Chinese food has been a revelation.  In the United States Chinese immigrants have traditionally come from southeastern China mostly Guangdong Province (and Hong Kong).  It is one of the “Eight Culinary Traditions” of China and is delicious.  The flavor profile is pretty familiar(spring onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and based on rice as a staple) because most of what we in America know as “Chinese” food is actually Americanized Cantonese food. 

Northern China’s staple is actually wheat.  Now, traditionally Chinese people do not have oven, which means that bread as we think of it isn’t part of a traditional Chinese diet. Noodles, steamed or deep fried breads, flat breads, and dumplings are served and sold all over in Beijing.  I am starting my third year of life in China and I am still constantly amazed at the variety of noodles available.   Eating noodles with chopsticks with any sort of dignity takes skill.  I do not in fact have this skill.  I have decided to just abandon my hope of not have a face covered in sauce and noodles and just to dive in. 

The thing about eating out in China is that it leads to a lot of surprising places.  There is beauty in these unexpected moments.  This week we found ourselves wandering down unfamiliar hutong lanes to find… chicken wings.  I grew up in Buffalo so “chicken wings” to me is a pretty specific image.  Carsten had researched the restaurant so I had no idea, other than chicken wings, what we were going to be in for. 

Let me set the scene as we wander through the back alleys of Beijing.  First, it is hotter than all get out.  35/95 degrees with the humidity hovering at “for God’s sake rain already”. Second, we are literally wandering because none of us really knew where we were going and were basically navigating by the stars at this point.  Or at least we would have been if it had been dark enough for stars.  In reality we just kept passing the same group of old people playing mahjong and getting more and more embarrassed at each pass.

But finally we find it.  A smaller alley off of a small Hutong street in what turns out to be a familiar(ish) area for us (we stayed in this street of the Hutong when we visited China in 2012).  It is crowed and noisy and as bare bones as you might imagine a back alley restaurant in China to be.  An older shirtless man with a bunch of tattoos of Mao Zedong hands us a menu.  In Chinese of course. Usually that would present a problem but we had brought a good friend, ChengCheng, with us.   She is Chinese and so was able to order for the three of us.  Actually, since we ordered three things I am almost 100% sure that we ordered the entire menu. 

Pretty sure we just leveled up.

We started with a tofu and egg salad.  “Sure, eggs and tofu are fine!”, Carsten and I assured ChengCheng.  And that is how we ended up eating our first century eggs.  Century eggs, if you are unfamiliar with them are eggs (most commonly duck, but I have NO idea what we were eating) that are preserved in salt, lime, ash, and some other stuff until the whites look like jellied motor oil and the yolks, a sort of grey-green mess.  It looks TERRIFYING.   It is in fact not all that bad.  Sort of salty vinegary creamy jelly.  It is better than I am making it sound.  BTW: if you have ever wondered about people who eat tofu China has some things to teach you. Tofu here is magic.

This is before we got the second batch

Then there were the main event.  The wings.  10 skewers at a time were brought back to us as if the waiter was holding a bouquet.  Each skewer had two wings on it and the minimum order is for 40 wings.  We had asked for it “half spicy” which meant that they came with one side encrusted with chilli.  I was a bit apprehensive at first but it wasn’t nearly as hot as I feared and I started to really enjoy the heat.  I have a tendency to be a wimp about spice and these wings certainly helped give me a new appreciation for spice.  Since my tongue was numb the who next day I suspect that there was a liberal use of Sichuan flower pepper in the mix.  Oil, chicken bits, and seasoning were everywhere and since I also managed to soak myself with an Arctic Soda in the first minute and a half at the restaurant it was a good thing that the tables had rolls of toilet paper on the table to clean up with.  Grilled poached chicken wings=difficulty rating high. 

My favorite part of the meal was actually the bread.  It was a flatbread dough sort of twisted on itself, shoved on a skewer and grilled.  It was FRICKIN” amazing and I ate all of mine, all of ChengCheng, and most of Carsten’s.  I regret nothing!

ChengCheng, who is an eater extraordinaire, also decided that we needed to order the meatball soup.  “My father makes this.  It tastes like home.”  The proprietor brought it to the tables boiling in cast iron pots with huge metal tongs.  It was like a graceful dance back and forth and considering that there was only about a foot between each table I am amazed that no one ended up with third degree soup burns.

Going out to dinner in China  is always a slightly different experience then Chinese takeout at home.