Blogging from Beijiing: scorpions for lunch

Greg Wawro, aka Harry Covert (drummer, Nous Non Plus), guest blogs from Bejiing…

Harry Covert here, guest-blogging from Beijing. I decided to make a pre-Olympics visit at the invite of friends Steve Carter and Kelly Miller. Steve is doing the design and construction of the studio sets for NBC, which has meant relocating his family to Beijing for four months.

This is my first visit to Asia, and one of my main motivations for the trip was the food. I think on the grand scale, the Chinese food you get in New York is pretty mediocre. Don’t get me wrong; I love dollar dumplings at Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry in Chinatown, really miss Hong Kong cakes from Mosco Street, and appreciate the availability of broccoli and peanuts in brown sauce in the wee hours at Ollie’s in my neighborhood. But I don’t think the higher end Chinese restaurants in NYC (not counting the Momofuku empire) really distinguish themselves and many of the establishments are downright wretched. I’ve had way better experiences with Chinese food in San Francisco (particularly at the recently deceased Firecracker in the Mission). However, having never eaten Chinese food in China, I couldn’t claim that my opinion was particularly well-formed.

My first night here, we went to Li Family Restaurant in the Houhai District. This is one of the highest rated private-dining establishments in the city. Our party of four had its own room in a hutong house and a very attentive team of waitresses. We ordered a prix fixe dinner that consisted of about eight dishes. I was concerned that maybe my palate was too accustomed to Americanized Chinese food, as nothing really stood out from this meal. The flavors were on the bland side and the presentation and consistency of some of the meat dishes was a tad off-putting (e.g., gray pork belly floating in a sour broth). The highlight of the meal was the whole fish, which was delicious but so boney what it was difficult to enjoy.

Things started to look up when Kelly and I went to Din Tai Fung for lunch. Some regard the dumplings and buns here as the best in the world. The original restaurant is located in Tapei and was ranked among the top ten in the world by The New York Times in 1990 (an accolade that is still prominently referenced on the restaurants menus and placemats, although the date is not mentioned). They have several locations throughout Asia, three in Beijing, and even one in L.A. I have to say, the dumplings here live up to the hype. The pork dumplings have soup inside them, although in my opinion they completely blow away the soup dumplings you get at Joe’s Shanghai and Grand Sichuan International in NYC (two places that are known for this dish). The soup in Din Tai Fung’s dumplings is subtle and doesn’t overwhelm the pork-scallion mixture that it surrounds. The other thing that makes these dumplings superior is that they are served at the perfect temperature. The soup dumplings I’ve had in NYC have way to much juice in them and are cooked at a ridiculous temperature. You either have to wait forever for them to cool or you risk scalding your mouth as well as your chin because there is so much soup in them that if you try to bite them in half, the liquid gushes forth uncontrollably. Din Tai Fung prepares them differently. One of the ways to get the soup in the dumplings is to freeze it into blocks, wrap those in the skin with the pork mixture, and then steam them to melt the soup and cook the pork.

Perhaps the chefs at Din Tai Fung (who look more like lab technicians) have figured out a way to inject the soup into the dumpling rather than freezing it beforehand. Or maybe it’s that since they use a more modest amount of broth, they don’t have to steam the hell out of them. In any case, these are not to be missed.

Another amazing dish here is the fried pork chop with noodles and broth. The boneless chop is pounded thin, breaded, and lightly fried. It is sliced and served on top of the noodles and chicken broth. Somehow, the lab techs have figured out how to keep the pork from becoming soggy as it soaks in the broth and becomes more flavorful.

My Beijing food experience really took off with dinner at Yuxiang Renjia, which came recommended as one of the best Sichuan restaurants in the city (like most of the best restaurants in Beijing, they have several locations). I was really interested in checking out authentic, traditional Sichuan dishes because of my love of spicy food. Located on the 5th floor of an office building, the decor was faux Sichuan village meets Ikea–a little cheesy, but thankfully the food overwhelmed any interior decorating missteps.

The menu was the size of a monograph, divided into easy to navigate chapters (cold dishes, seafood, noodles, soups, etc.) with lots of pictures and unusually typo-free English. Our English-speaking waitress was extremely helpful as we attempted to order a broad sampling from the menu. We stayed away from some of the funkier dishes involving ox-blood, chicken toes, and fish lips and went deep on the heat.

We ordered mapo doufu (tofu with ground pork), kung pao chicken, twice-cooked pork, fried strings beans with garlic, pork ribs encased in sticky rice, cold bean-curd Sichuan style, smoked duck with pickled vegetables. The portions were huge and we had enough leftover for a lunch for two the following day. The duck dish was a delightfully innovative of combination of smoky and sour, unlike any Chinese dish I had eaten before.

Although all of these dishes save the ribs had spicy ratings of two to three chilis, it was a different kind of heat than what I had experienced previously with spicy dishes, Chinese or otherwise. The dishes produced a tingley numbing sensation on the lips and tongue, which was incredibly pleasurable and did not overwhelm the nuanced flavors of the dishes. You definitely feel the heat, but it’s not of the unpleasant set-your-whole-mouth-ablaze-and-cause-your-nose-to-run-profusely variety. This was a truly unique experience and one that I would kill for to have in NYC.

One of the biggest and best surprises of the meal here though, were the dumplings, which were stuffed with fried garlic, scallions, and pork. The bottoms were dipped in sesame seeds and then lightly fried so that the seeds were a bit toasted. The dough was halfway between a standard bun dough and a thinner dumpling dough–a perfect consistency. If someone could duplicate this dish in NYC, they would rival the popularity of the pork buns at Momofuku. All of the food, plus several bottles of Tsiangtao for cooling off the fire came to about $60!

After a half day visit to the Forbidden City, I headed to Wangfujing Snack Street, which is touted as a destination for those seeking to get a little adventurous food-wise. To this point, I had been a fairly timid about unusual meat dishes, and there are a lot of far out things (for a Westerner) on Beijing menus. The government had asked restaurants to take dog off their menus in order to avoid offending tourists in town for the Olympics. At one dive restaurant where we had delicious pork biscuits (think pulled pork inside of flatbread that was like a mixture of pita and motzah), they had put a single line of ink through their dog offering. Since there were other items on the menu they had been removed with white-out, I couldn’t help but think that this was some kind of mild protest, since the word “dog” was still clearly legible. Anyway, Snack Street consists of about a dozen kiosks, mostly offering various items grilled on skewers.

The skewers are displayed in cases and there’s very little English guidance as to what you are actually eating. I could make out various parts of cow, pig, chicken, and squid. But what I had really come for was to check out items with exoskeletons–grubs, sea-horses, and scorpions. I did a quick reconnoitre to check out what all was on offer, and all had pretty much the same dishes.

I chose one kiosk which had a unique marketing ploy: they’re scorpions were still squirming on the skewers. However, these are not what you receive when you order. They take a skewer that looks like it’s already been cooked through and toss it on the grill for reheating. So much for freshness.

As I took my hot skewer to find a place to sit to enjoy it, the looks I got from the locals indicated that this is something that really only tourists consume. The scorpions were covered in something akin to mild cajun spice. The tail and the claws were crunchy, natch, but not very flavorful except for the spice. The abdomen had more of a pungent flavor, much like when you eat a piece of shrimp where the vein has not been properly removed. An older Chinese man remarked to me that what I was eating was very healthy for me, so at least it’s got that going for it. He also noted that 15 Yuan (about $2) was too much to pay for these. I ate most of the four scorpions, but not having either been rocked like a hurricane or satiated, I decided to try candied plums on a stick (pineapple and grapes were also available). These were delicious–similar to candied apples although with a more complex combination of sweet and sour. In the end, the whole experience was kind of Disney-esque. Snack street is a small hutong surrounded by a massive modern shopping development, which includes a very high end mall. Steps away from scorpions wriggling on skewers, you’ve got KFC, McDonalds, and Starbucks. It seems like the street is being preserved just so that tourists like myself could have this experience. Many of Beijing’s hutongs are being leveled to make way for commercial development and while I’m thankful that this one is being preserved, it’s not clear whether this is an actual part of real Chinese culture or just part of the rampant commercialization that has taken over the city post-Mao.

My last dinner in Beijing was at Made in China in the Grand Hyatt Hotel. This place is known for its Beijing duck, which must be ordered when you make your reservation. The open kitchen offers the opportunity to watch the chefs cook whole ducks in an apricot wood-fired oven, a fairly labor intensive endeavor. Final preparation of the duck is done table-side. The chef masterfully slices the skin from the breast, the breast meat itself (sans skin), and then the leg meat (with its skin/fat), and neatly arranges them on three different plates (the head of the duck is sliced lengthwise and placed on the plate with the breast meat). Steamed pancakes, plum sauce, soy sauce, and a bowl of sugar are brought to the table to go with the duck. The skin is dipped in the sugar, which when combined with the crispiness and fattiness of the skin makes your taste buds go wild. This was hands down the best duck–and possibly the best poultry–I have ever eaten. The breast and thigh meat was perfectly tender and juicy and it seemed almost a crime to combine it with any of the other fixings. But wrapping the meat with the sliced scallions and dipping it in the plum sauce only heightened the experience.

As far as wine goes, there really wasn’t much to speak of on this trip. My general take on wine with spicy food is that it’s kind of a waste. It’s difficult to find wine that isn’t completely dominated by the spice, and since Chinese dishes have been perfected over hundreds (maybe even thousands of years) without Western style wine, pairings can be difficult if not impossible. While in Beijing, I did get word of a tasting that promised to provide instruction on pairing China’s most celebrated regional dishes with wine, but decided to pass when I learned that all of the wine would be from Australia. The Chinese are producing their own wine–the Great Wall label is ubiquitous–but one wonders whether this is part of the Chinese tendency to want to be Western without giving serious thought as to whether the West has much to offer them along these dimensions. I did try Yunnan rice wine (mi jiu) at a restaurant called South Silk Road, which specializes in dishes from Yunnan province (China’s southernmost province bordering Thailand, Vietnam and Laos). This was very similar to nigori sake, although a tad more yeasty. It was served in a tumbler with ice and was quite refreshing, pairing well with dishes involving wild mushrooms and fried goat cheese from the region.

All in all, Tsingtao or Beijing Beer (but not Yanjing Beer) were pretty satisfying companions with just about all of the dishes I ate. Perhaps on a future trip to China I’ll get more adventurous with local wine. I wonder which would go best with fried scorpions.

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