Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cutting a swathe

Let's step back to China, shall we? I scarcely know where to start there either, but here's the summary of what we hit: Forbidden City, Wangfujing shopping street and snack street, Lama Temple, Pearl Market, Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, several Excellent restaurants, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

Oh, what the hell, let's start with the food. We didn't do so well the first day—as a matter of fact, we barely ate, as I recall, snacking on a few buns for lunch and getting some soup dumplings in a mall food court for dinner. The second day, we did much better. We thoroughly pigged out on the best dim sum I've ever had at Crystal Jade restaurant in one of the malls on Wangfujing. It was a pretty ritzy restaurant, pricey by Chinese standards, but worth every penny. Excellent service, very little English, leading to a hilarious pantomime when my friend wanted hot sauce.

In the evening, we hit the famous Li Qun roast duck restaurant, to which Mao supposedly used to send his driver to pick up a bird or two. More hilarity here. Guidebooks and maps gave us a general idea of where it was. I paused at a newspaper kiosk to ask the young proprietor if we were on the right track by eloquently handing him the card on which our concierge had written the name. “Ah, Li Qun,” he said thoughtfully. I nodded eagerly. He thought hard and added, “Duck.” I nodded again. He pointed straight, then right.

We knew we were on the right track when we were accosted by an enterprising bike taxi driver, but we waved him away and kept walking. Empty taxis going past us gave me hope, and sure enough the restaurant was right there. My friend remarked on what an ass she'd have felt like if we'd taken the ricksha! Though very, very famous, the place is still an unassuming hole in the wall and none too nice, but more importantly, I've never had such duck in my life. I don't like duck in the U.S. – it's too oily and gamy for me – but this slow woodroasted duck drips the fat out, leaving a tender, flavorful white meat that you roll up with cucumbers and scallions (not me) in little mu shu, dip in the special sauce (some kind of fermented bean base, I think) and eat till you feel like exploding. When we got there, only Chinese customers were around, but some Americans trickled in as real dinnertime approached. When we left, we nearly split our already-splitting sides with laughter; as you exit, on the whitewashed wall ahead of you is stenciled a little cartoon duck and the words “DUCK OK.” I wish I'd taken a picture.

On our last day, we came back from the Wall close to ravenous, and hit one of the oldest Chinese Muslim restaurants in town, Dong Lai Shun, conveniently right on Wangfujing. We had classic hot pot, which we filled with noodles, potatoes, pea shoots, mutton, and scallops, and chased with their delicious little sesame bread cakes. For the record, scallops suck in hot pot – fishing them out is much too hard.

Then it was off to the conference, where food was abundant but not nearly so good, of course. But those two days were ones for the books, for sure.

No comments: