A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Out for a Duck


It’s a well known fact among friends of your favourite blogger that he lives by the maxim that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Yes, I love food. It is truly one of the joys in my life and if ever I am invited out to a meal, the answer is always ‎’yes’ before I even know where I am being invited to! (Luckily I have a very high metabolism which means that however much I stuff myself, my weight tends to remain the same, much to the annoyance of some of my female friends who suffer from being on a permanent diet.)
So when I am asked if I’d like to go to a restaurant to pig out on Beijing Duck, after a pleasant afternoon out in the park, the answer is a no-brainer, especially as I just LOVE Beijing Duck!
Time to head on over to the Tianwaitian Roast Duck Restaurant (天外天烤鸭店) within spitting distance of JiaoMenXi station exit E.
Established in 1990 by a certain Mr. Yin, this popular roast duck restaurant originated in Haidian District and now has 18 restaurants throughout Beijing. Apart from their signature roast duck, they are perhaps best known for their Cantonese and Hunan cuisine.
We are shown to a table in a little side room, not having booked in advance. It is a little over-hot and stuffy in here, unlike the cooler atmosphere in the main body of the restaurant; but we are immediately given a cooling cloth wipe by a waitress who, we learn later, has never served a laowai before! She casts glances in my direction every time she thinks I am not looking. I’m not sure what she is expecting, and hope I don’t disappoint her induction into the ways of mysterious westerners!

It seems appropriate, having just visited the Garden of World’s Flowers, to have three tulips stuck up onto the wall. It is the only attempt at decoration in the side room.

Although we are here for the duck, the menu has a number of yummy items to tempt our taste buds. Steamed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice seems a good starter…
Lotus roots, the majority of which in China come from the Yangtze River Valley, are actually long tubers that grow horizontally under the plants, the real roots being the hairs that bristle out from between the white segments. Irrespective of their taste, cut into slices, these tubers are one of the most beautiful of all vegetables. Traditionally, round sweet rice fills the holes in the tuber, which is then poached for a few hours, and then chilled.
If you do your homework on the ‘net you will learn that lotus root is very good for you. Cooling blood and efficacy of blood stasis and tonifying the spleen and wheting the appetite, diarrhea; fever attending intense thirst, vomiting blood, nose bleeding, and hot shower. Invigorating stomach and spleen, nourishing blood effects, effect of shengji diarrhea; indications of lung-heat cough, upset thirst, diarrhea of spleen deficiency, loss of appetite, gushes about-chinesefood.com, not, I have to admit, that I understand what on earth they are on about; but they sound convinced at any rate!
Oh. There’s more! The general population are edible, it continues. Lotus, women should not be premature edible; Lotus from the cold, raw sweet and delightful, but because of the spleen and stomach. Poor digestive function of spleen and stomach, bowels loose stool should not be eaten raw… (Yes! I would certainly never eat loose stool raw! Oh Yukkkkk!!!)

Something else on the menu that appeals is called “Handbag Food” – though when it appears I think rabbit food might be more appropriate. But it too is cooked to perfection!

Next up is salt and pepper shrimp. Although this is a Cantonese dish, it is sometimes made with Szechuan Salt and Pepper, though what they are using here I have no idea. The shells are left on the shrimps to protect the meat inside, so that it tastes very tender. But as they are crispy fried, you eat the shells anyway. Rice flour is the usual “secret ingredient” and mixed with five-spice powder, it creates a wonderful crispy coating on the shrimp.

Next up is what the Tianwaitian calls Bisk Lion but what is often referred to as Lion’s Head in other eateries up and down the country.

Traditionally this dish originated in the region of Yangzhou and became a part of Shanghai cuisine with the influx of migrants in the 19th and early 20th century. It features oversized pork meatballs with bok choy, all of which is cooked in a sand clay pot. The large meatballs are said to represent a lion, and the shredded greens its mane. (Yeah, I know it’s far fetched, but you have to admit it is rather a cute notion!)
The minced meat in the meatball tends to be made from fatty pork (lean pork making for a less desirable taste), often with some chopped water chestnut for textural variation.

So, with shrimps and pork and lotus having put in an appearance, how about some Kung Pao Chicken? This is a classic spicy stir-fry dish made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chilli peppers.
The dish is believed to be named after Ding Baozhen (1820–86), a late Qing Dynasty official, and governor of Sichuan Province. His title was Gongbao which literally translates as "Palace Guardian” and Kung Pao is simply a derivation of this.
During the Cultural Revolution, the dish's name became politically incorrect because of its association with Ding. It was renamed "Fast-fried chicken cubes" until its political rehabilitation in the 1980s.

Maybe it’s time to add some fish to the overall taste experience? How about Squirrel Fish?
This is basically a whole fish that has been deboned with the fillet still attached to the tail. The fillet is then cut in a cross-hatch pattern and when deep fried, is meant to look like a squirrel in flight! It is finished with shrimp, dried bamboo shoots and a sweet-and-sour sauce is served with it, which is sweet, tangy and very red (the main ingredient being tomato purée).
Depending on which web site you happen to read, the origin of the name Squirrel Fish came about because

a) a long time ago, an Emperor wanted to eat carp, but carp was forbidden to be eaten. But being a truculent Emperor, he wanted to have his way; so the chef had to come up with a fool-proof method to make it look un-carplike … and using his culinary skills, made the fish look like a flying squirrel instead.
 b) during Emperor Qianlong’s extensive tour of the south, he caught sight of a particularly frisky carp and, delighted by its apparent zest for life, ordered it to be cooked immediately. In an attempt to capture the fish’s former joie de vivre, the chef focused on giving it a reanimated-look when he fried it.

c) the origin of the dish’s name lies in the squirrel-like squeaks and squeals that erupt from the flesh when hot sauce is poured over it.
You’d think with all this nosh to start off with, we would be hard pressed to do justice to a large plate of duck – which is still being prepared for us. So as an interlude, and to get the gastric juices doing their thing before the next onslaught I take a look at what other culinary delicacies there are on the menu.
I think this portion of the blog is what the French are wont to call “Sans paroles”...
But tempting though it undoubtedly all is, we must put on hold the “Baby Food Mix Sting”, “Gelatin Donkey Meat”, “Chives mixed with Mr Edge”, “Fried Stinky Bass”, “Peasant a Bowl of Incense”, “The Fire Burn to Duck Heart”, “Fish features and vigorous”, or even “Dry Pot Assorted Bacteria”. Shame!
According to numerous copy-and-paste web sites, a saying that is often heard is: "There are two things you must do in Beijing: eat Beijing Roast Duck and see the Great Wall." I’m glad to report that though a visit to the Great Wall can be disappointing in the extreme, you will rarely be disappointed by properly cooked Beijing Duck.
The manner of serving and eating Beijing Duck is also unique. The chef presents you the whole duck before taking it away for slicing. One duck may produce up to 120 very thin slices, which are brought back to the table with some thin pancakes, green onion or shallot, sweet soybean paste and fresh cucumber, and sometimes garlic paste and sugar.
The best way to enjoy Beijing Duck is to place slices of the duck onto the pancake with each of the above mentioned vegetables and seasonings. The trick is not to be too greedy and fill your pancake to extremes, else like your favourite blogger you end up making a real mess.

After the first courses, we are hard pressed to finish up the entire duck – but in common with most Chinese restaurants it is expected that you will take away any leftovers for continuing your pig-out at home. We fill four plastic boxes and head out back into the main restaurant, which is now filled to capacity.

Staggering out into the night air a helpful sign points us in the direction of the metro … which is officially called the Subway in Beijing – all except line 4 which is jointly funded by Hong Kong’s MTR system, so it is the only one of BJ’s subways which can call itself Metro; and it even has different bylaws from the rest of the subway system.
But I am mistaken. Not Metro at all, but …

Intrigued by this new take on BJ’s subway system I do a google search for Metto. Apart from being the name of a tea and coffee house in South Carolina, the only other reference I can find is the following …

Sometimes, I have learnt that it is better not to ask the question….