I know that some social media sites are clogged with pictures of food, usually mundane “what I had for lunch today” shots, so this will be my contribution to that “art form”. But relax I only have a few of these and I think these are a bit more exotic.
Note: This is one of my rare multi-photo post so even if you find the narrative uninteresting scroll down for a few more photos.
I’ll start with this one.
You might think this comes from somewhat in Napa Valley or LA. Well, the restaurant was more “modern” and “trendy” than any I’ve seen anywhere in the US and just happens to be in Beijing. It’s just around the corner from the Grand Hyatt which itself just a few blocks from the Forbidden City. But the “cool” factor on this place was through the roof. It might not exist any more since I can’t find it (to get the name I forgot) but it was wow-squared. Incredible presentation, especially for the prix fixee dinner my colleagues enjoyed.
Going to China, on business, was remarkable to me. My sister had visited not long after the early thawing of relations with the US and I was prepared for a fairly primitive 3rd world kind of experience. Instead, at least where we were in Beijing I was in the most modern city I’d ever seen, a kinda Houston (in its heyday) with Asian flare. It seemed like everything had been built yesterday.
But it was food that was even more remarkable. Our colleagues there weren’t serving as guides, but they took us around to their favorite places (my company picked up the tab so our local co-workers were happy to be an our expense account.) Even the local eateries were fantastic. An interesting wrinkle was that prices were negotiated between the restaurant and a company, so our local guys just showed their badges to pay.
The local company my US company owned and was contracting to had offices in both Beijing and Xi’an, so this was a wonderful opportunity to throw in a little tourism plus some adventures in food. So here’s another bizarre item from a really great restaurant in Xi’an.
This creation was designed to look like the seed pod from a lotus blossom and in fact had the “nuts” from a lotus pod. Like a number of items it was a bit more pleasing to look at than eat. But it was a long way from the really icky chicken feet in duck intestine that our hosts (colleagues) decided would be fun to gross us out (you didn’t see them eating it either).
And here’s another mystery.
I have no clue what this is and it’s another item that looked better than it tasted. We often asked our local colleagues what some of these things are and after much discussion we’d get “weed that grows along the road” since there was no English name. At least with the professional (software) people we were with we discovered that the Chinese eat very well, lots of diversity in the food, often quite tasty, usually quite pretty, and rarely like anything you can find in the US.
There was essentially, without it being a deliberate trend, a strong farm-to-table movement. Due to jet lag I was up just before dawn one day and walking around and everywhere there were guys with motorbikes stacked unbelievably high and precariously with crates of mysterious vegetables, making deliveries to the restaurants. It turns out these guys come in from the countryside on buses (equipped to transport their motorbikes) and make daily deliveries.
We also learned another interesting tidbit. Naturally one of our first lunches including Peking Duck (still labeled that way despite the more correct name of Beijing). In fact, many restaurants have large sculptured (and cute) ducks near their door. Anyway the server (a sous chef) must have specific training to serve this item. So the first customer gets served the best parts. Since the food has only been handled by the server it can then be served as a second (cheaper) serving to another customer. And when that part is done it was used a third time to make soup from the carcass, nothing going to waste.
And as a final comment I was discussing cooking with the most senior member of our local team. He’d actually gotten a PhD from Stanford in Physics and worked years in the US and was now managing a software company after returning “home” after some of the liberalizations. Anyway he was an accomplished cook and I fashion myself as a decent cook so we were comparing notes. Almost immediately he objected to my use of the term “Chinese food”. He explained China is far too large with far too many culinary styles to be lumped under a single term. His simple statement was “you wouldn’t call French or Italian food European, would you?” Point taken. He wasn’t objecting that I’d made some insensitive cultural faux pas, but just that I was drastically under-estimating the complexity and sophistication of food in China. Point taken! And much good food enjoyed.