Gastronomic Postcards from China
There are many different styles of restaurant available in Beijing (From McDonald's upwards!), some of which may be unfamiliar to Westerners, so I thought I'd illustrate a few types. I'll try and add more as I discover them.
I include some rather "unusual" foods and squeamish westerners may wish to stop reading now!
In this style of restaurant, which is very popular in Beijing, the centre of the table has a barbeque grill built in. You order various varieties of raw sliced meat and vegetables and it is cooked at the table. In the up-market versions the waiter does this, lower down the scale you do it yourself. Chopsticks are, of course, ideal for adding and removing pieces of meat from the grill.
This is not a very representative picture, as it was taken too early in the meal. Ten minutes later the whole table was covered with an array of raw meats, side dishes, soups and so on.
A Different Korean Barbeque
I found this variant in a small restaurant next door to work. Instead of a grill, the barbeque is just an open hole filled with burning charcoal, and the raw meat arrives on skewers ready to be cooked. You sprinkle spices on the kebab before putting it over the fire. I'm sure this one wouldn't be allowed in the UK, someone would burn themselves and sue.
It was in this restaurant that my hosts attempted to have some fun at my expense by ordering raw kidneys and then chicken hearts for us to cook over the fire. They were to be disappointed, and one turned rather pale when I gleefully pointed out the aorta. I had to eat his hearts as well!
Another popular type of restaurant, originating from Mongolia I believe. Once again you order raw meat and vegetables, but here instead of a barbeque you have a cauldron of boiling water in the middle of the table fired by burning charcoal or, in this case, by a gas ring, and you throw the food in and then fish it out later. Skill in the use of chopsticks is essential!
A very tasty dip is provided to add flavour and cool down the freshly cooked food.
You may also get an individual pot, perhaps filled with vegetable stock instead of just water.
As you can imagine, it gets rather humid in the summer.
This is a traditional Beijing style of food, they tell me. The noodles are heavier than the ones I have tried before; they arrive in a bowl on a tray surrounded by little dishes of vegetables which the waiter then tips into the main bowl before placing it on the table, along with a small dish of a very thick sauce which you stir into the noodles yourself. Very tasty and filling!
Also on the table you can see beef stew, peanuts, shredded pork (Which should be eaten in a pancake in the same way as the crispy duck we have back home.), sweet tea, a very nice lentil soup, and some kind of pickled vegetable covered in the hottest mustard I've ever tasted!
Sichuan province, located in the middle of China, is famous for its spicy food. In this Sichuan version of a hot pot restaurant the cauldron is divided into two: One side contains a vegetable stock, the other oil and chillis. A gas burner underneath keeps both sides bubbling gently, and you can choose whether to place your raw food in the stock side, or the oil side for a much spicier flavour. The pot is quite deep and a lot of fishing with chopsticks or the ladle is necessary to retrieve your cooked food, especially on the oil side where most searches just turn up chillis.
On the table you can see some thinly sliced beef, some fish fillets, sliced liver, and something I was told was stomach lining but it didn't look like the tripe I have eaten a couple of times recently.
My thanks to Bin Hu ("Bill") for taking me here for another new and tasty experience.
Still in China, but 1,000 km from Beijing, the food is somewhat different in Shanghai; less spicy, and some of the dishes have a slight sweetness to them.
When my Chinese colleagues informed me that snake was a traditional Shanghai dish I insisted we try some!
Here you can see some deep fried snake, which was rather tasty but full of bones.
We also had a dish containing snake skin, on which you could still see the patterned colorings of the snake.
We asked the waitress if we could see a live snake but I was disappointed (or maybe relieved) to learn that they were slaughtered elsewhere.
We visited an historic restaurant in the centre of old Shanghai for a traditional meal. In the pictures here you can see lots of different types of dumplings and cakes, savoury and sweet. At the back of the left hand picture is chicken's feet in a sticky sauce, and two oversize dumplings, in individual bamboo steamers, containing soup which you drink through a straw.
While in Shanghai I also managed to try cuisine from Guizhou Province in a popular restaurant. Another place with a gas ring in the middle of the table, but here it is used to heat a wok or a casserole. The food is pretty spicy with lots of chillis, pepper and garlic. Our meal included a very spicy casserole of crab meat and tofu, special fried rice, pork dumplings in a tangy sauce, vegetable wraps with a spicy dip, and taking pride of place sizzling in the wok, a stir fry of dog and bamboo shoots. The dog was dark with a somewhat beefy taste but with a rind like pork.