Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Peking town.

I don't know if it's just me, but whenever I travel to China, I can literally smell China as soon as I leave the airport. It's an old musky smell. It doesn't smell horrible, but it definitely is not the smell of freshly baked cookies. So when I revisited Beijing this year, I naturally expected to get a big whiff of that familiar scent as soon as I landed - however, I was pleasantly surprised.

Beijing is a schizophrenic. Its personality changes every couple of months and merely crossing a bridge means seeing a completely different aspect of the city - which is why I loved every minute of it.

Now let's talk food. When I think of Beijing and China in general, I think of its glorious street food. It's the heavenly and/or threatening little snacks along the street, the somewhat unsanitary yet oh-so-delicious delicacies that one can find in late night stalls - and that's what I always thought was the definition of China's food culture.

Us Chinese eat pretty much anything. We think of new and innovative ways to serve "food." Sometimes we do it so that food can party in your mouth, but most of the time we do it because if we don't think of these creative ways, people would never try them. For example. We apparently serve fruit on a skewer. It sounds normal enough on paper, but we actually glaze them in brown sugar and then freeze them, so it becomes more like a fruit Popsicle. (Okay, maybe not brown sugar, but it does look brown and it is sweet, and I honestly don't want to know the truth.)

Then we have the starfish. Simple enough. We just deep fry it so it passes as food, and I guess it would taste good. As Padma from Top Chef once announced, "deep fry anything and it'll taste good, even my big toe!"

Alright..food culture. So like I mentioned, Beijing is a schizo. The city has some serious personalities, so don't let it fool you. I got acquainted with one of its more recently developed faces this time round - high end cuisine. I frequented dimly lit Chinese restaurants featuring fusion food, and along with its delicate presentation and use of flavors, I would've never guessed I was tasting this at the Capital of China.

One of the most impressive places was in the middle of the Financial District. The restaurant, Whampoa Club, was an eye-opener. The decor composed of traditional bird cages hanging from the ceiling, each installed with a light bulb, a downstairs basement where the main dining room was, and private room upstairs decked out with "cloud" light installations. The effort put into renovating this once traditional Chinese household is phenomenal. Now, the food.

There were tasting menus available, something that is unfamiliar in Chinese restaurants. Instead, we usually have what we call "set menus," which are ranked as "crowd pleasers on a limited budget," not as "amazing foodie adventures." We ordered several dishes - four season preserved vegetables, foie gras wrapped with dried, pressed bean curd, steamed tofu in oolong tea and lotus seeds, and the famous Beijing specialty - noodles with fried minced pork paste (see below.)

So what did I gather from this restaurant?

...Try another one! More to come.

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