The Chinese have a reputation: they will eat anything and everything whose back faces the sky.
We, though, were Chinese of a lesser ilk, and it was with trepidation that we decided to experience some of the tastes of China while in Beijing recently. But I demanded that I be told what was on the plate in front of me . . . I didn’t want to be eating tiger’s penis, bear paws or monkey brains!
The Imperial Banquet and the Beijing Duck are touted as the finest cuisines of the country. We did not have the 226 dishes that were served to the Empress Dowager – our Imperial Banquet only served 26 dishes with various appetisers of pickled vegetables, mains of pig trotters and other meats, and desserts of sweets and fluffy pastries.
Twenty-six dishes was already too much; how did the royalty manage 226?
The Beijing Duck was brought in on a trolley by the chef, the carver and the waiter. The chef lifted the cover with a flourish, the carver deftly sliced pieces of the crispy skin and placed them on a plate together with thin pieces of the steaming hot duck, and the waiter carried them to our table. We took a piece of thin rice paper, placed a piece of crispy skin, duck meat and a sprig of spring onion on it, rolled them together, dabbed a bit of dark plum sauce and tucked in . . . yummy.
Later, we hit the streets. The man selling haw candy pursued us. The haw is a small fruit the size of a 20-sen coin, red in colour. To balance out its rather sourish taste, the entire fruit is dipped in a thick sugary syrup. These sugar-coated fruits (sometimes interspersed with slices of Mandarin oranges, also coated with hardened sugar) are sold by the sticks – one yuan (47 sen) per stick.
One cold, freezing day, when we exited from the underground Ming Tombs, everyone rushed to the stall selling hot boiled corns. I made for the bicycle stall selling roasted sweet potatoes. I’ve been told that no holiday in China during the winter months would be complete without a visit to one of the sweet potato stalls that dot almost every corner of the city.
The corns turned out to be old-ish, hard to the bite and bland – practically everyone tossed theirs into the dustbin. The humble sweet potatoes, in contrast, were delicious. Grilled over hot coals in a large metal drum, they were sweet and aromatic.
The nearby city of Chengde is famous for its nuts – almonds, hazel nuts, walnuts, brazil nuts. We found a grocer selling very fresh almonds coated in honey and sesame seeds. Those coated with plain sugar and sesame seeds were better, and we bought a kati for only 8 yuan (RM3.75).
Markets in the local suburbs reflect the Chinese fondness for seeds and nuts. You can pick up fresh sunflower seeds, with or without shell, plain or honey coated or in other flavours.
Fancy cinnamon-flavoured seeds? I couldn’t get used to them. There were also wintermelon seeds, red watermelon seeds, black kwa-chee seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds and many more amidst the bewildering selection of seeds and nuts.
My trepidation of eating strange things proved real in the village of Ta Ke Cha en route from Chengde back to Beijing, where the Manchurians and the Hans lived and traded in peace and harmony. A small crowd had gathered around a vendor selling some eggs cooked over a pan.
I drew close, curious as to what the local folks were obviously relishing. Our guide William Zhao explained that the eggs had been hatched until the chick has a fine layer of down over it, then taken out to boil and transferred into a pan to cook with herbs and spices. Indeed, I could see the de-shelled eggs with the soft feathers of the partially incubated chick inside. No, no, not for me. I fled.
I settled for the safer egg – the “tea egg” boiled for hours in a black concoction of herbs and teas. Suffused with the richness of the herbs and teas that usually seeped through the shells, the eggs were delicious.
Back in Beijing, in the food court of a large shopping complex, we came across a woman stirring a large pot of stew and bidding us to patronise her stall. We could not understand her accent. She pointed the signboard to us.
Horror of horrors – it was dog meat stewed in herbs! The lady kept on insisting it was very good. She looked rather insulted when we scurried off with our hands covering our mouths and noses lest we even smelled it. What a vile thing to eat!
Along the rural roads, I saw shepherds with their flocks of white, woolly sheep. Mutton must be easily available.
We were urged to try the local “lanzhou Muslim lamb barbeque”. Like the Malaysian satay, these are pierced with a bamboo stick but the meat pieces are bigger and each stick longer. One stick costs a mere 25 sen.
There is no sauce to dip the barbequed lamb satay. There is no need for sauce. The lamb meat is marinated with herbs and sauces. And PLENTY of spices and peppers. By the second stick, I swear my tongue was hissing with smoke and fire.
In my naivete, I thought we Malaysians are the ones with the spicy palates. Phew, the Chinese are way beyond us with their fiery lanzhou lamb barbeque! W
Malaysia Airlines has flights to most major cities in China. If you do not fancy a guided tour, you can opt for a Free & Easy. In Beijing for example, it is a breeze. Signboards are plenty and facilities are excellent. Taxis are metered so you need not worry about undue charges.
Gone are the days of malodorous toilets with no doors or cubicles. Beijing is very modern and updated, more so in preparation to host the 2008 Olympics.