Monthly Archive for September, 2010

Mandos Trolls Your Tastebuds

Mandos brings us to the apparent Milwaukee of the Far East:

So Beijing is full of Beijing duck restaurants, but as usual, whenever I
wanted to actually *eat* the duck, they were never around, despite
having seen hundreds of them from buses and taxis. One night was such a
spectacular failure it is now a Funny Story as well as the time I
eventually ate what was probably the best Sichuan (ie “Szechuan”) food I
have ever eaten, but…for later.

It should first be understood that this is Northern China, and Northern
Chinese food seems to have more in common in overall style with other
northern cuisines…such as Central European in particular, than with
Sichuan and other southern foods. It may use similar ingredients as
southern Chinese food, and it may have noodles, but it is
“meat-and-potatoes” type of food. Think perogies and contrast them to steamed buns. Northern Chinese seem to believe that meat has a flavour
of its own and is not merely a textured medium for other tastes…and
they do not eat much hot spices. So Beijing duck must be understood in
this context, which is still a little difficult for me. Chinese food eaten in the West has its roots in Hong Kong/Guangdong (Cantonese)
food—not *that* spicy, but southern food.

On the morning before I left, I eventually managed to get myself at
pretty much the last minute to a famous Beijing duck restaurant at
Sanyuanqiao, a suburban business district the size and shape and style
of the downtown of a medium-sized Canadian city. It’s a small number of
stops away from my hotel on the Bus Rapid Transit that runs along
the North Third Ring Road (of six beltway style highways; the bus is
literally only 15-17 cents—1 RMB—and 6-7 cents if you use an RFID
subway card, and has robot English stop announcements). Sanyuanqiao
also has a cafe that claims to be “Canadian”. (Might be.)

The restaurant is a branch of the Quanjude (chew-on-joo-DEH) chain that
has 8 locations in Beijing, 50 in China as a whole, a few in Malaysia,
and one pilot in Australia in order to see whether they can expand in
white people markets. It is also 150 years old, and was patronized by
the Imperial Family…AND the Communist Party to which it is now closely
tied. It may be one of the few businesses to be favoured by both the
feudalists AND the Communists. Zhou Enlai himself ordered a branch
opened in a location convenient for him to take state visitors there.

So needless to say, Quanjude is *synonymous* with Beijing Duck. Their
restaurants are also enormous multi-story things, and, like McDonalds,
they have a counter for how many ducks they’ve sold since they were
founded, which is some ridiculously large number of dead ducks.
Specially bred at special farms.

I arrived at 11am and the main dining room was already starting to fill
up—with locals. The Chinese eat early unlike, say, the Spanish, who
eat very late. Also, roast duck is definitely something the locals eat,
it’s not *just* a tourist food. There aren’t enough tourists to fill
the Quanjude branches.

In Revolutionary China, one apparently does not normally dress up for
dinner except for the biggest public occasions. In Beijing, people show
off expensive brands, but not Western formalwear generally, and
certainly not traditional (feudal!) dress unless they’re a waitress.
Nevertheless, my enormous backpack was deemed unacceptable and a bag was
helpfully placed over it—making it *more* conspicuous, but whatever.

I ordered a half-duck, since that was the minimum quantity. You order a
certain number of side-dishes to go with it. I was informed that I
should order at least the rice-flour crepes and the
green-onions-with-green-onion-sauce side dish. To this I added the
pickled cabbage (a little spicy) and the peppers (non-spicy).

The side-dishes appeared quickly, but about half an hour later, the chef
appeared at my table with the duck on a cart. It is the whole duck,
including the head, which stares at you accusingly from the cart. The
chef lifts it up to the light with one hand, and uses a sharp knife in
the other to slice it very carefully, taking off strips of skin
separately from time to time.

It looked like he gives the innards to Chinese guests but apparently not
to foreigners. As a food culture, China does not believe in waste. I
was perfectly content to be denied the innards. He did give me the
head. The other side of the duck goes to whoever else ordered a
half-duck.

As I said, waste and Chinese food do not go together. Shortly after I
got the carved duck meat, a big bowl of duck soup appeared, just a
whitish broth, presumably from the bones of carved ducks.

The waitress showed me how to eat it. You take a crepe, take some duck,
dip the duck in the onion sauce, add some green onion, put it in the
crepe, and wrap it up. Then eat the crepe. This all must be done with
the chopsticks (even tourist restaurants often simply lack Western
cutlery—if you don’t learn to use chopsticks you’ll starve;
fortunately I already knew, which surprised Chinese acquaintances during
my visit and I think put them off a bit). You can also use the other
side-dishes in the crepe.

So, the whole point of the duck is the skin. The skin is very thick and
has been specially treated for days, lightly glazed in a sugar
marinade…however, it is not sweet. It is very crispy all the way
through. The meat is tender, but an afterthought under the skin.

What did it taste like? Well, *with* the onion sauce…sweet. With the
pickled cabbage…like pickled cabbage. With the peppers, like…well,
you get the picture. Neither the duck nor the duck soup tasted like
much of anything. The duck skin had an absolutely delicious *texture*,
but no flavour to speak of.

Now if I were one of those people who were raised to think that meat had
a taste of its own, I might say otherwise, but I’m not. (I didn’t eat
the head either, beyond a taste of the skin which is much thinner and
flakier. I presume I was expected to eat the brain?)

The whole meal cost 23 USD, roughly. That’s an astronomical price for
food in Beijing that isn’t served by a Western or Japanese restaurant at
international prices. Consider that I had a wonderful Sichuan lunch at
a mall food court for $2 (that would have cost $8-10 in the USA), and
one in fancy restaurant for $4. I think I got better value for the $2
than I got for $23, but at least I crossed the Beijing duck off the
list, so to speak.

A few days before, a Czech conference-goer also tried Quanjude and told
me that it was one of the best meals he had ever eaten. That is a
“global North” palate for you. And I recognize the artistry and skill
that goes into making Beijing roast duck. But for those of us with
“global South” tastes, it doesn’t really make the cut. I was raised
with a palate that considers meat to be merely a textured medium for
operatic medleys of flavour, and the flavour was simply missing, and
I found it hard to appreciate.

Verdict: meh. But some of you might like it.

So then I took the bus back to my hotel, picked up my luggage, and left
China.