A foodie in Beijing

For the past three years almost, I have been living and working in Beijing. I couldn’t access my blog, even with several vpns, and I thought I’d lost the whole thing altogether. And today miraculously, I’m writing, not from scratch, but continuing my written journey on food, love of food and more on said food.

It’s safe to say I ate a lot of food. Enough to summarise some of the absolute highlights of Beijing here on the little dumpling.

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From the more well-known Peking duck (Dadong for the haute cuisine, Liqun for the traditional version served in hideaway hutong surroundings) and delightful bubble tea (I am forever in love with the CoCo and their passionfruit tea with coconut jelly), I also ventured forth into the unknown, the slowly disappearing, late-night world of barbecued chuanr and street food.

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When I think of chuanr I think of drinking a light Yanjing beer with friends after work, sitting on a stool the height of an encyclopedia and shelling edamame and boiled peanuts under a smoky night sky, waiting for each kind of chuanr to cook: first the fish tofu, then varieties of gristle, lamb on a stick, bread, aubergine, peppers and lastly, the chicken wings. Recent regulatory crackdowns have shut down most of these outdoor spots, forcing small businesses and families to relocate and making real outdoor chuanr hard to find. If you look hard enough in some hutongs or ask a local, you might be able to find one. Otherwise, look out for the neon chuanr sign.

Along Dongzhimen outer street, to a backdrop of buskers and burps of hastily slurped drinks, numbingly spicy vats of frogs legs and langoustines await the bravehearted. Steaming hotpots of yin and yang flavours, sichuan style (like at the reknowned chain HaidiLao)

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Or the more traditional Beijing-style, coal-chimney-esque pots at the table with clear rich soups and addictively nutty sesame sauce, handfuls of coriander and a dash of fermented tofu (for the best taste of traditional Beijing hotpot head down to Jubaoyuan and don’t forget to order sesame rolls like a local).

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And of course we made and conquered countless dumplings of different fillings, including my favourite although unexpected: courgette and egg (the cheapest and most cheerful of all, available in most mall canteens or head down to the pricier but still affordable English-speaking joint Mr Shi’s).

Like any other city, there were also many other cuisines to sample. Even after a trip to Japan my favourite yakitori bar is still in Beijing, Sanlitun: Beyond yakitori serves perfectly seasoned and barbecued morsels on a stick, washed down with a pineapple cocktail or two in a copper cup. We luxuriated in Korean barbecue- long lunches of chargrilled meats dipped in salty, earthy seasonings and hastily wrapped and wolfed down in lettuce leaves with tea or fresh watermelon juice.

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I had my first foray into seriously good American barbecue, smoked in house, smothered in healthy pools of sauces and served with cornbread, beans or potato salad at Homeplate BBQ. Right next to it you’ll find Taco bar, the best fish tacos in town and pitchers of Gato, a cucumber variation on gin and tonic.

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I was spoilt for choice. In addition, apps like meituanwaimai and Sherpa’s meant many of the above could be delivered home for little or no charge, within half an hour. My particular weaknesses on home movie nights was Annie’s Italian food (meituanwaimai) and Korean fried chicken covered in sticky sweet chilli sauces from The Flying Chicken (Ordered via wechat account fly168668 by request in Chinese). With Wechat pay everything was dangerously available and cheap, just a click away.

Fastforward to the present and I’m sitting at my desk, back in the UK. I like having tea with fresh milk, I like the familiar brands of yoghurt and cereal, the water from the tap, bread that isn’t sweet, cheese on crackers and crumpets. I went cherry-picking with my mother in the rain and drank last year’s elderflower cordial and sloe gin. I’ve been to the pub once or twice, got food poisoning and spent over £100 on said bad meal for 3. I’m cooking more at home again. And I’m getting used to the fact KFC doesn’t deliver.

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Free-cycle free-style

One of my lasting memories will be when we left the village of Mingela and the children came to say goodbye. Their eyes lit up at the sight of our empty cardboard boxes and tins and they hoarded them like gold. In the village it was easy for me to identify kids and remember their names, because apart from special occasions they wore the same clothes everyday. The kind of clothes that I would have thrown away because they were so broken and worn. I lived out of a suitcase and rucksack for 2 and a half months with a couple of outfits to change between and I was happy. I’m not a lavish person, but I have been guilty of complaining in the most irritating of tones: “muuum… I have nothing to wear…” When I came back I emptied my uni clothes, (note not even all of my clothes) onto the sofa.

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The sad thing is, if I had known how much a T-shirt would have meant to someone in Mingela, I would have brought more of my clothes with me. On our way back, we stopped for a transfer in Doha airport, Qatar. The shiny, enticing, and superflousness of high consumerism hit me like a brick. A dazzling sports car, beautifully airbrushed women in fragrance adverts and oo look, 3 for 2 on shiny big packets of chocolate… the number of things I have bought because of a 3 for 2 deal… the number of times I go and still go to the supermarket and come out with things I do not need and did not want… the money the supermarkets pay for the design and layout that ensures we all go out with more than we wanted. Every single stall in Mingela sold something that was a basic necessity.

A friend from the village took me to the tailor’s once to get fitted for an outfit. She wanted to treat me and give me something to remember her by after we left. Her gesture was so generous… how could I say I had nothing? You always have something, it’s just whether you feel generous enough to give it away.

When I came home, I avoided the shops and consumerism altogether. I couldn’t face it. Instead, I had a little root through our garage. I found more than I bargained for:

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Pearl and jade necklaces, a brand new watch still in its packaging, a scarf for a special occasion, one of those mini travel makeup sets that look so useful and then you never use it (this one was so old some kind of fungus had started to eat the plastic on the outside) in addition to the entire professional drum kit that my mother bought and my brother never played… cardboard box upon cardboard box. Only after living in Mingela, in the middle of nowhere, in one of Tanzania’s poorest regions, made me realise the sheer volume of stuff we buy and forget about.

And this isn’t a post about how lucky we are. For the vast majority of the time I was in Mingela, I never felt the need to describe the village as a poor one. Their generosity, the warmth of their greetings- children would rush out of their mud brick houses just to call out: “Mambo! Mambo Louisee!”, the singing and dancing in their crowded churches, at festivals and weddings, just how rich, abundant and colourful the culture was shielded me from the thought.

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There’s something to be said for living in the absence of consumerism, everything’s simpler and more straightforward. It was clear what they did not have materially, they made up for in other ways. But when I saw the children on the last day, the veil lifted from my eyes. So did Doha airport and even just walking down the bread aisle in the supermarket when I got home.

The price we pay for having everything we want, is to also produce a hell of a lot of stuff we don’t want, ultimately in the form of waste. It makes sense to mass produce, to keep costs low, to keep the price down for consumers. It does not make sense to mass produce, so that we have to pay the environmental price of an ever-growing mountain of waste. We may be spoilt for choices now, but what about in the future? We are distracted by choice, distracted from the end of the consumerist chain, which is the landfill that does not discriminate between brands, or packaging, or quality, like a constantly overfed rat. When the rubbish is on our doorstep, maybe when it knocks down a housing price or two, maybe that’s when we’ll start thinking of it as a problem.

I’ve racked my brain and I can think of some solutions that might ease the waste problem, but nothing to cure us of consumerism. It took me a 2 and a half month trip to Africa to make me realise it was a problem.

Something thrown away is something we want to forget about in the first place. And our rubbish is handily collected and taken away from under our nostrils once a week. In Mingela there was no rubbish collection service, the rubbish we had, we burnt. On a small scale for 14 people this was ok. But we still managed to accumulate 2 full sacks every night. What if waste became something valuable and useful? Like to the kids who fought over our cardboard boxes? Websites such as https://www.freecycle.org/ create a healthy attitude where people consider first if what they’re about to throw away might still be useful to someone else in their local area. We can also develop our attitude about the treatment of waste itself. There are many ways of utilising it by turning it to biofuel and building more biogas plants (capturing gas produced via bacteria breaking down waste). There’s always recycling, for those who can be bothered. And maybe we need to set an example for other countries who have so much land they don’t feel the need to recycle or have landfill tax (cough cough USA). Maybe waste could be the common denominator for all countries- after all, every country has it. Waste is universal. But our attitude towards that waste needs to change.

A Chinese Wedding

The initial reason for my going to China was because I had been asked by my cousin to be her maid of honour. This was my first experience of a Chinese wedding and it proved to be anything but boring.

The traditional ritual to which the wedding tends is to collect the bride from her house and to carry her, not without due pomp and ceremony, to her new husband’s house and her new home. This sounds simple. The first problem was that my cousin lived in Shenzhen and the groom lived in Ningbo, the equivalent of going up and down between London and Aberdeen 3 times.

Instead, the journey was made from a hotel in Ningbo. This is where I come in. When the groom came to collect his bride he had to get past me first. My brother and I had spent days thinking of riddles and even mathematical puzzles before we realised we were totally barking up the wrong tree. The whole affair was merely a show, as if to say “I’m not going to just let you walk in and take my cousin away- you had better give me good reason to!” The questions themselves were really just playful banter- “who’s going to do the washing up?” and that kind of thing, after which if the answer was not enough in the way of appeasement then a red envelope containing money would be. Perhaps I did my job too well, barricading the door etc. but I delayed the groom and his saucy best man (who seemed to be doing all the talking) enough to make us behind schedule. As my mother kindly put it afterwards, I was meant to let them in after all. I was also under the impression that I was collecting the money (equiv. £20) for my cousin when actually I was meant to keep it. After getting past me, my uncle guarded the final door to my cousin’s room.

Once the groom got past even this intimidating hurdle, my uncle, being the male representative of this side of the family had to carry my cousin down to the antique Rolls Royce waiting outside. The theme here was that the bride’s feet must never touch the floor at any point during her journey (unless it’s carpeted in red) and likewise the scorching sun should be kept at bay. Armed with parasol in one hand and the bride’s shoes in the other I shielded the ruddy complexion of an uncle (who has high blood pressure) carrying a delighted cousin who despite having a light frame was not exactly wearing the lightest or most compact dress.

The open-top car had a red fur carpet laid down for the luxury of her feet and the car moved slowly enough for me to keep the parasol up for most of the way. We were followed by a procession of posh cars covered in pink pompoms (an elegant pairing) and serenaded by loud, traditional Chinese music.

At the other end, it was the groom’s turn to carry his bride to her new home (16th floor, thank goodness for the lift) and likewise the groom’s family’s turn to interrogate my cousin. This was done not half as well as I had done, (or perhaps better), for she was through in a jiffy. Upstairs the groom’s family had prepared a soup which appeared to be made from boiled dragon eye fruit and quails eggs. At no other point in life would I ever expect to eat such an unexpected combination. I don’t know if this is merely a Ningbo tradition or not and I’m not sure if anyone in the room knew what it meant. We ate it to be polite and it was rather sweet. There were also some shanghai xiaolongbao, again not for any particular reason. I do however know the meaning of the dates, peanuts, dragon eyes and watermelon seeds in four bowls sitting on top of the nuptial bed. The words in Chinese are: zao, shen, gui, zi and homophones for something that roughly translates as: give birth to a beloved child soon. My cousin offered tea to older members of both sides of the family. A fragrant rose tea, which I noticed they did not drink, but rather pretended to sip.

From here we went to the chosen grassy spot for the ceremony to take place. This part was in the Western tradition, except instead of a priest there was a guy with a microphone conducting the whole affair as if it were a musical, complete with cheesy music. It was certainly much more dramatic to watch. The host and his microphone followed us to the hotel and continued to conduct things in a voice that reminded me of the releasing of the lottery balls. He cracked jokes, he sang songs, he made up competitions for the guests to have a go at. It was a very lively wedding for sure, even if I was getting a headache from his singing.

The rest of the feast as far as I can tell, did not have as much signification as the previous nuts and dates had. The ingredients were expensive and the portions generous. I spotted my cousin’s favourite salmon sashimi, drunk crab (raw crab that has met an excessive end) the luxurious collagen-rich sea cucumber, lobster, king prawns, shanghai chicken, my favourite osmanthus flower flavoured jiu niang (fermented rice wine) with tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) and egg, with the unconventional addition of watermelon. So many platters, I cannot remember them all… There was simply no possibility of finishing it all…

The bride and groom could not indulge too long in their own feast, for it was their job to drink a toast to everyone in the room. After first drinking to their parents they had to make their way around at least 12 tables, over a hundred guests! The best man and I accompanied them around the room. He handed out cigarettes and I topped up the bride and groom’s glasses with red wine. A friend of the groom’s came up to me and asked me if it was really alcohol. Of course it was! I said in earnest, look, it says 11.5% on the bottle. He looked at me and then at the groom’s flushed face and said, the groom can’t take too much wine. He then sniffed the bottle, smiled and sat back down again. This put me in an awkward position. To continue to pour the wine that the groom was expected to drink, even if he shouldn’t, or to hell with tradition, and pride, and possibly offending guests. Thankfully the rounds were coming to an end anyway and we resumed our seats. It later transpired that the married couple had indeed diluted the wine down, without my noticing- I had been pouring 60% Coca cola!

The rest of the day was taking photographs in the French quarter of the city, in the shadow of an old Gothic church. We handed out sweets to strangers from the open top car, people smiled and pointed as we drove by and everyone was very congratulatory. It struck me that a wedding wasn’t strictly just business between two people, it was everyone’s business.

And what about my cousin? There she was up from the crack of dawn, ferried back and forth like a spinning rugby ball, patiently posing for every photograph and under a heavy dress the size of a house on a very hot day. For her, the wedding was a personal feat in more ways than one. She explained: at home you have your parents to think of you, at work, your role is very specialised (Adam Smith’s division of labour and all that), you’re just one part in the grand scheme of things- a wedding is the one thing you can organise entirely by yourself, like being the producer and director of your own film. It’s the kind of statement that sets the precedent for how you want to live your life in the future. And how you organise your wedding says a lot about the kind of life you want to live.

I have mixed feelings about my cousin’s views. Is a wedding really the only thing left to personal direction? As much as I would like to argue that you should direct your life the way you want in all things, being part of a family and even starting a family can mean personal ambition gets sidetracked. For example, the bride and groom can’t continue to work in Shenzhen and Ningbo forever respectively. Someone will have to compromise. This also means someone will have to live away from their single mothers. And of course my cousin is an only child, as is the groom.

This kind of case is increasingly common in China. Both bride and groom gave me very realistic and practical answers about their future. If the way they directed their wedding together is an accurate precedent for the future I believe they’ll be able to reach a solution that doesn’t involve yoyoing between cities and families.

Welcome!

… to the little dumpling, where food, arts and culture meet. I’m a spontaneous kind of person, but I also like to plan a good night out and cook sustainably. From London to ShaoXing, China, to a remote village in Tanzania, this blog is a map of just some of my own culinary experiences and a small portion of our global culinary heritage. Happy reading!