Taking in Beijing's Culinary Delights (and the Odd Fist Fight)
Is there room in the back?
Day 26: My first night in Beijing, I bathed in an eighteenth-century palace, rode on a bus more packed than I thought possible, and ingested the spiciest cabbage in existence. This was before the fight broke out.
Let's begin with the palace. It was built as a residence for a Ching dynasty prince, and later turned into a Sichuan restaurant, which was something the prince never saw coming. According to lore, it was Deng Xiao Ping's favorite place to go for dinner, and in 1995 it was fashioned into the China Club Hotel. The China Club is something all too rare: an expensive hotel with character. I'm not sure my room was the prince's actual bedroom--you probably need to own a Gulfstream for that--but that was okay with me. My room, I thought, just might have been the quarters of the prince's favorite concubine, and that her spirit would visit me during the night. (No such luck, as it turned out.)
The China Club Hotel
The bathroom was such that I couldn't decide which looked more appealing: having a bath, or taking a shower. I struggled with the decision for a good eight minutes, then decided to do both. Not long after, my guide, David Spindler, arrived. David Spindler is a man who grew up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and is one of the world's foremost experts on the Great Wall of China. Over the next two days, the plan was for David to lead me on a hike over a 450-year-old stretch of wall. But before we could start that, there was a more pressing issue: dinner.
We walked out to The Avenue of Eternal Peace and hopped on a bus, with an atmosphere at odds with the street on which the bus was driving. Before I describe the bus though, I should say a thing or two about Beijing. The first is that the city is not so crowded that visitors are swept away by a pedestrian riptide, as many might expect. Navigating the sidewalks of London or New York, in fact, is more of a challenge. The second thing is the drivers are nuts, and so are the cyclists, and the pedestrian for that matter, but all three ingredients work together in a kind of surreal clockwork. The third thing is that Beijing has a lot of excellent modern architecture--more, in fact, than any city I can think of, though I hear Shanghai is similarly strong in this department.
My room at the China Club Hotel
Which isn't to say the whole city is one big eye-popping modern wonder. There are vast swaths of it that are merely okay, and vaster swaths of drab communist-style apartment blocks, though the funny thing about drab communist-style apartment blocks is that you also find them in capitalist countries.
So about that bus ride. In Beijing, when you get on a bus, you buy a ticket from the conductor, which is also how it works in Britain. Ours was a foul-tempered, sharp-faced woman standing on the seats next to the rear doors. She would yell at customers as they fought their way on the bus, yell to them between stops, and yell to them as they fought their way off, barking out missives and orders, handing out tickets, taking money, then whipping her head around to shout at someone else. This is all quite normal, I'm told.
Who let the gwailo on the bus?
The restaurant we visited is called Fu Jia Lou, and it specializes in food on the verge of extinction. Mention Fu Jia Lou to a local under seventy, and their face will pucker. The dishes here are throwbacks, traditional yet bizarre Beijing culinary fare that no one seems to want to eat anymore, the Chinese equivalent of tripe, gizzard and pig's feet (which are, themselves, the Western equivalent of hamburgers and pork chops in China).
One of the dishes David ordered was Jiemo Dun, or cabbage in mustard sauce. Not the most appetizing sounding culinary creation, you're thinking. So it may come as a surprise that the English language just doesn't have what it takes to describe cabbage in mustard sauce, and the reason is this: We have a habit of calling the intense sensation associated with hot mustard or wasabi, "hot." This is peculiar, because the sensation they cause in the mouth is actually more like an intense, burning cool feeling, not all that dissimilar to what happens when you gargle with Listerine. We need a new word for wasabi/mustard burn, and we also need a scale with which to measure that burn, preferably a logarithmic one, similar to what's used for earthquakes.
The Jiemo Dun registers about a 9.2. It seems innocuous at first. You transport a piece to your mouth with chopsticks, pop it in and think, "Well that's nothing to get excited about," chew a bit, and then you find that you're on a kind of inner journey. Your eyes close, there is a needle of bright, cleansing, icy pain burrowing towards your brain, and you slap the table with open hands and issue sounds that aren't quite syllabic, alarmed, but also surprised that the intensity shows no sign of abating. As the pain recedes into memory, you open your eyes and say something woefully not up to the experience, such as, "Wow, that's some cabbage, people."
Jiemo Dun on the left, onion-less onion rings on the right
I was on my third cabbage trip when the fight broke out. One second we were eating Jiemo Dun, as well as fermented bean soup and a dish I can only describe as onion-less onion rings, and the next second someone was hoisting a chair with the aim of using it as a projectile. A heaving crowd formed and there was shouting. I looked at David with an exquisitely stupid expression that asked, "Is this an authentic Chinese fight, or do they just do this for the tourists?" David said only, "We should move."
We moved. We got up, headed for the back of the room and from there took in the spectacle. As fights go, it was your standard spontaneous dust-up. Just the odd close-handed flail, which you could easily miss if you weren't paying close attention, and nothing in the way high-speed punching or walking on air, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There was no clear winner, but I've always been of the opinion that brawls make for exhilarating, not to mention cheap, entertainment, so long as the opponents are evenly matched and so long as I'm not one of them.
Such incidents, David assured me, as the restaurant settled back into normalcy, are extremely rare in Beijing. So we finished our food and ordered a bottle of sorghum liquor called bai jiu, which has a mild taste of plums, and sipped it as our pulses eased back down to normal. The total cost of the meal: seven dollars.
After that, we headed over to a famous duck restaurant in the hopes of eating a duck. Beijing, you will remember, used to be called Peking, and Peking Duck is something Chinese from all over come here for. This place is called Chef Dong's and we were greeted with bad news. There was an hour-long wait. They let us see the kitchen, where, inside a word burning oven, there were rows of ducks, their heads still on, roasting away--and that's as close as we got. We tried two other spots, all of which were closed for the night, and called it a night.
The duck would have to wait. In the end, though, I just don't see how the duck could have measured up to the cabbage, and that's something I never thought I'd hear myself say.
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