It’s impossible to conclude my blog-posts about China without writing about the food. I’m not actually a big fan of Chinese food when I’m in England, principally because so many Chinese restaurants here adulterate their cuisine with monosodium glutamate. (The Chinese restaurant in which I worked when I was a student, which was home to the cook called Moon, star of a previous post, was an honourable exception.) If I consume this substance, which I believe is also called ‘Chinese taste powder’, I invariably get a headache and feel dizzy the following day.
However, I was assured that monosodium glutamate is never used in restaurants in China and I certainly didn’t detect it in any of the food there. I was very honoured to be treated with the utmost hospitality throughout my stay and, as food plays a big part in Chinese standards of courtesy, I was presented with what was effectively a banquet every night. Although when at home the Chinese usually confine themselves to three or four dishes, which in Shanghai always includes a soup (It was explained to me that soup helps to regulate the body temperature if the climate is hot and dry or if other foods are spicy.), when guests are taken out to eat it is not uncommon for ten or twelve main dishes to be ordered, as well as many appetisers and side dishes. These don’t all appear at once: the waiting staff bring them in one by one and place them on a huge circular glass ‘lazy Susan’ (the Chinese use the same words), which is spun slowly round by each diner in turn, with all the tantalising magic of what felt like a place at a gastronomic ouija board.
All the food that I ate in China was delicious: without exception, it was very fresh and featured many different kinds of vegetable (though an actual vegetarian would have a tough time there, as most dishes also include meat or fish of some kind). At every dinner there was also a whole sea bass garnished with herbs and spices – an expensive treat, presented to guests as part of the impeccable code of hospitality. I was only once offered a delicacy that I was reluctant to try: on my last evening in Shanghai, the pièce de resistance was a dish of pickled ducks’ tongues. One of my fellow diners told me that they tasted like mackerel, but I was too cowardly to find out if this was true!
Among my favourite foods were the exquisitely-crafted dumplings that usually appear after the main entrées. The smaller ones contain meat, the larger ones a special soup: they require eating with great care, so that none of the soup is lost.
Rice and noodles are served separately at the end of the meal, because guests are encouraged to eat their fill of the finer dishes before filling up on these staples. Desserts are simple and light, consisting usually of sweet soups (plum is a favourite) or yogurt and honey. Tea is the main beverage. Light beer is also served, but drunk sparingly. Wine was not served at any of the dinners that I ate and no alcohol was ever served at lunch.
My two Beijing dinners were particularly special. The first was at the original Peking Duck restaurant, which is close to the main campus of Peking University (The University retains the name ‘Peking’, choosing not to call itself ‘Beijing University’ because it is proud of its heritage. It is China’s oldest and most prestigious university.). This restaurant has been serving Peking Duck since the 1930s, when it invented the recipe.
Each diner is given small dishes of cucumber, chopped spring onion and plum sauce and a round box of steamed pancakes. I discovered that Peking Duck is one of the most authentic dishes served in Chinese restaurants in England. In Beijing, the duck itself was oilier and therefore richer than in the UK, but apart from that the taste of all the ingredients was similar: the key difference was the dexterity with which the waitress demonstrated how to flip the pancake on to the plate with chopsticks, fill it and form it into a neatly-wrapped parcel. None of my parcels looked like hers! As they leave, diners are given a certificate to prove that they have eaten genuine Peking Duck in this restaurant.
On my last night in Beijing I enjoyed the most special dinner of all. It was a banquet held in the ‘Emperor’s Palace’, a restaurant whose real name is the Bai’s Home Courtyard. It was originally the palace home of Prince Li of the Qing Dynasty. The courtyard is in fact a succession of formally laid-out gardens, each one containing a single-story building that once formed part of the Emperor’s palace and has now been converted into a dining-room. The buildings are guarded by young men dressed in the traditional garb of Imperial soldiers, and the waitresses are young women attired in beautiful traditional silken costumes and head-dresses.
On their feet they wear tall pattens – the platforms of these, on which the centre only of the foot is balanced, are about four inches off the ground. One of the girls told me that it takes a week to learn how to walk in these shoes. Twelve of us ate that evening and we were served throughout by four silk-clad waitresses. Our dining-room was dedicated to longevity, symbolised in the detail of the wall-hangings.
The table was round, for equality, and all the chairs except one richly covered in yellow silk; this single chair was made of intricately-carved wood. Originally, it would have been the one in which the Emperor sat. No woman ever sat in the Emperor’s chair – at least, not then!
We were served perhaps two dozen dishes at the Emperor’s Palace, some of them tiny, all of them delicious and beautifully presented. My favourites were a very special kind of smoked fish and venison stewed with chillies. The banquet lasted for about three hours. Once outside again, we discovered that it had turned bitterly cold – some of the fountains in the gardens had frozen over and the walkways as we made our way back to the street were lit with bright orange lanterns that picked out the tiny dots of silver frost on the profusion of plants flourishing on the small ponds and spilling over the low formal walls designed to contain them.
It was a magical, almost an enchanted, evening, a marvellous culmination to eight days of extraordinary new experiences. If I did not have the photographs, I might believe that I had dreamt it.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James