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
This is my first full day at home after my visit to China, and I’ve just enjoyed a nice cup of tea. Tea is one of our national clichés – the universal British remedy for everything, from broken hearts to bereavement, and also the beverage that most Brits look forward to the most when returning home from foreign adventures. However, I can hardly claim to have been tea-deprived during my five-day sojourn in Shanghai or the two days I spent in Beijing. Tea is what you drink with every meal in China, and there are hundreds of different kinds. I managed to sample a few of them, sometimes in very special surroundings. It is served with some ceremony in restaurants: waiters hover with teapots and fill your cup again as soon as you’ve drained it. As with wine, special kinds of tea are recommended for some types of food: for example, a rich, smoky tea accompanied the duck that I ate in the original Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (more of this in a separate post). Tea is also used in very traditional restaurants to cleanse crockery and cutlery at the table.
I had only two half-days to myself, as mine was a business trip, not a holiday, but, aided by some kind Asian colleagues, I was able to make the most of them. On the Sunday after I arrived in Shanghai, I took a taxi to the Yu Garden,
a mesmerising complex of temples, waterways and ancient shops, and, after an hour or two of sightseeing, found myself standing outside the fabled Huxinting Tea House, the oldest tea house in Shanghai (the building is about 230 years old, becoming a tea house in 1855).
Naturally, I went in and was delighted to find that I’d chanced upon a mid-afternoon lull in business, so it wasn’t too crowded.
Inside, the tea house is opulent but not flamboyant. The waitresses are dressed in a uniform based on one of the many forms of Chinese national dress and they are attentive but unobtrusive. There are scores of types of tea to choose from, some of them extremely expensive. I chose jasmine, which came in a glass jug and was accompanied by two aromatic sweetmeats.
It was quite delicious: fragrant and refreshing, exotic without being strange. It wasn’t cheap, either: it cost the same as a couple of lattes from Starbucks would have cost in the UK, which by Chinese standards is very expensive indeed. But it was well worth the price: I understand why Chinese people think that the tea house is so special and come here for a treat. It’s not only the ambience inside the building itself that gives so much pleasure; it is also being able to look out across the water of the lake in which it stands on stilts to the picturesque buildings beyond. The paths and walkways are always teeming with people and the tea house itself offers a haven of tranquillity from which to observe them, as well as a feeling of privilege. The elderly couple sitting next to me were obviously savouring every moment, whilst also engaging in a very animated conversation.
Each type of tea is served in a different type of vessel and theirs was in terracotta pots with lids, which they had refilled more than once. I’d have loved to have been able to ask them what their choice had been.
Since I came home, I’ve read about the Huxinting Tea House online and discovered that the Queen has visited it. I don’t suppose that she had to worry about the cost of her tea, but I do wonder if, having imbibed its product, Her Maj was constrained to use the establishment’s facilities. If so, I’d like to know what she made of the shaft-style convenience,
which was the first, but by no means the last, of this type of porcelain that I encountered in China. (I should add that the one in the Huxinting Tea House was spotless.)
I wanted to bring some tea home with me, but was advised against buying it from one of the specialist purveyors of tea or at the airport as being prohibitively expensive in either. On my last day in Beijing, I therefore walked to a local supermarket and bought two types of tea there, one of them a chrysanthemum tea that I’d first seen earlier in the week when it was ordered by a librarian during a conference that took place at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. On that occasion, it was served in a tall glass mug with a mash of dried chrysanthemum flowers floating on the surface of the hot water. More prosaically, I think that my own purchase will consist of more conventional-looking tea leaves, albeit made out of chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemum tea sounds unpleasant – I was sceptical until I tried it, thinking that it might taste as the half-dead ‘chrysanths’ which I remember adorning the graves in Spalding Cemetery used to smell, but in fact it is delicate to the taste-buds and very refreshing.
Going to the supermarket offered me one of only a few rare opportunities to encounter ordinary Chinese people as they went about their business. I was grateful for this experience. Once again, I was also astounded by how expensive the tea was and how greatly prized. In the supermarket where I bought mine, it was kept upstairs with the alcohol and closely guarded by a security man. It cost about three times as much as a packet of ‘builder’s tea’ in England. I wonder what Chinese builders drink? I’d like to think that their day is fuelled by an infusion of chrysanthemums!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James