From Peking Duck to the 2008 Olympics, China asserts its identity.
08.05.2007 - 13.05.2007 26 °C
From streetside holes-in-the-wall to among the highest priced restaurants, Peking duck is a beloved dish in Beijing.
At the lowest prices, the mahogony-colored ducks, basked in plum sauce, hang from the necks in windows ready for eating. At more upscale joints, revellers must call ahead for a ready-made duck, then turn up and watch it be carved with great care on a wheeled cart in front of the table.
"Made in China," reputed to be one of Beijing's finest duck houses, costs a mere $25 for a meal with multiple side dishes and drinks. Located in the Grand Hyatt, in anywhere-international waters, the restaurant manages to create an intimate space where diners can watch the cooks through glass windows while enjoying the heavenly crispness of duck skin and meat wrapped in thin pancakes, tortilla style.
The dish, traditional and straightforward, is, in some ways, a stamp of the old Beijing, which has survived a century of political, cultural, and economic upheaval.
As the city races toward some newly-created identity, it's interesting to see that the food, in some ways, very much remains the same. Besides the spruced up (and more hygenic) nicities at upscale restaurants like Made in China, the food retains a strong link to what's sold at street level.
The last few days we've spent tasting much of what Beijing has to offer. We didn't need to wander far as the streets are teeming with fruit-sellers and subsistence level cooks grilling, baking, and frying for their customers' immediate gratification.
In the mornings we've picked up "Beijing Breakfast," a crepe smeared with eggs and sauces and folded over crispy-fried dough and sold at a street stand. Also in front of our hotel, we ate bread baked in some kind of portable tandoor oven, filled with a spicy anise-spice mixture. And we can't forget the egg woman, who appears under the subway station overpass frying little quail eggs into balls, pasted sauces, on a stick.
Much has been written about Beijing's Olympic fever, the storyline of which is often how the city is modernizing rapidly to put on a good show for the international audience.
The Olympics are a way to showcase the nation's standing in the world, as is true for most hosting countries. But China seems to have something added to prove. This nation, the Chinese seem to be saying, has moved beyond the age of cheap knock-offs to an economic and political player of equal standing on the globe.
Everywhere, there are prideful reminders of the coming "One world, One Dream" games. At nearly every tourist destination, t-shirts and Olpmic kitch is sold. "Friendlies," the cutsy five-figure mascot, appear on subway ads to snuggly stuffed replicas sold in the austere People's Congress. An entire glass building has been constructed on the outskirts of downtown for the Olympic organizing committee.
We wonder how Beijing will hold itself together next year. Fifteen years ago, at a previous international gathering, students used the opportunity to press for greater political freedoms. Will the Olympics spark a new effort?
Despite all the dazzling new buildings (which pay no attention to the streetscape, or even to each other), an older Beijing persists, which both tempts and tests us.
The bathrooms (on a star-rating system) are mostly flushable pit toilets without toilet paper. The traffic, as we found out yesterday on a ride to a section of the Great Wall, is trecherous, with cars and heavily-loaded trucks passing eachother, sometimes two abreast.
When the subway doors open, the waiting crowd rushes forward trying to beat one another for coveted seats (sometimes people forgo the train to wait for the next one so they can be first in line for seats).
The air has been relatively clear, but people tell us that the skies turn yellow and choking during the winter.
Soldiers march in long lines along Tian'anmen Square and police and military are stationed everywhere, their uniforms disguising very youthful face fuzz even as they cut an impressively straight pose. Mao's portrait above the gate to the Forbidden City is the most distinctive (and imposing?) element to the massively unadorned square.
Today we leave the city on a six-hour train ride south to Taishan, one of China's holy mountains. From there we will make our way through silk-production territory on our way to Shanghai.
We're curious how the landscape, food, and people change with the passing miles.