Beijing Express (2 of 4): Epicurean Adventure

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to experience new and exotic foods. I enjoy haute cuisine as much as the next epicurious snob and have eaten at some of the world’s most renowned restaurants. However, you’re equally likely to find me diving into a bowl of offal-laden stew in a questionable back alley diner. There’s just something special about sitting at a Formica table under a flickering florescent bulb in a restaurant that smells vaguely like a morgue and playing Russian Roulette with my colon. There were plenty of both types of dining establishments in China’s capital city, but I found myself drawn primarily to the latter, particularly the food stalls lining the streets at the night markets in Wangfujing and Gui Jie.

Ironically, the best meals on my recent trip were served at two Eastern Beijing restaurants that were only ten minutes away from one another by foot, but world’s apart on the fanciness spectrum. The first meal, a Szechuan-style assortment of chicken and green peppers, spicy green beans and roasted eggplant with ground pork, cost me CN¥ 35 (about $5.50) at hole-in-the-wall Chengdu XiaoChi, a restaurant that attracts locals and nearby office workers. The setting and service were rough, but the food was amazing and plentiful.

The other restaurant was the much-touted Bellagio, a high-end establishment with polished marble floors and modern decor that caters to international businessmen and diplomats in the heart of the embassy district. The menu was loaded with Taiwanese offerings, but I opted for one of their Hakka dishes and was not disappointed. My seared beef cutlets with sauteed peppers, mushrooms and vegetables (below) were served on a cast iron skillet so hot that the waitress cautioned me not to remove the cover until about ten minutes into the meal. While I waited for my presumably molten main course to cool, I snacked on dragon beans in a garlic and sesame oil sauce. The delicious meal and follow-on mango and green tea smoothie for dessert ran me CN¥ 120, considerably more than the dive around the corner, but still a bargain at less than $20.

I guess the moral of the story is that good food can be found anywhere if you’re willing to be adventurous. You might just eat the best thing you’ve ever tried if you aren’t put off by silly things like aesthetics … or hygiene … or common sense.

50mm @ 1/80, f/2, ISO 1600

Yum! Sesame and pepper crusted bird fetus in Wanfujing’s Night Market! Sorry, I did not eat these.

60mm @ 1/50, f/2.8, ISO 1600

Hotpot is a popular dish featured at many restaurants in Gui Jie. The point is to cook a selection of raw meats in the boiling cauldron of broth a la fondue. I ordered mine with green tea dumplings stuffed with mutton, chunks of beef liver, and thin sliced top sirloin.

35mm @ 1/80, f/2, ISO 1100

An amazing and inexpensive Szechuan feast at Chengdu XiaoChi.

24mm @ 1/1250, f/2.8, ISO 800

“Scorpion on a stick” was a prominent installation at many of the food stalls in the Wangfujing Night Market.

62mm @ 1/160, f/2.8, ISO 1600

A fresher assortment of crawfish you will not find than those for sale as dinner along Ghost Street near Dong Zhi Men Nei Dajie. I’m pretty sure this guy winked at me.

105mm @ 1/30, f/3, ISO 1600

Imagine Chinese menudo with giant chunks of half cooked bread dough mixed in. I tried this soup at a well known restaurant in the Hou Hai district where Vice-President Biden ate when he visited recently.

36mm @ 1/100, f/2.8, ISO 1600

I’m not 100 percent sure what creature sacrificed its tentacles for the dish below, but it smelled awesome.

85mm @ 1/125, f/2.8, ISO 1600

The little guys below aren’t as creepy as they look. Essentially they’re just like chicken wings, except not chicken … and with the heads still attached. The fry cook had me at “salted & sizzling!”

24mm @ 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 1600
70mm @ 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 1600

Check out the video I shot of live scorpion snacks in the Wangfujing Night Market, and look for more shots from my amazing trip in my Beijing Express set on Flickr.

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