Between Beijing and Beggars

The Quest for China’s Unique Culinary Charms

Posted on Feb. 17, 2017
By Editor

Beijing is a buzzing capital robust with aromas that tantalize each of my senses. I took this journey with the incredible outfitters at Goway Travel to uncover age-old traditions and to fill my belly with unique offerings I had only read about in magazines. It was late morning as I marched along the crest of the road in a jet-lagged trance. Locals zipped by me on bikes and scooters clad in long pants, as if it were a breezy autumn day. Even in a cotton sundress I found the heat suffocating, but kept on meandering towards the hutongs of Beijing. Startled by a horn I clung to a doorstep to avoid being run over by a rickshaw. You see, a hutong is a narrow alley way which serves as the entrance to many different homes. During the Ming Dynasty the entire city was divided up into various fangs, a type of ancient gated communities. The closer your fang was to the Forbidden City, the wealthier you were. Visualize a circular hierarchy system, where the radius of your home determined your wealth. We had wandered a few blocks from the iconic drum tower and were now engulfed in the depth of some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. At a first glace gazing into the doorway I wasn’t sure me and my travel companions would all fit inside as the doorways were crowded over with laundry hanging on zigzagging lines. These homes are modest but offer residents all they need in terms of a functional kitchen, washroom and family room, running water and even air-conditioning. We piled into the living room of one particular family’s home to learn the ancient tradition of crafting homemade dumplings. The dumpling is a staple in the local diet. My stomach rumbled as the aromas of spices filled the air and wove their way into my nostrils. Lin, the master dumpling crafter, had been living here for years along with her husband and son.  She was kind enough to allow us into her home and visually demonstrated how to assemble the perfect leek and egg dumpling.  We followed her lead, and no words were exchanged due to her lack of English and our lack of Mandarin. Lin was patient as we made mistakes, our fingers much larger and much less nimble than hers. Minutes later Lin and her husband entered the quaint dining room and we were served a feast of pork, sautéed mushroom with leeks, cauliflower with roasted chilies, braised  beef, rice and of course our dumplings. Based on taste alone, I’m not sure I would be able to distinguish Lin’s home cooking from the fine dining restaurant we experienced the previous evening.

 Our rickshaw drivers were waiting for us just around the corner, and with full bellies we filed into them to continue exploring the 200-year-old village. We suddenly popped out onto a main road situated on HouHai Lake. The people watching was fascinating, we saw all walks of life enjoying the sunny Saturday afternoon. The abundance of selfie sticks was truly disconcerting but we are in the digital age, and the locals carried on like tech-savvy folks from around the globe. Surrounding Houhai Lake is a generous number of bars and restaurants which we would later explore in the evening. Quite a vibrant area complete with a variety of offerings in the ways of food, entertainment and music.

 When dinner rolled around, we decided to visit the legendary Wangfujing Snack Street. This market was set up curbside, with a plethora of vendors selling everything from soups and cookies, to starfish, roasted snakes and spiders. The smells and sights are not something that can be articulated properly through print or photos. I strongly encourage anyone passing through to Beijing to go experience it themselves; try the scorpion if you dare!

 The following morning our adventure catapulted us to Hangzhou. This city on China’s Eastern lip served as the host of the 2016 G-20 Summit and will host the 2022 Asian Games. The framework of the city surrounds picturesque West Lake, a manmade body of water enveloped by rolling mountains and pagodas. Our local guide, Adam, met us at the luxurious Sofitel Hotel, and walked us along the lakeside promenade to our dinner reservation. Upon entering the One-Hundred-Year-Old Restaurant – just try to guess its age - we knew we were in for a treat. Huddled around a small square dimly lit table, Adam leaned in close and whispered the legend of the beggar’s chicken, a local dish we would soon devour. This tale dates to the Qing dynasty, when a hungry beggar stole a chicken from a local farm. Chicken in hand, the farmer caught on to his antics and chased him down the riverbank. The beggar dug a hole in the mud and buried his looted chicken only to return later that evening. The beggar lit some twigs on fire and plopped the mud-drenched chicken on top of the flame. The mud had crusted over the chicken forming a tight clay crust. As the beggar cracked open the shell he was greeted by The Emperor who coincidently happened to be passing through. The Emperor was enticed by the aromas coming from the meat and he asked to dine with the beggar. The Emperor was so impressed with the flavors he insisted on adding it to the Imperial Court menu. This new-found dish was able to elevate the beggar and his family from poverty, as he began selling Beggar’s Chicken to all the local villagers. I felt a sense of pride as I enjoyed every last bite of my beggar’s chicken, turning a blind eye to the fact that this delicious tender meat was soaked in mud and lotus leaves mere minutes ago!

 The following day our grand food tour steered us towards offerings intended for the upper elite class. We arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel and I was instantly transported into a refreshing yet tranquil dimension. We spent ten minutes meandering the hallways which led us to the world famous Jin Sha restaurant. The concept here is a focus on private dining with eleven stand-alone private rooms, and a garden lagoon. The who’s who of Shanghai often make the hour and a half trek to dine here for special occasions. The menu is traditional Shanghainese, Cantonese and local offerings, all dishes made to share. We spent the afternoon pushing around the Lazy Susan sampling some of the most divine dishes I’ve tried to date. The wok-friend wagyu beef cubes with garlic and spring onions dissolved on my tongue as soon as my chopsticks delivered a bite to my mouth. The steamed pork dumplings come topped with hairy crab meat. The standout dish, in my mind was the hazelnut goose liver pate, served onto of spring onion pancakes. Jin Sha prides themselves on finding unique flavors that synchronize on the palate, all well presenting each dish in a well-crafted artistic manor. I sat back with my friends sipping locally grown green tea and we all agreed this was one of our favorite dining experiences.

 The next morning we bid farewell to the mountains and took an express 24-hour trip to Shanghai. Right off the train we were ushered to the splendid Yu Yuan Gardens, a Suzhou-style wonderland of palaces, pagodas and ancient trees dating back to the Ming Dynasty. The garden was so well-manicured, and peaceful I almost forgot I was visiting a booming metropolis. The Bund presented modern Shanghai at its glimmering, shimmering best. The contrast between both spaces proved that both contemporary and traditional China is alive and well. Following an intense photo-op to catch sun setting over The Bund, it was time to replenish our stomachs. As we walked back along the French Concession we noticed a busy restaurant which reminded me of a North American fast food chain. The lighting was bright, the tables were basic but the offerings were certainly far from what I’d imagined. Bifengtang was a local Shanghainese restaurant serving up traditional dishes such as braised abalone with a turtle rim in thick soup. I tried a bite but perhaps the texture was too much for me. However, the sweet and sour bullfrog hot pot was defiantly worth the hype. The honey glazed barbecued pork was both tender and zesty. I can still close my eyes and imagine the way it tasted, as we had to order two more portions. That alone has my mind dreaming of another trip back to Shanghai in my near future. China allowed me, for the first time in a long time, to act like an adventurer again, discovering new sights, smells and tastes.  

Chelsea traveled to China with Goway Travel, the global leader in tailor-made experiences to Asia, and has been curating experience-driven expeditions to the world's most remarkable destinations since 1970. Goway can arrange custom trips to Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and beyond. www.goway.com

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