I was in 5th grade when I first went to Beijing 10 years ago. Can’t say I remember much beyond begging and crying to my dad at the steps of the Great Wall to not make me do the steep climb. Fond memories. My mom and I landed in Beijing on May 18 at 5:30am. Red-eye flight. Oof. Being a chronic insomniac only meant that I hadn’t slept for a day and a half. No big. The grand sight of Capital International Airport was a nice wake up call. It was…clean? And…new? And it took more time for me get a sip of water than to get through customs? This wasn’t the China I remembered: dirty, inefficient, stinky, broken.
My mom’s friend in Beijing graciously offered to take us on a day-tour. They were supposed to pick us up at the airport, but it turned out that they thought we were arriving the next day. Whoops! Luckily one of our tour guides was waiting at the airport to escort us back to our hotel. If the sight of the Beijing’s beautiful airport didn’t wake me up, riding the shuttle in China sure did. While there were dotted lines that suggested the existence of lanes, there was definitely no sense of order; every millimeter of the street was occupied by some vehicle–bike, motorcycle, bus, truck, car. It was an hour-long ordeal of constant swerving, spontaneous acceleration and breaking, incessant honking, and cutting off a herd of oncoming traffic despite a red light. I wanted to kiss the ground when we were released from the death cab.
The Sofitel Wanda Beijing was our hotel for the night–über swanky. Since 7am was too early for the hotel to provide us a room, we left our luggage with the concierge and studied the maps and railways of Beijing to pass the time until my mom’s friends could pick us up.
Our first stop after they picked us up was a traditional Beijing breakfast joint, since none of the four of us had eaten breakfast. It was Panera-quality food at what was basically a McDonald’s joint. Food was laid out semi-cafeteria-style, except there were no lines to get the food and no lunch ladies waiting to ladle food onto a tray. Menus were overhead, read off when you ordered. You found a table, sat down, placed your order with a server, and waited for the food to be brought to you. Service was quick. I also thought it was super neat that there was a button for service complaints, another to call servers over, and one for food complaints. If only restaurants in the US had that!
Our hosts ordered a smorgasbord of culinary delights–about 15 dishes total. All of us were starving, so most of the food was inhaled before I had a chance to snap pictures of all the things we ate. But here’s what I did catch:
“小菜” [xiao cai] is what we started with. Literally translated to English, it’s “little vegetables”. Essentially, “小菜” is the word for appetizers in Chinese. Small so you have room for other things; it’s nothing at all like the “appetizers” at Cheesecake Factory, where a single appetizer is enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
From right to left: bitter melon salad, spicy tofu with cilantro, spicy green beans, and pickled radish. That golden stick in the top left corner? “油條” [you tiao]. The most pleasant-sounding name in English is “fried dough stick”–crunchy, greasy, and savory. What more could you ask for?
The “酸辣粉” [suan la feng] on the right was perhaps my favorite dish. What I wouldn’t give to have a bowl of it now~! A typical Sichuan dish: sour and spicy mung bean noodles. Sichuan spicy is different from other kinds of “spicy”; there’s a lot of fire from the chilis, but the peppercorns create this paralyzing and numbing heat that works its way into all the corners of your mouth. Almost an intoxicating feeling, although it is an acquired taste. And the noodles were so smooth that they just wriggled down your throat.
“白木耳湯” or “white fungus soup” is a dessert soup that usually comes at the end of a meal. Goji berries and red dates are common additions. White fungus soup is believed to have medicinal uses, e.g. reducing inflammation. Chinese women love this soup because the high collagen content supposedly whitens and firms skin. I like it simply because it is the perfect summer beverage: served cold.
The conclusion to our very filling morning meal: dim sum. “饅頭” [man tou], or steamed buns, and “叶兒粑” [ge-er ba], which is a slightly sweet, sticky rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves. There were also fried eggs, noodles with chili oil, various soups, corn cakes, pumpkin congee…a smorgasbord of food I can’t fully recall anymore. Plates were wobbling precariously on the edges of our table. Paradise.