Sunday, May 29, 2011

China Diary II: Kim Chi For Breakfast

Flying over farm country on the way into Beijing, I couldn't help but notice the difference between the typical Chinese agricultural plan and the one that we see in the American Midwest. Whereas we have farms consisting, basically, of large rectangles, each with its farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings, the Chinese model is of a small village of houses clustered together surrounded by fields. And the fields are laid out in long, undulating strips rather than rectangles. This is, in fact, closer to the traditional European model, and the model, I suspect, of most of the world – people clustered together for protection and for mutual needs, and to perform joint tasks. The isolated American homestead is probably the exception rather than the rule, from a global perspective. And in China's case you have to also recall that, for a while during the Maoist era, agriculture was totally collectivized, so the one house/one field model would have been not only irrelevant but counterproductive (to the collectivist mind, at least). Better to gather all the slaves into a bunch so we can keep an eye on them. But in any case, it does provide a picturesque landscape... at least from a couple of miles up.

Then we have Beijing, and the first thing to note is that the city is extremely flat, and is laid out in a gigantic grid. This is not a new concept, and is, in fact, an extension of the old city, which was a gridwork, and that, in turn, was an extension of the Forbidden City, which is also a gridwork – or at least highly geometrical. And this, it turns out, is a reflection of the ancient idea of feng shui, which, it turns out, is alive and well in present-day China. It influences how sections of the city are laid out, how buildings are laid out, the interiors of buildings and of rooms, furniture, d├ęcor, gardens and public spaces... just about everything, in other words, having to do with the physical environment. And I have to say, this was a surprise, since I would have thought feng shui was one of the countless “old ideas” totally discarded during Mao's time. But there it was, and whether it persisted through that era or rose up again later on, I cannot say, but I suspect the former, since even the Maoist structures seem to conform.

And speaking of buildings – the most prominent feature of Beijing, and of any city in modern China, is the clusters of high-rise apartment buildings, stretching to the horizon (or at least until they are no longer visible owing to smog). I'm not talking about a few high-rises here and there; I'm talking about clusters, and hundreds of them, each on its own very large block. From a mile or two up the city resembles nothing more than a gigantic circuit board, with the buildings as components and the streets as circuitry. Needless to say, the “old town” of any city is completely dwarfed by all of this expansion. And what is it about? Well, the usual things – technology, transportation, economic shifts, and the lure of jobs and bright lights. The countryside, as scenic as it may be, is apparently not all that attractive a place in which to try and make a living any longer, so anyone who gets a chance gravitates to the cities and winds up in one of the apartments in one of those high-rises in one of those clusters... you get the picture. They get, basically, to move from a small town to the world's largest anthill, in exchange for which they get... what? Hot and cold running water and central heating, I guess... but not necessarily elevators! Many of those high-rises are walk-ups, believe it or not... which may explain my finding that there are no fat people in China.

So... you fly halfway around the world and then start “seeing stuff” – with that strange hangover called “jet lag” that comes from having been up 28 straight hours, of which 21 were daylight. You spend the next few days thinking “I should be in bed!” when you're up and about, and “I should be up!” when you're in bed. Plus, you somehow lost an entire day en route. Everyone assures you that you'll get it back on the return flight, but you remain skeptical. There is something unnatural about it all.

But actually, my first introduction to Beijing was dinner at the hotel the first evening, and it was a cause of a certain amount of trauma and apprehension. First of all, we were in a high-end hotel because when you book with one of these tours that's what you get, because people expect it. Now, considering the amount of time one has to actually take advantage of all their offerings, a high-end hotel is, basically, a waste. Something a cut or two down would be more appropriate; it would be easier to do it justice. But that would violate people's expectations, so nothing doing... and so the waste and extravagance roll on. You find yourself in a crowd of tourists dressed, basically, like refugees (owing to severe restrictions on luggage) and encircled by immaculately-groomed staff who, I'm sure, would much rather be waiting on some of those ubiquitous Chinese businessmen in their tailored black suits, white shirts, and black ties. But hey, we're paying them good money to smile and bow, so smile and bow they do.

So what you get with this high-end hotel is a high-end restaurant... one with a fabulous menu that would appeal to elite clientele anywhere in the world. I mean – you're in China, so what do you expect? Chop suey under glass? No, not a bit of it – not even a hint of anything “Chinese” or “icky” -- just the same 5-star menu you'd find in Switzerland, San Francisco, Dubai, or Rio de Janeiro. But guess what, it was fake! Or at least the part that bragged about “Australian beef” was fake. I was treated to – and I do not exaggerate – one of the worst steaks I've ever eaten (or tried to). And at top dollar! I think the Australian Beef Board ought to sue this place for product libel. And it made me wonder about everything else on the menu – like, how about the foie gras? Was it lousy too? (And how do you make foie gras lousy? By feeding the geese turpentine?) How about all the other exotic dishes, with prices ranging up to the many hundreds (in US currency, I hasten to add)? And then... and here's where dark suspicions set in... how about that outrageous wine list, that to look at it would cause Baron Rothschild himself to swoon? Is that fake too? You see how soon paranoia develops. My mind was filled with whispers of that prejudicial old expression “Chinese copy”. Is this the way it was going to be the whole trip – top prices for bogus goods? Well... the answer is... never mind, I'll get back to that topic later.

Fortunately, that one completely fraudulent dinner was to be the first and last of its kind on the trip. But I should also add that the bulk of the meals from that point on were “provided”, as the expression goes, by the tour – which means they were programmed for American tastes and served in a variety of efficient, no-nonsense ways – waited, buffet-style, and the ever-comical “lazy susan” style, about which, again, more later. And when I say “American tastes” I don't mean the food was entirely American, as in Boston Market or Cracker Barrel. That would have been truly tragic. The way it broke down at breakfast was that it was half American and half Chinese. The American half consisted of just about what you'd expect – bacon, sausage, eggs (most styles), toast, bagels, croissants, fruit, and so on. The Chinese half typically featured the ubiquitous congee, which is an extremely bland rice porridge, with the saving grace that they provide all sorts of mysterious pickled things that one can add to provide some flavor and textural variety. And there was always a decent assortment of dim sum – praise be! And then there were assorted other savories, like kim chi, for instance, which is not even Chinese. Needless to say, most of the gringos avoided the kim chi like Dracula would avoid garlic – but I didn't come all the way to China to eat scrambled eggs, dammit! And I have to also note that the overall selections on the Chinese side morphed a bit as one traveled around the country. Xian, for example, had a much greater selection of pickled items, not only at breakfast but at other meals as well. And – oh yes, lest I forget – there was a wide variety of tofu, all the way from fresh to various stages of exquisite decay... and the legendary “hundred year eggs”, in which the whites turn purple and gelatinous and the yolks turn a somewhat dubious gray. I tried to try everything at least once, and I have to say that the only things I found totally inedible were some of those thoroughly-decayed varieties of tofu – especially that kind sitting in a pool of reddish stuff that looked and tasted like nail polish.

There are two things, however, that they just don't “get” as yet when it comes to the American breakfast diner. What they don't understand is that we guzzle orange juice like Snuffy Smith guzzles moonshine... and that we mainline coffee the way... well, never mind, I don't want to get sued for slander. So both of these items are eked out in little dribs and drabs – coffee in particular. Nowhere in China did I see a single “self-serve” coffee facility. You can have a vast breakfast buffet covering an acre of ground, but your coffee – your lifeline! -- will still be dependent on one of those scurrying little female waiters, who only come within hailing distance of your table every 15 minutes. So... China has a ways to go, as I said.

And there's another, more subtle, thing about the food that should be noted. When I referred to “Chinese” food above, I should really have said “Chinese-style food”, or “Chinese-American food”, or “food prepared by Chinese people using Chinese ingredients, but for American tastes”. This revelation came out in a number of ways. The first was when we noticed that, wherever we went to eat, everyone else in the place was also American, or at least non-Chinese. Then, whenever we got nosy enough to check out what our guides were eating, it turned out they were eating totally different food from the rest of us. Then there were the stern warnings from the guides, repeated ad nauseum (or maybe ad anti-nauseum), to not, under any circumstances, eat the “street food” -- that is, all those savory-smelling and scrumptious-looking goodies that were for sale on every sidewalk in the city, from portable kitchens, pushcarts, and doorways. No no, we were assured, those things will put you in the hospital, or at least confine you to the bathroom for 24 hours. So – as the number of categories of authentic Chinese food that we weren't allowed access to began to mount, I had to ask myself, are we going to get any authentic Chinese food on this trip? Or is this just some gigantic gastronomical Potemkin village? And then the realization sunk in that what we were getting was so familiar... why, it was just like “Chinese food” in the States! Which means, I guess, that nothing that we call “Chinese food” over here is the slightest bit authentic! Paranoia again – but this time reinforced by a phalanx of guides. But just remember this the next time you're in a Chinese restaurant – you're eating American food, period.

And once in a while someone in the party had the temerity to bring up this subject with one of the guides – and the friendly, but firm, answer with regard to authentic Chinese food was always “You wouldn't like it.” (That's even in the unlikely event that the hospital and/or bathroom issue had been resolved.) And then there was another bit of minor madness. We already know that different parts of China use different levels of spice in their foods – you know the old rules of thumb, Szechuan and Hunan mean hot, Cantonese means mild, etc. And I'm not sure which city it was, but right off the bat we were regaled with tales about how spicy their food was, and how it was considered healthful because of the climate, etc. But guess what, we never got to find out! Apparently that super-hot, incendiary, spicy food was also on the “forbidden” list. I have to say, I can get spicier Chinese-style food in Pittsburgh than anything I had in 3 weeks in China. So... are they overdoing it? Have they grossly underestimated Americans? Well... after observing my fellow travelers for a while, I'd say, unfortunately, no. Americans as a group are, let's say, semi-adventuresome when it comes to food, but the limit is reached very soon. And I guess the people who programmed the tour decided, at some point, that it just wasn't worth having the odd wimpy eater jumping up from the table like a cartoon character, with fire coming out of his mouth and smoke coming out of his ears. But the loss to the rest of us is immense.

So to sum up – if you're looking for gastronomic adventure in China, don't go with a tour group. On the other hand, if you'd rather stay out of the hospital... well, who knows?

(to be continued)

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