I just spent a couple of days in Beijing, China, hanging out with Lillian Chou, a former food editor at Gourmet and current food editor of Beijing Time Out magazines. Food stylist Karen Shinto (above) has worked with me on my last two cookbooks. She had never been to China before and met me in Beijing.
The three of us gals kick started things with foot and body massages. When in China, cheap massages are de rigeur. After a day of transiting through airports or sightseeing, massages are perfect for relaxing and recharging.
Then we ate and shopped at local markets. Highlights included:
Going to Walmart: I love visiting these shopping supercenters in China. The inventory reflects what locals typically eat. Karen and I wandered the aisles for two hours. We were blown away by the charcuterie (smoky pork belly, various sizes and shapes of lop cheung, fish and pork heads).
Next week is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and there were small mountains of mooncakes greeting customers near the entrance to the food section. Nearby was a cold case filled with ready-to-eat Peking duck neatly packaged in gift bags. That seemed so wrong, after my various experiments and investigations into homemade Chinese roasted duck!
The pickles and prepared foods were beautiful. We selected about five items for a makeshift lunch, along with a small yellow watermelon. Unfortunately the pickles were super salty and we didn’t get any rice.
The produce section had fresh straw mushrooms, a rare find outside of Asia. The eggs were sold at room temperature in the fresh produce section and there were organic ones too. You can get quail eggs done up as salted eggs and thousand-year-old eggs. Talk about minis.
In the same building as the Walmart that we visited was a Kungfu cafe that used Bruce Lee's image to serve up fast Chinese food. That's how modern and cosmopolitan Beijing is.
Small snacks: On the street, we ate jianbing, a crepe snack filled with egg, lettuce, a delicately crisp piece of dough, and various savory-spicy sauces. Jianbing is among the quintessential cheap eats in Beijing. Karen and I shared one, eating it with other locals in a subway station waiting area. (See Beijing Haochi's site for a terrific low down on jianbing.)
We also watched street food vendors prepare stuffed pocket breads called roujiamo for eager customers. Each bread was split and filled with a mixture of porkbelly, egg, and tofu that had been simmered with soy and other seasonings. The photo at the top is of one of many roujiamo vendors in Beijing. See Appetite for China for a quick primer on the popular snack.
Lillian took us to eat Beijing dumplings and we filled the table with three kinds, as well vegetable dishes. Beijing food tends to be on the salty side but delicious nevertheless.
Getting around Beijing: The subway is modern and clean and the cost per ride is 2 yuan (25 cents!). Line 4 seems to hit many of the tourist highlights. Taxis are everywhere but you need to pronounce things well in Mandarin to arrive at your destination. Most buildings don’t have visible numbers and some buildings have no Romanization. However, taxis are dirt cheap. You can get places for about 15 to 30 yuan.
Friendly people: Beijingers are pretty helpful people. When Karen and I got lost finding Walmart (“waahr ehr maahr”), I went up to strangers to ask for directions and they obliged. Maybe we were odd tourists wanting a Walmart and not the Great Wall?
I loved orderly and clean Tokyo and Beijing has its edgy charm. There is super modern architecture (think of the stuff from the summer Olympics!) as well as old historic hutongs. Things aren’t as orderly as in Japan but they work. There are plenty of ATM machines, trash cans and public places to sit too for a rest.
Where did we stay? In Haidian district, the Silicon Valley of Beijing. It’s in the university area and we wanted to be conveniently close to Lillian living nearby. Karen and I shared a spacious double room at the Crowne Plaza Zhongguancun with 45 square meters (about 460 square feet) for about $130 a night.
This was a fast visit to the Chinese capital and what I took away was that Beijing is a super world-class cosmopolitan city. It's an exiting and delicious place that I look forward to returning to in the future.