Beijing is a big city, and I don't just mean in the obvious blister-causing way. (The first couple days there we didn't realize how out-of-date our guidebook's subway map was, and ended up walking halfway across the city needlessly, and eventually in great pain.) Yeah, the place is over 2,700 square miles in area and holds almost 12 million people. But it's not just big in the way that most cities are big, not just big in area and population — the very scale of almost everything in the city is massive. The tall buildings, the broad roads, and even the single-story hutongs, vast seas of gray brick and dusty, winding alleys, are huge. As the imperial capital since the fourteenth century, Beijing was designed to impress from the start. The axis formed by the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, and the Olympic compound is a timeline of gigantic proportions, illustrating Beijing's centrality to China in every stage of its history. The grandness of these monuments, and the time it takes to circumnavigate them, work exactly as well to awe your senses and boggle your spacial intelligence as their creators desired.
And of course, after trying to see all that gigantic history, you will have an appetite to match. Unfortunately, we didn't have the budget for the imperial-style banquet cuisine that would have really fitted the atmosphere and history of the city. Dowager Empress Cixi would have been the person to consult on that topic: she was rumored to have ordered over 150 dishes for a single meal, and apparently spent the equivalent of a thousand dollars on food A DAY.*
So, let's just say that we stuck to one or two dishes per meal. In fact, at our most impressive Beijing meal, we only ordered one thing: Peking duck. Of course, Peking duck isn't just the duck. For example, at DaDong, it also comes with a side of deliciously subtle bone broth and a cleansing fresh fruit platter. And that's in addition to the thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, radish, cucumber, scallion, preserved vegetables and garlic provided to wrap up the decadent slivers of duck into delicate little packets. Some restaurants even send you home with the duck bones to make your own broth.
We apparently did not perform adequately on the wrapping portion of the meal, as the waitress came over and gave us a demonstration on which condiments to use together, a seemingly arbitrary combination that I have, of course, forgotten. But to be honest, pretty much every mix I came up with was delightful. That said, Fuschia Dunlop provides an explanation of the Peking duck eating process that explains the logic of the condiment hierarchy. And yes, just as she describes, the duck's head is tucked underneath all those carefully stacked slices of moist and glistening meat, covered in extra-crisp skin and holding a spoonful of creamy flesh with a flavor like a refined essence of liver.
I can't confirm or deny the widely debated statement that DaDong has the best duck in the city, it being the only duck we had there, but after a slice of that crisp fatty skin dipped in sparkling granulated sugar, I can definitely say it ranks up there in terms of my personal duck experiences.
Another Beijing-sized dinner was at the franchise chain Little Sheep. Little Sheep is ambitious in its distribution: after seeking out a branch on a recommendation, we found ourselves walking past one almost every day for the rest of our trip. We were reassured by its omnipresence, because the food was good and easy to order, so although we never ended up there again, we knew that it would be there if we were too hungry and tired to try something new. And now I see that there are several branches in the US as well, so I am looking forward to revisiting our experience there soon.
Little Sheep specializes in Mongolian hot pot, a pretty much made up cuisine. Which I happen to think is awesome, because prior to eating Mongolian hot pot, my favorite fake cuisine was Mongolian barbeque. Now I think the two are tied for my affections. Anyways, Mongolian hot pot doesn't resemble anything eaten in Mongolia, but it happens to be very close to regular Szechuan hot pot — in fact, the only differences I really noticed were the focus on lamb and the lack (or at least reduction) of Szechuan peppers, in the Little Sheep version. This means that Mongolian hot pot starts with a pot of broth, usually divided into two or more sections to segregate a spicy broth from a mild one. The broth is a white, meaty brew, full of floating dried goji berries, mushrooms, and a number of unidentifiable dried fruits and spices. The spicy side is generally obscured by a solid layer of floating chilies. Then you order plates of meat and vegetables to cook in the broth. Sounds simple, and in practice it is, but the incredibly complex fusion of herbs and spices in the broth means that the flavors are anything but.
* This is a rough approximation based on the oh-so-reliable information provided by teh internets. Her records show expenditures of at least 60 taels of silver a day on food, and possibly as much as 100 taels, (something I believe I've read a number of places but could only find online here: ), and during the Qing Dynasty, a tael was maybe worth about 150-220 of today's Chinese yuan (RMB) . The dollar is, in turn, about 6.8 RMB. So, the most conservative estimate based on those numbers is ~$1300 — the larger numbers yield an estimate of ~$3200! I'm assuming this food didn't all end up in her belly, but even so, it's pretty mind-boggling. Please correct me if I've got this wrong!