China Food and Wine Experiences
For the first time ever, my business took me to China. Not only China, but it was also my first visit to Asia, so definitely a new experience. Of course I read and heard many China food-related stories from people, but as we all know, there is a big difference between the two – “virtual” and “real-life” experiences are vastly different, especially when it comes to something which you put into your mouth.
During the week in Beijing, I had an opportunity to try many different dishes and visit a number of restaurants. One challenge is that for the most of the restaurants I visited, I don’t have their English names or addresses, so what I will share with you will be mostly a collection of impressions, primarily in the pictures, without much useful references for you in case you will be visiting China any time soon. But I hope at least you will get an idea for what to expect, especially if you grew up on mostly European food. I also plan another post which will be just about the “tourist” experiences, for things outside of the food per se.
First restaurant I visited was a “Noodle House” type if I’m not mistaken, and it was located right around the corner from the Sheraton Great Wall hotel where I was staying.
The main dish at Noodle House was of course, the noodles, but before we got to them we also had lots of appetizers. Pork belly with roasted garlic and Quail eggs was particularly tasty, and it became only better with time, as it had its own heat and garlic continued cooking. Noodles were good, but hard to finish after all the food prior. Chicken with peanuts (as opposed to traditional cashew nuts in US) were also very tasty.
Now, I have to mention the first one experience (well, the actual “first” was undrinkable wine at the reception, but that we will skip). When I poured myself a glass of Chinese Chardonnay (at a happy hour), I had no expectations – just curiosity. First sip, and – wow – not bad at all! 1421 Gold Chardonnay Xinjiang China had a characteristic nose of Chardonnay, with touch of vanilla. The palate had touch of golden apples, vanilla, good acidity – overall, very enjoyable. I like the brand’s description on the 1421 web site: “1421….the year Admiral Zheng He, leading one of the largest fleets ever seen, sailed to many, many parts of the world. Wine much like travel, has served as a link between different cultures, people and countries. Today at the beginning of the 21st century, 1421 follows the same mission as Admiral Zheng He, sharing his spirit for a better world.” – the Chardonnay I had was definitely the wine worth sharing.
My next experience was a first encounter with the traditional Peking Duck, a whole duck seasoned and roasted in the special oven, with its crispy skin been the most sought-after delicacy. The place we went to, Dadong Roasted Duck Restaurant, defines itself as an Artistic Concept Food, and it does it – “Artistic Concept” – very successfully – in ambiance, food presentation, service – all the elements are there, definitely a world-class restaurant.
Of course my encounter with the restaurant started from the wine list, which was something to look at. The list was very substantial, with the wide range of offerings, adequately priced for the “concept restaurant”. I don’t remember which exact Bordeaux wine was that, but it was priced at a measly ¥28,000 (the ¥ symbol depicts Chinese Yuan, often also called RMB), which would translate into roughly $4,800. You could also have Penfolds Grange for only ¥7,200, which would be roughly $1,200 – which is almost reasonable (hope it was not a young vintage).
So after hopelessly scanning the wine list for a few minutes, I finally discovered what I was looking for – a small section of Chinese wines. Luckily, I already was given the name of one of the best wines in China (according to the local sources, of course) – the wine called Changyu, and there it was on the list. There was no vintage listed, but there were three wines offered with different “age” – 1, 3 and 5 years. I’m not sure what it means, but one year old looked as good to me as all others, and at ¥196 ($33) I felt very comfortable with my choice, whether the wine would be good or bad.
Turns out that Changyu was the oldest commercial winery in China, started in 1892, then of course significantly destroyed in 1949 and now getting back to their roots. The only thing I was able to figure out from the label was that the wine was made out of the grape called Cabernet Gernischt, which, according to the article by Jancis Robinson, is actually a Carmenere. I couldn’t figure out the vintage or any other details, but I can tell you that this Changyu Red Wine Blend Ningxia, China was simply outstanding – delicious nose of black currant with touch of mint, and perfectly balanced body of the classic Bordeaux blend which is ready to drink – nothing green, just cassis, eucalyptus, firm, good structure, welcoming pinch of tannins, good acidity and perfect balance. I got 2 bottles of Changyu at duty free, so probably there will be another post on the subject.
While I was working through the wine list, my host was navigating through much bigger book – here is the look of the menu at Dadong restaurant:
I can only say “kudos to my host” for been able to select anything from the book of that size – I would probably spend half a day flipping through the pages. Anyway, we started our dinner with a couple of exotic appetizers. Both were vegetables, one had sweet sauce and was crunchy, may be some sort of squash, but cooked very lightly? The second one was somewhat reminiscent of pickled mushrooms in texture, but didn’t have pickled taste. Both of course had a beautiful presentation. Then the duck arrived, was quickly presented to us (yes, I forgot to take a picture) and then it was sliced table-side. The only part which made it to the table was duck breast, with maximum skin exposure, as this is the most prized part. I was explained that proper way to eat duck is to take the top part which is mostly skin, dip in the sweet crunchy beans (more reminiscent of a sugar), then sweet soy-based sauce, and then put it in your mouth, where it literally melts – it seriously disappears without much chewing effort. The second way is to take a paper-thin pancake, and assemble a tiny taco if you will, by combining few slices of duck with thinly sliced vegetables and addition of the sauce – and this is how it is mostly consumed.
Once we were done with the main course, first the branch with tiny mandarins appeared, beautifully presented on top of a bowl with ice – when it showed up, it looked like the smoke was coming from the plate. For my dessert, I decided to try a pastry filled with cream made with the fruit called Durian. Durian is known to have the taste which is extremely polarizing to the people – only love/hate with nothing in between. Imagine the taste of raw onion, rather intense pungency of the shallot, mixed with strawberry cream – that would give you an approximation of the taste of that dessert. I personally liked it, but I can easily see how lots of people wouldn’t even touch it.
I’m not planning on give you the daily report on our eating, but I still want to include a a few pictures for probably the best lunch we had – two different dim sum and then a simple shrimp dish:
Next traditional cooking style we experienced was so called Hot Pot. The idea is that you have a special cooking vessel, which looks like a sombrero hat, if you will, with the channel filled with aromatic broth, and the middle section containing burning charcoal, which quickly brings broth to a boil. Technically, the channel is split into two parts, so you can have spicy and non-spicy broth separately – however, no matter what, by the end of the evening it becomes all the same.
You can order very thinly sliced meat (pork, beef, lamb), vegetables and noodles. You cook it all in the broth, and then you have a choice of dipping sauce. To be entirely honest, hot pot is not my thing – the meat, which is cooked for 10-15 seconds, has no flavor and simply becomes the vessel to eat the dipping sauce. Vegetables should be dumped in for the longer time, and then it is really hard to find them in the boiling murky liquid. This is not the worst food I ever had, but still – I had to have it twice, and only marginally enjoyed it both times.
I’m almost done with my China food stories. We experienced one more Roasted Duck restaurant, called Xile Village Roasted Duck Restaurant, located in the brand spanking new shopping mall.
Here the duck was sliced in 3 different ways – just the skin, top of the breast with skin and meat, and mostly meat pieces. At this restaurant, mustard was also served as a condiment for the duck breast, which was quite tasty. There were lots of dishes before the roasted duck arrived, as it takes 50 minutes for it to cook. My highlights here were delicious shrimp and very very tasty eggplant (one of the best vegetable dishes I had in China). Also, once all the meat was carefully cut off the duck, the carcass was chopped up and deep fried – nothing goes to waste 🙂
Okay, I hope I didn’t bore you to death – but I’m finally done. There you have it, my friends – my Chinese food and wines escapades. I plan to share some traveling advice regarding China in the next post. If any of these pictures triggered any thoughts – you know where the comment section is. Cheers!