Eating Weird Stuff for CBS: Photos and Tasting Notes

I always thought that if I ever tried eating bugs, it would be on a dare, for a ton of money. Then last weekend I found myself at the Donghuamen Night Market with a CBS crew, trying centipedes, silkworms, and other odd critters for a CBS Early Edition segment. (More photos following the video.)

You can also see the video on CBS's site.)

In the past few weeks, international TV stations and reporters have increased tenfold around Beijing. And more than a handful of media outlets have pounced on the fact that the Wangfujing and Donghuamen snack streets sell some of the weirdest things to put in your mouth. Beijing Boyce is even documenting the scorpion-on-a-stick love affair with a running tally of stories this month. Locals and expats may snicker, knowing full well that nobody eats this stuff but tourists. But at some point everyone has been equally awed at seeing the critters for the first time.

CBS correspondent Jeff Glor was supposed to be the one sampling all the "snacks", but I ended up eating my fair share. So if the video wasn't enough, enjoy the pictorial tour, complete with tasting notes. I ate this stuff so you don't have to.

These are the starfish that in the video I said tasted like saltwater eel. They basically took the entire thing and deep-fried it, then whacked it open so we could eat the insides. You can also bite into the shell, like an older gentleman nearby did.

Scorpions were simply crunchy, like the tiny little bits that end up in the bottom of your french fry carton. Didn't try the beetles. Did I mention that nobody in Beijing eats bugs unless they're capturing the moment on film, just to disgust their friends back home?

At the night market, the vendors slice up cow's stomach and boil it with some broth and vegetables. While I didn't have it at the market, I definitely have eaten this at some point in my life (out of sight, out of mind.)

As expected, silkworms were pretty disgusting. Think rotten, overcooked scrambled eggs.

In my opinion, the centipedes were the worst. This was one instance in which the deep-fry-everything-to-get-out-any-bad-taste philosophy failed. It was almost bitter.

One guess what the two skewers on the right are.

 

Finding Reasonably-Priced Food During the Olympics...

...is next to impossible, I have discovered. It seems that when eating out during the next two weeks, you need to carry not only a ton of cash, but also a stiff jaw that doesn't drop upon receiving the final bill.

I understand prices always rise during such high-profile events, and I'm sure in Athens, Torino, and Sydney more than a few locals simply stayed home more than usual. But I was ((and still am) determined not to become a hermit during the biggest party in China's 5,000+ years of history.

So I have sucked it up and tried to forget the almost doubling of prices at my local (albeit quite famous) Peking duck place. And the $12 Carlsberg and $11 Evian on "Sanlitun Super Bar Street" I just attributed to the area being a tourist magnet. But two nights ago we headed to Duck de Chine, an elegant new Peking duck restaurant whose bird a trusted foodie friend said was on par with my current favorite Da Dong's, and about the same price of around 200 RMB ($29) per duck including pancakes and condiments.

After we got seated, however, we learned that they were only offering 3- to 4-course set menus for the duration of the Olympics, at the equivalent of $124 a person (!!!) In China. For New York prices.

If you wanted a whole duck, you would need to order it on top of the required set menu, which had almost nothing appealing enough to warrant the high prices. I said a flat-out no and simply walked out. I can stomach doubled prices for China's coming-out party, but not 5 times what I expected the evening to cost. I could find a cheaper set meal at Beijing's Daniel Boulud.

We did finally eat, at the nearby Noodle Bar. The decor was muted, reminiscent of a small sushi bar, with 1 or 2 chefs in the center hand-pulling noodles to order. The set meal was 42 RMB for a large bowl of brisket and tripe noodles, edamame and seaweed sides, and oolong tea. Even the vegetable prices were at pre-Olympic levels. It wasn't insanely cheap, but certainly doable, considering the Noodle Bar was also at the glamorous new 1949:The Hidden City development. The noodles hit the spot, and as I imagined it, better than the set dinner that would have cost as much as a round-trip train ticket to Hong Kong.

I may return for the duck after the Games. For the time being, noodles and chua'r will be my main sustenance outside of home.

The Noodle Bar Inside 1949:The Hidden City, Gongti BeiLu (across from the south entrance of Pacific Century Place) Sanlitun, Chaoyang District Beijing

 

My Beijing Food Guide in Theme Magazine

A foodie's guide to Beijing that I wrote and photographed is in this month's Theme, a glossy culture and lifestyle magazine out of Brooklyn. As part of their Olympic issue, they have contributions from a bunch of Beijingers, including gallery recs from the art editor of Time Out Beijing and club recs from the sound engineer of D-22. If you're in Beijing or plan to go soon, check out the guide, complete with street food introductions, Chinese and Western restaurant recommendations, and photos from Appetite for China. There are also a few recommendations from two other correspondents as indicated by **. I don't vouch for the spots personally, but to each his own taste! Bon appétit, or 干杯 (gan bei).

 

The Hedonist's Sunday Brunch

When your significant other decides to extend your birthday by suggesting Sunday brunch at the Westin, it's hard to refuse.

Granted, I had a long-time hatred and distrust of buffets. In fact, I revulsed at the thought of them. Buffets reminded me of soul-sucking Vegas vacations and childhood meals out in suburban Massachusetts. My well-meaning but frugal parents even held my college graduation party at a Chinese-style buffet; insisting that the all-you-can-eat platters of strange-flavor beef and California rolls were a "good deal". I would have sooner organized a reception at a Chinatown dai pai dong.

But I digress.

Beijing's Westin Sunday brunch shattered my belief that buffets were all about quantity over quality. I even went easy at first on the limitless Champagne, so my judgement wouldn't be clouded. It was an exercise in restraint.

The strongest indicator of substance over fluff was the seafood. I piled my plate with lobster, crab legs, jumbo prawns, clams, and the freshest mussels I had tasted in ages. And I doubt I could have found a better seafood bouillabaisse this side of the Caucasus. (For the record, Jacob and I had a very light dinner the night before, and didn't eat any more food for the rest of the day.)

I couldn't even make it to the Peking duck, roast pork, tuna tartare, seafood salads, noodle soups, chowders, dim sum offerings, bread puddings, baked goods, and all but three of the signature cocktails.

Of course, some foods just don't translate well when you make them in large-scale quantities. I was reminded of a previous job at a high-end Manhattan caterer, when I would spend whole days on tasks such as making tuile garnishes for 1,200 chocolate tarts. One of the many reasons people still go to high-end restaurants is for the intimate experience; for example, having a mousse parfait brought to you cold instead of self-serving one that has sat out for 3 hours.

Overall, though, I couldn't complain much. Not with this cake.

_________________________________________

Senses at The Westin Beijing, Financial Street 9B Jinrongjie, Financial Street Xidan, Beijing 9B金融街 西单, 北京 (86)(10) 6606 8866

Breaking the Restaurant Curse

(Thank you, Chuan Ban) Maybe it's not just me. Maybe other people also go through a cursed period of dining out, when every restaurant meal makes you want to crawl back to the safety of your own kitchen.

It started with a string of three Vietnamese restaurants. I had been avoiding Vietnamese here for lack-of-authenticity's sake, but recently got an immense craving for pho. Two weeks ago Jacob and I were in Houhai and, for lack of better choices, ate at Nuage, a trendy joint that seemed to care ten times more about décor than food. I won't go into a whole review. But I will say the spring rolls skins were lockjaw-inducing in their toughness. And the cocktails were possibly the worst I have had in China, which is saying a lot.

The next day I met up with Sandra from Savour Asia for lunch at Le Little Saigon, a new Vietnamese/French restaurant just north of the Drum and Bell Towers. The Vietnamese coffee was what I had been craving for months. But thick well-done flank steak has no place in my ideal bowl of pho. However, I'm such a sucker for good coffee and copies of Le Monde for perusing (in China!) that I just might return.

Two nights later, I ate over-cooked, almost oozy, lemongrass shrimp at Pho Restaurant. A few nights after that, Yunnan at Food in Novel that gave me food poisoning.

(Bad Vietnamese: Mushy shrimp)

After that I gave up on dining out. I tried to forget the money wasted. I threw myself into a week-long frenzy of cooking, cooking, cooking. At least if the food tasted bad, there was no one to blame but myself.

What finally broke the restaurant boycott was my birthday; there was no way I was suffocating in my kitchen with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees C. Jacob and I went out to eat at the much-touted "contemporary" restaurant SALT. Crisp seabass and crisp Viognier made me happy. The impatient service staff did not. And it made me wonder if we had to spend 450 RMB per couple to get good food in this town.

I e-mailed Sandra again. "I need something to restore my faith in eating out!" I wrote in desperation. Jacob and I met her and her husband at Chuan Ban, the Sichuan provincial government restaurant. (All of China's provinces have representative offices here, whose restaurants tend to set the standard for their respective cuisines in the capital.)

(Good Sichuan: Twice-cooked pork)

What followed was a succession of dishes that made remember how nice it was having other people cook for you. The shuizhu niurou (beef in chillis and oil) was a bit too tough and dried fried green beans rather flaccid, but other dishes made up for these defects. Huiguo rou (twice-cooked pork) and dou hua (soft tofu) in mala chilli sauce, though sloppily plated, were especially good in a home-cooked-by-Sichuan-grandmother sort of way.

I'm still aware that dining out in this town has its pitfalls. Restaurant reviews, from both local and international publications, tend to be overly generous. The best advice I can offer for jaded palettes (other than read this blog, of course) is to go out with other foodie friends who can weed out the overrated stuff. And to stock up on sturdy cooking utensils.

Recommended:

Chuan Ban 川办 (北京四川办餐) 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, near Jiangguomennei dajie Dongcheng District 东城区建国门内大街贡院头条5号

Sort-of Recommended:

Le Little Saigon No. 141, Jiu Gulou Dajie 旧鼓楼大街141号

SALT First Floor, 9 Jiangtai Xilu, Chaoyang-Lido Opposite the Japanese school, west of Rosedale Hotel 将台西路 珀丽酒店西侧

Attempt at your own risk: All the other ones mentioned