Peking Duck at Da Dong

Two nights ago one of J's friends visited from Shanghai, and he was craving the nice succulent duck that virtually everyone craves after a long hiatus from Beijing. He had eaten Peking duck "hundreds of times" before, in Beijing and elsewhere, but laments that Shanghai has nothing close to what the capital offers. We laid out the options: one of the Quanjude restaurants around his hotel in Wangfujing, or go all out at the swanky Da Dong a short cab ride away. Hoping to get away from the tourist crowd, we jumped in the cab.

Turns out, Da Dong also had loads of tourists that night, including at least 4 or 5 tour groups led by a flag-waving guide. Fortunately, the restaurant's massive size, taking up 2 floors of a block-size tower, means that tour groups get their own rooms, and everyone else eats without being offended by bullhorns or matching baseball caps.

The one thing that Da Dong immediate has going for it is atmosphere. After eating at other duck restaurants around the city that go all out with faux (insert random Chinese dynasty) gaudiness, it was a relief to be in a kaoyadian with good lighting, comfortable modern furniture, and absolutely no mammoth cartoon duck statues by the door.

The wait was 20 minutes or so (on a Monday night), so we amused ourselves by watching the duck kitchen at work. The kitchen is right by the entrance, on full display like a museum exhibit. There are 4 or 5 brick ovens, each fitting 5 ducks at a time. Every 2 minutes or so one of the 20 chefs lined up would pull a duck from the oven, hang it on a rack, drain and wipe it, and prep it for table-side carving. The skin always glistened so beautifully, so temptingly. On the other side of the plexiglass, hungry visitors like us would sit, waiting and drooling.

At least there was free box wine and soda. Or as I like to call them, "shut up and quit nagging the hostess" drinks.

When we finally got seated, we were presented with a 160-page menu, a hard-bound coffee table volume of food porn that puts The French Laundry Cookbook to shame. Each page was devoted to a single menu item, with larger-than-life drool-worthy photos. It's a good thing to flip through when you're not starving and want to order as quickly as possible. The drink menu was separate, in another hard-bound book.

Alas, we persevered. The guys did the ordering, calling out anything that sounded good. For once, I wasn't the one ordering too much. We had spicy cucumbers, spinach with wasabi and mustard, venison with pineapple and garlic sauce, pan-seared prawns, and curried scallops. All were artistically plated, all were delicious.

We watched the chef slice the duck into thin, almost translucent slices. We got our own dishes of scallions, plum sauce, cucumbers. The waitress, either following restaurant protocol or thinking we were newbies, folded the standard wraps for each of us. Then she took tiny sesame buns and put more duck, scallions, and sauce in those. The duck was juicy and smoky with crisp skin, and definitely leaner and less greasy than others I've had.

How the three of us managed to finished all of the above, plus duck bone soup and Singapore Slings, is beyond me. I do know we were the second-to-last table to leave. Now that J and I live in Beijing, Peking duck is one of those things we eat only when out-of-town guests visit. ("The novelty wears out after a while. Now we go out for Mexican food," J told his friend.) It had been almost 4 months since I last had Peking duck, but based on this experience, maybe visitors should come more often.

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Related posts on Peking duck:

Thanksgiving in Beijing with Peking Duck Crispy Duck Spring Rolls

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Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant 北京大董烤鸭店 1-2/F Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsi Shitiao, (southwest of Dongsi Shitiao Bridge) Dongcheng District, Beijing 东城区东四十条甲22号南新仓国际大厦1~2楼(立交桥西南角) 5169-0328

 

Malatang

If you have been to Beijing*, you've most likely come across this street scene: a bunch of people crowded around a street vendor, picking out skewers from a bubbling hot red broth. Others are standing around munching on the their bounty with a look of ecstasy on their faces. Passersby, drawn by the sight or smells or possibly even the pheromones of the people in ecstasy, join the crowd. You wonder, what is all this?

Málàtāng seems to be more of a magnet than most other highly addictive street food. Most likely it's because of the number of choices you get. Shrimp, fish balls, tofu, bean curd, lotus root, mushrooms, chicken, beef tendon, noodles, and much more get cooked in a pot of steaming broth laced with Sichuan peppers and sesame oil. You get a plate or take-out container and make your selection either blindly or informed, by asking nicely and trying to remember if there's a chapter on animal parts in your phrasebook. No matter, because everything is cooked through and more often than not, delicious. At 1 rmb or 50 jiao per skewer, you can have a light snack for 3 rmb or stuff yourself for 10 rmb.

I got my málàtāng fix today in Nanluoguxiang, a hutong just east of the Drum & Bell Towers. I got my helping of kelp, squid and fish balls, and bean curd rolls, topped them with a sesame chilli sauce, and sat down on the stoop of a courtyard home. Hutong residents road by on their sturdy steel ol' skool bikes. The young couple next to me were feeding each other tofu skewers. A bunch of grandmothers were cheering on a ruddy-faced toddler as he wobbled his first steps. It was one of those amazing only-in-Beijing moments that I'll remember long after I, someday, leave the city.

*Málàtāng is originally from Sichuan province, but has spread to coastal cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and I'm sure plenty of others

Other street foods to try in Beijing: Bingtang hulu

Roujiamo

Suan la fen - Spicy and Sour Noodles

Knife-cut Noodles

Jian Bing

Homemade Almond Milk with Bananas and Honey

I have been obsessed with almond milk ever since I discovered Lulu in Beijing. Sold at every market here for 7 yuan a liter, this boxed almond milk has been my new alternative to chamomile for a soothing right-before-bed drink. I also have it at breakfast mixed with green tea, or at dinner whenever my fridge has out of soju or vodka or anything to mix a drink with. Lulu is fine cold, but so delicious when warm that I can unconciously go through a whole box in one sitting.

So naturally I had to make my own. Store-bought Lulu may be addictive, but the homemade version is so transcendent that it makes me forget the 3 or 4 times I had to strain every batch because the mesh in my colander isn't fine enough. But c'est la vie. If you have a very fine-mesh colander to strain out the minute particles of puréed almond, making this will be a breeze.

The results of this first homemade trial were either sipped straight, or heated to go with warm honey and bananas (recipe below). Some other ways to use homemade almond milk:

  • In coffee in place of milk/cream
  • Stirred with green, black, or barley tea
  • Baked into cookies in place of, or in addition to, vanilla extract

I got the bananas and honey idea from Food & Wine, but the instructions on making the almond milk itself come from an Australian food site. The author says he adapted the recipe from the 14th century tome Le Vandier de Taillevent. Taillevent! Folks, you'll be drinking a piece of gastronomical history here.

Homemade Almond Milk with Bananas and Honey Adapted from cuisine.com.au and Food & Wine

Serves 2, with plenty of milk left over for your sipping pleasure

1 cup raw-skinned almonds 2 cups water 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons honey 2 medium-sized bananas, sliced 1/2 inch thick

Special equipment: Blender, very fine sieve or cheese cloth (If your sieve is not fine enough, you may have to pass the mixture through 3 or 4 times, like I did. A little texture is fine, a lot is just plain annoying.)

Bring the water to the boil, then remove from heat. Pour over the almonds and leave to stand for five minutes, or a few hours or overnight for a richer milk. Place mixture in a blender and puree until silky smooth. Pass through a very fine-mesh sieve or cheese cloth and discard solids.

In a small nonstick skillet, warm the honey. Add the bananas, and cook over moderate heat, stirring, for 2 minutes. Scape the mixture into small bowls or teacups and pour in warm almond milk. Serve immediately, with spoons of course.

Almond milk can be stored in the fridge, covered, for up to 3 days.

 

Macarons in Beijing? Mais Oui!

Paris may be thousands of miles from Beijing, but that doesn't mean delectable French pastries are out of reach. I immediately fell for these macarons when I saw them at Comptoirs de France, a bakery opened by Philippe Ancelet, formerly of the Kempinski Hotel.

Macarons, especially from Pierre Hermé or Ladurée, have a cult following, and the cult only grows as more fans blog about them. These tiny rounds of meringue sandwiching a thin layer of cream look almost too good to eat, especially since patissiers often line up 10 or 12 different kinds, from pinks to greens to yellows. As adults, we may be too old to salivate over cotton candy and lollie pops, but macarons still give us a chance to indulge in something bright and colorful.

Comptoirs de France also has canneles, tarts, and petit fours, but those are the subjects of another story. Not buying every flavor of macarons was an exercise in restraint. But I did try the Vanilla Bourbon, Caramel Fleur de Sel, Green Tea, and Chocolate Sichuan Pepper.

The Caramel was the best of the bunch; the Fleur de Sel somehow made the Caramel taste a bit like Dulce de Leche. Green Tea tasted much sweeter than other desserts made with matcha powder, but was good nonetheless. And the Chocolate Sichuan Pepper indeed had a kick, and a mouthnumbing aftertaste. Now I'm also inspired to experiment with Sichuan Pepper in chocolate desserts. Stay tuned!

Comptoirs de France East Lake Villas, 35 Dongzhimen Waidajie 东直门外大街35号东湖别墅大堂 6461-1525

Rm. 102, 1/F, Bldg 15, China Central Place, 89 Jianguo Lu 建国路89号华贸中心15号楼1层102室 6530-5480

Yunnan Cuisine in Beijing's Xicheng

The Yunnan folk music playing in the restaurant was so soothing that the cricket noises blended right in. Then Jacob snapped me out of my daze and pointed to the middle of the room. A middle-aged couple was lovingly playing with their pet cricket, which was sitting on the table in a tiny glass jar.

The cricket continued to chirp sporadically throughout our meal. While it's more common to hear car honks in the middle of Beijing than crickets, it was easy to pretend for a while that we were in rural Yunnan. The restaurant was decorated in bright yellows and reds, with Dai minority folk art on the walls. And we were about to eat hearty Yunnan fare.

We started off with a Dai mint salad, a salad composed entirely of mint leaves, with a little minced garlic, chilli, and vinegar thrown in.

"Wow," said Jacob, after his first bite. "It's good, but you'd have to really like mint."

Fortunately, I do like mint enough to fill up my whole mouth with them. But soon I found out that dipping the mint in the Cross-the-Bridge noodles made it even better.

Cross-the-Bridge noodles, or 过桥米线 (Guoqiao Miqian), is a Yunnan staple. The name comes from a story about a scholar who was studying for his exams by isolating himself on an island. His wife had a cross a long bridge every day to bring him meals, and was disappointed that all the food was cold by the time she reached him. Finally she discovered that she could keep her soup boiling hot by just covering it with a thin layer of vegetable oil. The scholar passed his exams (maybe these noodles are brain food?) and Cross-the-Bridge noodles became popular throughout the province.

Our waiter (who might also be the owner) brought out the boiling hot noodle soup on a tray along with little dishes of raw egg, chicken, fish skin, sprouts, and greens. After asking if we wanted everything in the soup (we did), he and his colleague emptied 7 or 8 dishes into the soup in lightning speed. The soup was still so hot that everything cooked right in the bowl. The noodles were tasty and the serving size so large neither of us could finish ours.

We also ordered some fried mantou. These mantou were more doughnut-like than other fried mantou served around Beijing, crispier and slightly sweeter. Instead of sweetened condensed milk for dipping, these fried mantou came with stir-fried beef with peppers and a lot of extra savory, meaty sauce.

By the end of the meal, the cricket in the center of the room was still chirping. Its owners, however, were now concentrating on slurping their own giant bowl of Cross-the-Bridge noodles.

Chahua Meizi Guoqiao Mixian 101 Di'anmenwai Dajie Xicheng District, Beijing

茶花妹子过桥米线 北京市西城区地安门外大街101号

Phone: 84017888