Hot Pot Inferno, Beijing

When Jacob and I first moved to Beijing we were infatuated with hot pot. It was the beginning of winter, when low temperatures and relentless winds made dinner over a pot of boiling broth very enticing. We didn't have a kitchen in our first apartment and ate out almost every night at hot pot restaurants both cheap and pricey.

Then, spring came. With the warmer weather emerged the more discerning, and lazier, eater in us. Why should I pay higher prices to cook my own food? Isn't the purpose of eating out to sit back and enjoy other people's creations?

So we avoided hot pot completely until a two weeks ago. It was freezing in Beijing and we walked past a hutong restaurant through whose windows we saw only steam and blurry outlines of people dipping food into a pot. Sold.

The place was as local as you could imagine. "No smoking" signs covered the walls but every other patron was puffing on a cigarette. Tabletops were cracked and peeling. Beer was served in little neon water tumblers manufactured for small children. But the attraction was the hot pot itself, this ancient iron monster heated by charcoal, not those nouveau thingies with induction cookers. (I particularly love the photo up top, in with the hot pot looks like this inferno surrounded by bits of swimming goji berries and enoki mushrooms.)

I opted for the clear broth instead of the sinus-clearing spicy broth. We ordered our usual spread of food, which is way too much for two people: lamb, shiitakes, enoki, spinach, cabbage, vermicelli, all to be cooked and dipped in a peanut sesame sauce.

Granted, I have had much better hot pot, in much better environments. And at 71 RMB for two, it was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten in a hutong hole with sketchy hygiene and cracking tables. But then again, after a year of avoiding hot pot, it was a novelty to sit in front of a flaming relic from a bygone era, and yes, cook our own food.

A Peking Duck Thanksgiving; Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24

American expats in China, far from home and faced with limited supplies of turkey, have been known to celebrate with Peking duck. Here, duck dinners are the next closest thing to a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. This was my second Thanksgiving in Beijing, and my second with Peking duck. Really, what is the difference between a big beautiful turkey that spends 4 hours in a home oven, and a big beautiful duck that spends 30 minutes in a brick restaurant oven? (Other than a lot of work for someone else?)

I try to limit my Peking duck intake to when friends and family visit, but Thanksgiving brings out my love of laboriously-prepared birds. When Foodbuzz put out a call for another 24, 24, 24 event, I knew I wanted pay homage to what has become a new Thanksgiving tradition in China. Last year Jacob and I ate at the unspectacular Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, but this year we invited 3 other friends out to Da Dong, one of the best duck restaurants in town.

(Peking duck and condiments in a sesame puff; Duck bone soup)

The Nanxincang branch of Da Dong has an open duck kitchen right next to the lobby. (Peking duck primer: Ever wonder why the ducks have such crispy skin? A day before cooking, chefs blow into the skin area to separate it from the meat, creating a puffed-up shell. They then hang the ducks to dry overnight, sometimes in front of a fan.) During the busy times at Da Dong you can watch the chefs rotating the ducks inside the three brick ovens, and about 10 to 15 other chefs are lined up ready to escort a finished duck to the dining room. I don't know how long chefs train to slice duck with such speed and precision, but a duck would usually be fully sliced and neatly plated in five minutes. (See more photos of the carving.)

That night we were able to get both sesame puffs and thin pancakes to fill with sliced duck and condiments. There are few gastronomical pleasures (at least in Beijing), better than a bite of both dark meat and skin dipped in some hoisin sauce and granulated sugar. The one gripe I have with the condiments is that Da Dong charges an extra 8 rmb per person, when almost every other duck restaurant in town gives the condiments for free.

(Stir-fried duck in a lettuce cup and crispy "nest"; Shredded duck wings in Sichuan pepper oil)

No respectable duck restaurant would offer guests only sliced dark meat. You also get a savory soup made of duck bones (or a doggie bag of remainders for broth-making at home.) Like home cooks using every part of the turkey in creative ways after Thanksgiving, Beijing chefs are no less inventive with the duck. Our cold dish of shredded duck wings and cucumber dipped in Sichuan pepper oil was particularly juicy. And I couldn't resist ordering stir-fried duck wrapped in lettuce and a crispy "nest"; you scrunch up the "nest" with your hands before shoving the whole thing in your mouth.

(Peking duck and condiments in a pancake, pre-wrapping; Hot and sour Mandarin fish soup)

Of course, we needed to balance out the duck consumption with seafood and vegetables. My favorite dish of the night was a hot and sour Mandarin fish soup, brought out in a metal hot pot over a burner. It wasn't very evocative of Thanksgiving, but still soul-warming and a great combo of savory and vinegary flavors.

(Dividing the Mandarin fish and soup; Goose liver fried rice and millet with seared eel)

And of course, no Chinese Thanksgiving meal would be complete without fried rice, a staple of my childhood Turkey Days. Back then, it was vegetables and maybe cha siu fried rice. On Thursday, it was goose liver (regular, not foie). Heart health be damned. The goose liver rice was certainly delicious and befitting the over-indulgence theme. The other selection of millet with seared eel was a little dry and not as good.

(Winter squash in passion fruit juice; Sweet potato balls; Braised eggplant in soy sauce)

Like all of Da Dong's dishes, our seasonal vegetables we ordered came creatively plated. (What a departure from most Chinese establishments!) Our winter squash, shredded and enhanced with passion fruit juice, came as little balls. As did our sweet potatos with candied tangerine peels, though their taste was much blander. I couldn't help but love our braised eggplant in soy sauce, for both the simple rich flavor and the pearl onion adornment.

(Persimmon sorbet with almonds and light coconut sauce)

Da Dong may overcharge with condiments, a mandatory tip (not customary in China), and pricing fish entrees by weight instead of a set amount, but it gets credit for providing free dessert. Given a choice of three, I passed up the sweet congee and sesame porridge for a persimmon sorbet in a watered-down coconut syrup. Granted, it's an ultra-light dessert designed for the Chinese palate, but we were so stuffed from dinner nobody cared.

And of course, there are few better ways to end a Chinese dinner than over a plate of fruit and dry ice.

Despite trying curb my tendency to over-order and stuffing ourselves like a patriotic souls, Jacob and I still took home a container full of duck and fried rice. It was a lot of food, but still more manageable than the one year we cooked an entire turkey for two, then ate the remains for the next month. On Friday I finished the leftovers in two go's.

See, I doubt a Peking duck sandwich with stuffing and mayo would be very good.


Bonus alcohol fun facts:

What do the Chinese drink for holiday celebrations? Or just special occasions involving Peking duck? In Beijing, you may see groups of male business colleagues challenging each other to chug baijiu, a potent and noxious grain alcohol best left unconsumed.

But in family situations when machismo and "face" aren't factors, locals like to relax with some Tsingtao or Chinese wine. I am not at all a fan of Great Wall wine with duck (or Great Wall wine with anything), but my relatives are.

And of course, there is the perennial favorite drink imported from the West, cradled gently in a waiter's arms and presented to the table with flourish: a gleaming bottle of Coca-Cola, 2008 vintage.


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

Summer Palace at the China World Hotel

(Steamed Mandarin fish and tofu in saffron soup.)

Earlier this week, at an election-night viewing party in Beijing, I was discussing the city's restaurant scene with a fellow expat. "Name your 5 favorite Chinese restaurants in Beijing," he said. After rattling off the favorites, it occured to me that most of my top picks were Sichuan spots. "Where do you go for Cantonese?" he asked. "Hong Kong" was my response.

Beijing's lack of good Cantonese spots has been part of the challenge of living here. I often bemoan the fact that I can more easily find a passable wonton noodle soup, cha siu, and dim sum in New York. Even Cantonese ingredients like fish sauce, wonton wrappers, and lap cheong are rare in supermarkets. All Chinese food is not created equal, or equally available, in China.

Of course, I had not yet tried Summer Palace, a recently renovated restaurant at the China World Hotel, part of the Shangri-la Hotels. Jacob and I were invited to lunch there last week, and got to taste a good sampling of the food. The menu offerings at Summer Palace break down to about 60% Hong Kong-style Cantonese and 40% Huiyang, a cooking style from Jiangsu Province that emphasizes steaming, braising, long cooking processes, and intricate presentation. According to dining director Derrick Siew, the Cantonese and Huiyang teams work separately, to avoid influencing each other too much and to preserve distinct cooking styles.

The decor of the dining room is meant to evoke 1930's Shanghai, with chandeliers and stain-glass-style mosaics. Tea service also matched the pizzaz of the dining room; a young server roamed the room, refilling tea pots and glasses with a long spouted tea pot with flourish.

(Tea service.)

While sipping our tea, the waitresses came by with a terracotta teapot and matching cup. More tea? I wondered. Nope. It was a soup, bamboo shoot and dried scallops in fish broth, to be exact. The idea is that you pour a little at a time into the little teacup, while the rest of the soup stays warm. And, of course, you can also take off the lid and eat the contents inside. Ingenious!

(Left: Bamboo shoot and dried scallop soup in fish broth, served in a terracotta teapot. Right: King prawn in XO sauce.)

The next soup was also impressive, taste-wise, and was my favorite dish of the lunch: steamed Mandarin fish in a creamy saffron soup (pictured up top.) The soup was creamy, but not too thick to overshadow the steamed fish. At the bottom of the bowl was a circle of tofu that seemed like silky custard.

I also liked the king prawn served with a spicy XO sauce. The bread/pretzel piece on which it rested, however, was too hard to chew.

(Pork ribs in Huiyang brown sauce)

The piece de resistance main course, it seemed, was a pork ribs in Huiyang brown sauce. According to Siew, the pork is first deep-fried, then boiled and braised. As a result, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and absorbed the sauce like a sponge. The accompanying claypot rice, with Chinese sausage, preserved duck, gai lan (Chinese broccoli). The flavorings were served apart from the rice, something I haven't seen before, but is apparently Huiyang-style.

(Claypot rice with Chinese sausage, preserved duck, and gai lan)

After lunch, during the mid-afternoon lull, I asked for a sneak peak of the kitchen. We met Chef Stanley Yuen (Cantonese side), who previously worked at Lei Garden in Hong Kong and the Shangri-la in Jakarta, and Chef Xin Qing Hou, ex-head-chef at the Shangri-la in Zhongshan (my mother's hometown!) What most impressed me about the kitchen, besides its enormity, was that about 1/3 of it was set aside for just dim sum. There were stations for steaming bamboo baskets, ovens just for seafood, and ovens just for the fluffy baozi I'm particularly fond of. There was even two steamers just for cheong fun. I have always imagined dim sum kitchens to be cramped places where chefs worked on top of each other, like some high-end kitchens in Boston and New York where I've trailed.

I guess this is another class of workspace altogether, almost like the Chinese version of the Per Se kitchen.

Summer Palace at the China World Hotel 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie Chaoyang District, Beijing