Mysterious Island Goes to China: THE NORTHERN CAPITAL

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You’ve no doubt heard of April in Paris.  How about December in Beijing?

It’s after dark on a sub-freezing night in this legendary and mysterious city whose name literally translates to “the northern capital.”  

Outside, a frozen, arid wind from the vast Gobi desert whips through the hutongs and alleys near my hotel.  

You’ve no doubt heard of April in Paris.  How about December in Beijing?

It’s after dark on a sub-freezing night in this legendary and mysterious city whose name literally translates to “the northern capital.”  

Outside, a frozen, arid wind from the vast Gobi desert whips through the hutongs and alleys near my hotel.  

The hutongs are those mysterious little walled-in neighborhoods found around Beijing and on this night gusts of up to 50 miles an hour howl through them, creating whirlwinds of dust and plastic bags.

It’s nearly winter here and the tourists are gone.  

We could talk about temples and Great Walls and the like, but I know what you really want to know about:  the food.  

As Yogi Berra might say, in a word it’s weird and wonderful.

Here, in this hotel of the sort that is befitting of a newspaper man’s salary, I slurp down a delicious bowl of kungpao chicken with a side of pickled and salted quail eggs.  

The kungpao chicken here is a bit sweeter than what we’re used to in the states—almost sort of a barbecue sauce taste—but it’s just as spicy, especially when you get ahold of one of those chili peppers.

For the earthiest varieties of the local cuisine, one need only go to just about any street corner to taste the steamed, sticky dumplings known as boazi, filled with spicy beef, pork or pickled vegetables.

Rice is not common here in the north and in its place is a wheat-based doughy bread flattened into disks known colloquially as “Beijing pancakes.”  

A common (and cheap) breakfast treat that these street stalls offer is a sort of Chinese Egg McMuffin with a hard fried egg, two patties of homemade Chinese sausage, some kind of spicy spread and a crispy leaf of lettuce.  It’s then folded over and eaten like a “Chinese taco.”

Vendors hawking roasted yams, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts and sweet bean cakes all round out the street fare.

Every morning, I’m up well before sunrise and on my way to my language classes through the frozen cityscape.  

But nothing breaks the iciness quicker than stepping into one of the steaming little noodle shops located near the language institute for breakfast.  

In the highly visible kitchens behind the front counter, cooks shout orders and dirty jokes back and forth amid great steaming cauldrons of broths and sauces.  The mysterious and mesmerizing art of noodle making, where the maestro expertly weaves noodles cat’s cradle-style from a lump of dough, is on display here.

The sweet smell of the anise-based spice known as five spice powder permeates all, much like the smell of curry around Indian restaurants.

Snack-wise, even in the quick marts found all over town one has myriad choices of shiny, glossy packages of salted plums, sweetened shredded pork cakes, pickled roots and a host of unidentifiables.

But if you really want to take a wok on the wild side of Chinese cooking, you need to visit the Wangfujing Night Market, which is exactly what I did last Saturday night.

Here, dozens of exotic dishes from around China are represented and cooked before your eyes in any one of the dozens of stalls.

And when I say exotic, I mean exotic.  

In the space of about 20 minutes I ate two seahorses, three caterpillars, a small snake, two out of five silkworm larvae (I gave the other three to a beggar), three grasshoppers (large) and something that looked like a trilobite from the Jurassic period.  

The coup de gross was a deep-fried, shiny black scorpion-on-a-stick about 4 inches long.

There were other, more mundane choices like lizards and crickets, but I decided to leave those for the amateurs.

It was all really quite good and nothing tasted like chicken.  

The silkworms were very salty, the trilobite tasted fishy and the caterpillars actually tasted like French fries.

The scorpion really didn’t have much flavor at all, but was indeed very crunchy.  And yes, I ate the whole thing.  My mother taught me to never leave any scorpion on my plate.

Having had my fill of insects and reptiles for the evening, I made my way to the next venue on my list.  I had been invited by a German girl in my Chinese class to come to the little hideaway gin joint she works in the evenings called Capital Spirits.  

There would be plenty of opportunities to speak Chinese with the locals, she said.

The directions I was given were straight from a Chinese treasure map:  first go to Dongzhimen, then walk 10 minutes to the west, then down a small side street, turn left at a Muslim barbecue diner (there are many Muslims from Western China here) and then a right at the entrance to an alley.  

There, in a misty hutong, I found the place and there was Kristina working tables.

The proprietors of this particular bar pride themselves on their own home-distilled libations of traditional Chinese spirits.  

Next to me at one end of the bar were several large glass jars with their masterpieces in progress: a liquor made with hot Sichuan peppercorns, another that had a big chunk of ginger in it and yet another that was derived from a traditional recipe from Guangdong province, I was told, that featured a pickled four-foot anaconda coiled inside.

I no longer imbibe so I nursed a couple of ginger ales at the bar and spoke with the lovely Xiao Zhuhui, a fellow customer.  

From there, I watched the mix of Chinese locals and German and American expats huddled at their tables around flickering candles.

At the bar, it was the perfect illustration of the blending of the old China and the new:  On one side of me, Xiao talked about her mechanical engineering job with a large German multinational corporation in Beijing and how she really wanted to get into purchasing.

On the other side of me was this big vat of booze with a dead snake in it.

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