Archive for October, 2011

Ni hao—your duck! Adventures in eating in Beijing.

I just spent 10 days in Shanghai and Beijing. Second to visiting some good friends of my husband who live in Shanghai, eating lots of delicious Chinese food was my top priority for the trip.

There were a few bumps in the road—including an inadvertent trip to Subway and a run-in with some aptly named “chou doufu” (literally, “stinky tofu”) and otherwise forgettable street food on Wanfujing Snack Street—but we mostly succeeded.

Almost everything we ate was yummy, but here are the three most memorable things we sampled.

1. Peking Duck. We went to Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck, listed in Lonely Planet. It was big, bright, busy, and expensive compared to other restaurants we went to in Beijing (but not that expensive compared to restaurants at home). I have no idea if there are better places for Peking Duck in Beijing, but we were totally satisfied with our meal and the ambience.

We ordered a couple of soups and a whole roast duck.

our duck

After the soup, which was tasty, our duck arrived along with the chef who was carving it. A waitress popped up and pointed it out to us with an economical: “Ni hao. Your duck.”

We received a plate of sliced duck and two plates of condiments, some of which we didn’t recognize: sliced onion, plum sauce, thin pancakes, one hollow bun, something pink, something pickled, and so on, including a small amount of sugar.

A waitress popped up again to give us instructions on how to eat our duck. The most surprising part was dipping the skin in the sugar. I’m not a huge meat-eater, and I tend to shy away from things like skin and fat. But the crispy brown duck skin dipped in sugar was a revelation. It tasted like doughnuts, but richer, crispy and melting in my mouth. It was delicious, and unlike anything I’d ever eaten before.

the whole spread

The rest of the meal was also quite fine. I’m still not sure I’m a big fan of duck, but smothered in plum sauce and wrapped in a delicate pancake with fresh slices of onion it was inevitably tasty. The duck was followed with duck soup and fresh fruit.

2. Tofu with chili sauce at Xhang Ma Ma. This was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no English menu or pictures that our hotel sent us to, along with a printed-out order in Chinese characters that we dutifully handed to the waitress after a long wait for table on a Friday night. We tried four dishes and all were delicious, but the tofu dish was the most memorable. I don’t know whether it is a traditional dish or unique to the restaurant, or what the English translation of the Chinese characters on our printed-out order is, but it was slices of fresh, soft tofu served with a chili oil-based dipping sauce.

tofu prior to devouring

I eat a lot of tofu, and this was the best I’ve ever had. I usually think of tofu as an innocuous medium for whatever sauce I’m eating it with, but this had its own delicate, slightly salty flavor. I would have eaten it alone. But the dipping sauce, heavy with Sichuan peppercorn, chilis, and sesame seeds, was intoxicating.

yummy dark-red chili sauce

We inhaled it with tingling mouths and went back the next day to gulp down some more before hurrying to catch a taxi to the airport.

3. “Stir-fried Beef with Pepper.” Alas, I didn’t think to write down the Chinese characters for this vaguely translated dish and again, I don’t know whether it is traditional or created by the restaurant.

We had this at a restaurant called Club Camp, which (according to the internet) specializes in Yunnan food, in Chaoyang. We wandered into it the night we arrived in Beijing. It was late, we were hungry, and we were unsuccessfully looking for a different restaurant listed in our guidebook. Despite the unappealing name of the restaurant, the food was outstanding, and we went back for a second meal when we were in the area two days later.

This was our favorite dish of the several we tried. It was fiery, one of the spiciest things we ate in China, and incredibly flavorful. The second time we dined there, we played food detective and inspected it to try to figure out everything that was in it. Our list includes beef, fresh peppers of some sort, dried chilis, cumin, anise, peanuts, fermented black beans, sesame seeds, and scallions, but I’m sure I’m still missing some things. Suffice it to say, it was a flavor explosion and again unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

In the week I’ve been home, I’ve purchased two Chinese cookbooks, been to the Asian grocery store twice, and cooked Chinese food four times (tonight, Dan Dan Noodles from Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty). Needless to say, Beijing made an impression.

To buy clothes or not to buy clothes? No. 28 on the list of things I waste time worrying about.

When I was younger, there was no question: I desperately wanted trendy new clothes, which led to constant battles with my thrifty mother.

My mom stayed home and my father was in the Navy. Although we didn’t want for anything, we couldn’t have had a lot of spare cash with three kids in the family.

Even aside from that fact, my mother wasn’t the type to spend a lot of money on new clothes, whether for herself or for me and my sisters. She was raised by my grandmother, who grew up in a village in what is now the Czech Republic, lived through both World Wars, immigrated to Vermont in 1949 with nothing, and made all of her daughters’ clothes by hand, including their wedding dresses.

Thus, my mother scoffed at brand names, and our yearly back-to-school shopping trip was fraught. (Mom, if you are reading this, I’m nothing but grateful now for the thriftiness you instilled in me.)

I’m aware that this isn’t a story of hardship. But I was insecure for a long time, like most kids—especially girls—are. If I had been different, had known better, been more self-possessed, I could have avoided a lot of angst, but instead I desperately wanted whatever the new fashions were at the Limited and Express every year. (In retrospect, my sights were set low, but I spent my high school years in Virginia Beach, not exactly a fashion capital).

Things didn’t change too much in college. I got some spending money from my parents, and worked over the summers. I think I pretty much looked like everyone else, but I was still envious of the content of other girls’ closets, and my clothes still felt closely tied-in with my sense of self-worth.

After college I found myself in Washington, D.C. with a decent paycheck. For the first time in my life, I started to spend money more freely on clothes and it felt great. I remember catching a glimpse of myself once in my apartment hallway mirror in Nine West boots, a Banana Republic dress, and a Benetton coat, and feeling like my brand-name garb was armor against the world. It made me feel secure and protected, and I liked it. A lot.

Then I moved to a camp in Alaska for a summer, where I was the only girl who wore lipstick (really tinted lip-gloss) and showered every day.

After Alaska, I moved to Austin. Austin’s a casual town, and it’s always 90 degrees, so a lot of my nice clothes continued to languish in the closet. I never made much money, so I just got out of the habit of buying “expensive” new clothes. I wore tank-tops and flip-flops most of the time, and I found lots of cute stuff at thrift stores. Finding designer or brand-name clothing at thrift stores was deeply satisfying to my thrifty soul.

Plus, I was in a serious relationship, and my boyfriend really didn’t seem to care what I wore. It started to seem like vanity—in addition to a waste of money—to try to wear nice clothes or look hot. Who was I trying to impress? I should want people to like me for me, not to be impressed by my clothes or looks.

And then I became a lawyer, moved to Seattle, and started making more money. At first, I still had the same attitude. I didn’t have time for thrift store shopping anymore, so I bought new clothes for work occasionally because it made my life easier and I could afford it. But the “work me” didn’t feel like the real me, so I didn’t much care how the “work me” was dressed. Even though I was single again, I still felt like it wasn’t quite right to care too much about how I looked.

Over the last few years, though, my habits have been changing. I’ve started shopping and buying new clothes more, and spending more time trying to look nice. I wear makeup more often, and I’ve figured out a work style that works for me—no more black pants, button-down shirts, or pumps. Luckily, I live in Seattle, where it’s easy to get away with being casual. I’ve been really enjoying feeling like I look cute and stylish, even if it’s only in my head. I can’t deny it: I love having things in my closet that make me feel comfortable, pretty, and stylish, and I love buying new clothes. It’s delightful.

But I’m torn. Money-wise, it feels like a bit of waste. Shouldn’t I be using that money for other things, like travel or classes, or saving it so I can work less in the future? Or giving more to charity?

I’m also uncomfortable with my motivation. I’m not sure why looking nice matters.

On one hand, I think it does matter to my husband. He likes it when I’m dressed well. He’s not a fan of some of my more Bohemian choices, but he generally likes my style. Making him happy seems like a good reason to try to look nice, but I wonder whether I’m just using him as a convenient justification.

This may be the root of my discomfort: if I’m honest about it, the pleasure I get from feeling like I look nice isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. There is a competitive, or at least comparative, aspect to it. I enjoy it at least in part because I feel more attractive and more stylish than other people. And that doesn’t seem like a good source of happiness. I can easily forgive my younger self for needing that kind of validation, but at this point in my life, I don’t know. Do I take any pleasure in wearing nice clothes that doesn’t have that comparative aspect?

I don’t know what the answer is, and I know there are much bigger things to worry about—both in my life and in the lives of others. But feeling guilty whenever I buy new clothes and spending as much time justifying it to myself as I do seems awfully inefficient, and yet I don’t want to give it up because it’s too fun. I’m seriously curious about whether or how other people feel about these things.