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Foreign couple’s excellent Asian adventures – day 2

Day 2: Hot and Sour Soup is Gloopy Everywhere

Location: Beijing, China

SO MANY DUMPLINGS.

This morning we woke up late, took a left from the hotel down Chaoyanmen Nanxiaojie, and stopped at the first steamed bun shop on the block. It was run by two old ladies who seemed very confused as to exactly what we wanted, which makes sense. I would be confused if two aliens, complete with funny hats and brightly colored clothing,* stood in front of me gesticulating wildly and making noises that I couldn't possibly comprehend.

* I've realized that what passes as fancy clothes in China is a lot like what passes as fancy tuna in Boston. See, tuna is often caught in the North Atlantic out of Boston or Cape Cod. It then gets bought by the Japanese and sent over to auction in Tokyo. Eventually, it may well make its way back to Boston to be sold in fancy sushi restaurants. Similarly, our clothes were made in China, sold in New York at exorbitantly high prices, then brought back to their place of origin, where they stand out (though unlike the tuna, they stand out more for their dorkiness than their classiness).

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Eventually we managed to wrangle two buns, one filled with steamed cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, and the other (better) one with cabbage, carrots, and salted scrambled egg in some sort of rich, salty gravy. They were far too hot to eat immediately, so to pass the time, we bought ourselves a four-yuan pancake stuffed with WAY TOO MANY sautéed Chinese chives.

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Too many as in, we couldn't finish more than a couple of bites before admitting that it was just too sulfurous and pungent to consume. (I believe it was that scallion pancake that would come back to bite me in the bottom a few hours later.)

But no matter, by that time the steamed had cooled enough to tear into. Just like yesterday's 4 a.m. dumplings, these two buns, with their shiny, slightly tacky pellicle and tender, bread-like crumb, put the over-sweet, extra-poofy buns I used to buy twice a week for breakfast at Golden Steamer in their place.

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It's not that the unfortunately-named steamed-bun shop on Mott Street, just south of Grand (and around the corner from Serious Eats' New York office) has bad buns per se, but put in the context of straight-from-China buns, they're the equivalent of eating something advertised as "New York-style Pizza" in Europe: there may be redeeming qualities, and it may even be tasty for what it is, but it's New York pizza in basic description only. A police sketch version of the real deal.

After polishing off the buns we kept walking. Our goal today was to explore the old neighborhoods and side streets North of the Forbidden City in and around the Bell and Drum towers, Beijing's old timekeepers that operated from the 15th century straight up until the 1940s.

We made it about another half a block before we saw a restaurant with pictures of dumplings in the window. We had a long walk ahead of us, we were going to need our energy, and it looked like a half dozen dumplings for four yuan (about 75¢), so why not, right?

There was even more ordering confusion this time, as the owner of the place kept making little folding and pinching motions with his hands. Yes, exactly. We want one order of dumplings! was what my gesticulations intended to convey. There was some miscommunication on both sides that became apparent a little on down the line.

Turns out that the man was trying to say to us, "you can order dumplings, but I'll have to make them from scratch, so it will lake a long time," (there should be a universal sign for "have to make the dumplings"). Meanwhile, I apparently said to him, "please sir, find your largest plate and fill it from edge to edge with pork and cabbage dumplings, then find your second largest plate and do the same with pork and scallion dumplings, and while you're at it, please bring us two bowls of murky cabbage water to wash them down, and perhaps some tea and a beer as well. For this service I will be happy to pay you whatever you deign appropriate to charge us."

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Despite the half hour wait (a half hour punctuated by several loud, angry-sounding conversations around us),* the dumplings were pretty spectacular. This time they were of the open-ended pan-fried variety known as dalian huoshao. They're cooked like a standard pot-sticker: You fry them first to crisp up the bottom, then add water to the pan and cover it to steam the fillings and top of the skin. Eventually, the water evaporates, allowing you to fry the bottoms a second time to re-crisp them. They're served flipped upside-down so that the crisp bottoms are presented on top.

* Have I mentioned that every conversation we overhear here seems to sound angry? The only other place I've felt that way was in Germany, and I'd believe all Germans are angry all the time were it not for the fact that Germans smile and drink too much beer to actually be angry all the time.

You don't see the open-ended variety (rolled sort of like a cigarette paper around tobacco) all that often in the US, but I'd order them from time to time at Qingdao Garden in Cambridge, if only to remind myself of why I always ordered the steamed dumplings instead. Open-ended dumplings defeat the purpose of a dumpling, as they let tasty juices drip out before they can reach your mouth.

But these dumplings seemed to defy that rule. Perhaps it was the skins—freshly rolled and more porous and absorbent than the average guo tie—that sopped up juices before they had a chance to drip out the ends. We ate valiantly, dipping the ends of the dumplings in plates of black vinegar and a chili oil made with finely ground roasted chilies (Adri very astutely asked "why don't all dumpling shops in the U.S. have chili oil on the table by default?"). In the end, we managed to polish off all but three dumplings between the two of us, along with most of the unidentified (and frankly, not very tasty) cabbage water.

When our bill arrived, we were pretty sure that we hadn't just consumed 49 yuan-worth of food and drink, but we're both terrible at haggling and making a scene (does this classify us as suckers?), so we paid it anyway, reasoning that at the very worst, we were out a couple bucks, or the equivalent of 30 minutes of rent in the average San Francisco or New York one-bedroom apartment. I'd move in half an hour late for a stellar plate of dumplings, wouldn't you?

We got back to the hostel in the late afternoon to discover that our missing bag had been delivered from the airport (joy!), but that the zippers had been locked together with a sturdy plastic zip-tie, and that the pocket knife we thoughtfully packed precisely for situations in which we may need a device capable of cutting through sturdy plastic zip-ties was trapped securely inside the bag. I suppose Adri will just have to go without underwear until we can get our hands on a pair of scissors.

Here is a funny restaurant name:

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And here is a pot-bellied pig we met.

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After an afternoon of exploring Beijing's alleyways (and public restrooms), we decided to walk over to the Donghuamen night market for some snack in lieu of dinner (we were still stuffed from the dozens of dumplings we'd eaten earlier today). Turns out there are two reasons to go to the Donghuamen night market: to gawk at Australian tourists gawking at squids, endangered species, and novelty-size insects deep fried on sticks, and to be very disappointed by the most forgettable Peking duck I've ever had.

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I guess it's kind of like New York, where it's possible to have both the best and worst pizza in the world, all within a couple of blocks.

Seriously, do yourself a favor: If you do come to the night market to gawk, avoid actually buying anything. It's all been sitting around for hours and is massively overpriced. Something just seems off about a row of several dozen food stands that all have basically the same menu, all run by people all wearing the same uniform.

After being disappointed by the goods, we decided to hit up the same dumpling joint we went to last night, hoping they might have a couple new flavors or skins on the menu. But when we got there, in pace of a quiet dumpling joint, there was a raucous restaurant serving up mostly Sichuan specialties: sliced oxtail and tripe, beef cooked in a sizzling vat of chile oil, roasted whole fish with chiles, and the like.

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We ordered a couple of big beers for four yuan apiece. Yanjing is China's version of PBR. Cool, crisp, not-too-alcoholic, and incredibly refreshing when served ice cold. Then I asked for a plate of smashed cucumbers with garlic, and some slippery liang fennoodles (clear, watery noodles with an agar-like texture made from mung bean starch) tossed with vinegar, sugar, fresh chilies, garlic, and peanuts. This may have been the first dish I've tasted since coming to China where the version I know from Chinese restaurants in the US (like Legend in Chelsea) actually trumped the version here. Makes sense, given it was a Beijing restaurant doing Sichuan food.

Adri, wanting to keep things light, decided to order a bowl of soup. We both love hot and sour soup—even the heavily-thickened Chinatown lunch special version (or perhaps especially)—so we were excited to see that what came to our table was actually not far off from what we were used to in the US. Perhaps a little heavier on the white pepper with slices of ham instead of roast pork, but everything from the gloppiness to the cheap plastic spoons was right there.

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We didn't quite expect to receive an entire half gallon of the stuff, but who's complaining? Certainly not Adri.

2016-06-22

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