In which I describe the delights you can find only by adventurously ducking into the whatever steamed in window you see in a Beijing back alley (aka hutong) as well as delve into the first of the many regional Chinese cuisines we tried while there. At first glance this might seem like an odd combination, but really there was a lot of overlap. A feature of Xinjiang food is grilled things on sticks and flat, pizza-like flavored breads, both of which you may know, make excellent drinking foods, thus many double as great places to consume large amounts of weak Chinese beer or strong Chinese rice Whiskey, giving them more of a hole in the wall feel than a real restaurant feel. We had been out of the hotel just long enough to drop our body temperatures a few degrees on our first morning, when I spotted this. It emanated a feeling of warmth (without actually warming the outside): Windows heavily steamed, to the point that water rolls down inside, Tall stacks of bamboo steamers containing mystery deliciousness, Tables crowded with people, silent and huddled over bowls, raising spoons to lips. When I saw this off the main street, I dragged B inside. I hadn’t been able to see what people were eating, but I came to know the telltale bamboo steamers for future reference: Bao zi, pronounced like Bowser, from Mario Kart, only without the ‘r’. Bow-za, if you will. There is something inherently comforting about these fluffy stuffed buns. Despite the fact that I’ve never had them before (not even sure I’ve seen them in Seattle), I instantly felt taken back to childhood with a bite. The universal joy of soft dough around savory meat is epitomized in the bao zi. That said, I would never list this amongst my favorite dishes in Beijing. It is to Beijing what the French fry is to America–everywhere, commonplace, and while there are good and bad, they rarely raise to new culinary heights nor do they fall below a certain level of mediocrity. In general we ordered these as an accompaniment to various soups that we ordered at small mom and pop joints.
Yes, literally, there they are. Mom dishes out what, at this place was a thin broth with some type of scrambled egg afloat, while Pop crafted bao zi behind her. We pointed at the dishes the guy across from us had in front of him and were promptly served. We repeated this many times over the course of the next few days, especially as I got sick and began to crave the light, beautiful stocks enhanced with floating pillows of flavor–be they wontons, eggs, noodles or meat.
While I’m chatting here, I’ll just express my frustration at the difficulty of taking pictures of steaming hot soups inside small rooms with steamed in windows on gloomily smoggy days in Beijing. However, I think, picture quality aside, that you can see these are amazing, healing soups.
What, you might ask was I working on healing? How about the damage done after a night at a Xinjiang hole in the wall with my friend Nick, two former co-workers from a Chinese newspaper and a friend who spoke no English and a random kindly Australian news correspondent.Before we even get to the beer bottles, most of which are not pictured, just note the bottles of Chinese rice whiskey. While we felt that we could drink the Chinese beer for days with out feeling drunk, after about two sips of this stuff, you knew you’d live to regret it. We had been at a bar on the lovely Nanluoguxiang bar street, and needed some food. At the North end of the street, Nick guided us to the right and the first or second door was this place. While torturing us by ordering ridiculous amounts of beverages, he also treated us to an array of Xinjiang food, a first for us.We started with this cucumber, bell pepper and cilantro salad, which was light and refreshing, with a vinegar-y dressing. It reminded me more of Mexican or Peruvian food in terms of flavors than anything Chinese I’d had before. In reality, Xinjiang is Chinese on a technicality–this is the Northwestern territory, which is populated by a Turkic peoples and the cuisine floats between Afghan, Persian and Chinese styles.
The ever popular specialty of most of these hole-in-the-wall/halfway to a dive bar type Xinjiang restaurants is meat on sticks. I love meat on sticks, so this was a bit of heaven for me. Above, you see what we later got defined as ‘lamb knee’. Whatever this consists of, it had that soft crunch of a perfectly prepared pig ear. If that idea grosses you out, lamb knee is probably not for you. If it makes your heart beat faster, then you’re in for a treat. Each skewer was liberally sprinkled with a vibrant spice mixture that included a heavy hand with the cumin. I did not get many photos, but the meat variety was terrific, there were chicken hearts, chicken wings and the ‘regular’ lamb. Later in the trip I was reading Fuschia Dunlop’s wonderfully written memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Peppercorns” and got an explanation of what made the lamb so good. I had noticed a fatty bit between two pieces of mutton on the skewers, but hadn’t understood why or where it came from. Dunlop explains that the meat comes from the fat-tailed sheep of NW China, so a piece of the tail fat is threaded onto each skewer. Drool. I’d like to thread tail fat on to most everything I eat.
A few days later, we headed to Crescent Moon Xinjiang restaurant, not far from the Dong Si subway stop, where we experienced a greater variety of the regional cuisine, this time feeling a little of the Russian influence from the north. We drank milk teas and pomegranate juice as we lingered over thick noodles under chicken stew, bigger, meatier versions of the skewers, flatbreads with the soft top/crispy bottom combo that you crave in a good slice of pizza, and an amazing creamy yogurt.
On our final night, we finished out the trip much like we had started it, drinking in a Xinjiang restaurant where the food seemed to be a thinly veiled excuse for excessive drinking. The floor was so filthy and littered I was scared to put my bag down and what passed for a napkin stuck to the table when I put it down. A man who clearly didn’t feel the need to excuse his drinking came up to us and cheers-ed us, then returned to his table. The polite thing to do, Nick told us, was to go over to his table and do the same. And down the rabbit hole we went, til the man was sitting at the table, babbling away in Chinese, oblivious to the fact that we didn’t understand a word, having a grand old time. We knew it was time to make our escape when Nick ceased to be able to translate because the man’s speech was interrupted by an unabashed belch every other syllable.