Culture of eating well has blossomed in China
BEIJING, China (AP) -- My last houseguest had 13 restaurants on his to-try list, including three renowned for succulent versions of crisp-skinned Peking duck, one popular for its tongue-tingling Sichuan cuisine and a Uighur joint, known as much for the ethnic minority's cumin-spiced lamb skewers as its exuberant floor show.
"I never thought Beijing would have so many things!" he said hungrily after hours of online research.
Gone are the days when the traditional Chinese greeting "Have you eaten yet?" seemed like a bad joke in the dour capital where, as recently as the 1980s, staples were rationed, state-run canteens dished out the slop of the day in chipped enamel bowls and restaurants were few and far between.
Today's Beijing is packed with eateries at every corner, open at all hours and offering regional cuisines of all kinds -- a reflection of China's stunning economic success after almost three decades of convulsive growth.
And the run-up to the August 8 Beijing Olympics has underscored the quantum leap in the quality and variety of fare on offer, with menus and manners being polished in anticipation of the crowd of 500,000 visitors during the games.
From al dente hand-pulled noodles splashed with bracing black vinegar from Shanxi province in the north, to fingernail-sized chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies from Sichuan in the southwest, to the rich, sweet braises of the east, there is something to pique every palate. Don't forget the street food -- handmade pork buns, candied fruit and egg, lettuce and crisp fried dough rolled in a freshly made flour crepe, a Chinese burrito of sorts.
And that's just from within the country.
Sushi and sashimi? Ocean fresh. Persian grilled meats and stews? In the heart of the city. Fish and chips? Beer-batter or breadcrumbs, take your pick. Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, German, French, Ethiopian, Spanish, Singaporean, even kosher ... the list goes on.
"Simply put, we've gone from eating just to fill our stomachs to the stage where we are open to the complete pleasures of the dining experience," says Chitty Chung, editor-in-chief of Beijing's Food & Wine magazine.
That includes not only an awareness of a restaurant's environment, the chef's concepts, quality of service, the pairing of food and wine, and nutritional balance, but also a willingness try new things, says Chung, who recommends Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant not only for the namesake fowl, but also for its light modern twist on traditionally heavy Shandong fare.
"People's eyes are opening up and they are becoming more international. They are ready to accept and taste food from other parts of the world," she says. "The choices are far beyond your imagination."
So are the numbers.
There are more than 40,000 restaurants in Beijing, 90 percent of which are privately run -- a far cry from the few thousand state-owned eateries that were found on the streets during the early 1980s, says He Zhifu, secretary-general of the Beijing Association for Food and Beverage Industries.
They run the gamut from the simple (mom-and-pop dumpling place) to the showy (the starkly modern Green T. House, where dishes are decorated with curling tree branches, and the Whampoa Club, where roast spring onion ice-cream can be enjoyed in a dining room that sits beneath a massive glass goldfish pond) to the bizarre (Guo Li Zhuang which serves the penises and testicles of various animals -- dogs, yaks, ox -- cooked in a variety of ways.)
And some of the tastiest -- and most authentic -- regional treats can be found in the restaurants affiliated to the provincial government offices that have set up in the capital.
In all, Beijing's restaurants rake in more than $4 billion annually and the revenues are still growing, a lucrative streak that has boosted the street cred of the city's food scene and drawn big names despite tainted product scares last year. Chef Daniel Boulud -- a cult favorite in New York who has grabbed headlines for his $150 ground sirloin burger filled with short ribs braised in red wine, foie gras and black truffles -- has just set up shop in a compound that used to house the U.S. Embassy. Le Pre Lenotre, sister restaurant of the three Michelin-star Le Pre Catelan in Paris, opened to great buzz in the Sofitel Wanda Beijing.
The also-very-French Fauchon is peddling its gourmet treats in a high-end mall and Philippe Starck designed the trippy, down-the-rabbit-hole Lan club and restaurant. Last month, Zagat, a global dining guide with a fierce hold on the American market, launched its Beijing edition.
"Beijing has a concurrence of circumstance at present," says Malcolm McLauchlan, general manager of 1949, The Hidden City, a cluster of ambitious restaurants overlooking the shady courtyard of a former factory. He checked them off: a rapidly growing middle class, relatively little competition and Olympics-driven tourism.
Prior to the boom, the few and far between restaurants offered just a limited number of dishes. They opened late, closed early and were staffed by servers who seemed to take pride in being as disagreeable as possible. Their favorite phrase was "mei you," loosely translated to mean "we're out." Definitely no Haagen-Dazs, McDonald's or Starbucks.
State-run food stores offered a limited choice of essentials, like meat, flour, oil and eggs. Milk, yogurt, bread, bottled fruit and bai jiu -- China's version of moonshine -- were plentiful. But that's it.
"Now we can eat whatever we like without seasonal and geographical limitations," says Xu Yimin, editor-in-chief of Chinese and Foreign Food magazine, who lists the delicate but juicy dumplings of the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung as his favorite.
"Although food prices keep going up, peoples' love for tasty food hasn't changed," he said. "Eating has become a culture."