Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Peking Duck

I had a list of things that I wanted to do while I was in Beijing. Some of them involved food items. I wanted to eat lots of dumplings. 

I wanted to eat ziran yangrou (stir fried mutton with cumin) and yangrouchuanr (mutton kebabs). I really wanted a jianbing guozi, which is a sort of crepe with an egg cracked into it, sprinkled with green onions, dribbled with hot sauce if you want it (I do) and wrapped around this crunchy thing that looks like the latticework of a waffle. I call them "Beijing Breakfast Burritos."

On my list as well: checking out the recent and fast-developing microbrewery scene:

(I made pretty good progress on that last goal)

And I really wanted to have some Peking Duck. But my last full day in Beijing, I was on my own, and Peking Duck isn't the kind of thing you eat by yourself. Instead I settled for a jianbing, checked out one of those aforementioned microbreweries, the truly excellent Great Leap, where I had a great conversation with the manager, a Chinese guy named Jose who is a total, passionate beer geek. Great fun. That was enough to fortify me for a trip to the Hongqiao Market. 

The Hongqiao Market is south of Tiananmen, near the Temple of Heaven. It is sort of your one-stop-shop for, well, everything: Pearls, designer clothes (or reasonable facsimiles thereof), scarves, toys, souvenirs, crafts, paintings, electronics, suitcases, musical instruments, you name it. The kind of place where you're told you're getting the "special price, because you speak Chinese, and you are a friend of China." I know, I know. I make half-hearted attempts at bargaining but most of the time, I let it go at that. I go there to buy gifts for people, in this case, a traditional jacket for my mom, and nearly every year, a new cord for the jade I wear around my neck.

The funny thing is, whenever I shop for the cord, the dynamic changes. The aggressive shop girl who wants me to buy buy buy, suddenly drops all that and wants to help. She looks at the jade, "Oh, when did you get this? This is a good piece. You can't find this kind without paying a lot of money now." She doesn't have a cord herself but walks me over to one of the jewelry counters, and she and the woman there talk about the jade, and ask me what color I want, and everyone makes this sweet sort of fuss abut it: No bargaining, no rip-offs, just a careful job of tying the jade onto the cord, singeing the ends with a lighter, and that I should come and see them next year, when I return to Beijing. I really don't know what it's about, but I've had a version of this interaction every time I've bought a cord at Hongqiao Market.

Mission accomplished at Hongqiao, I made my way up to Qianmen, an area I generally avoid any more. A few years ago, during the drive to spiff up Beijing for the Olympics, the city planners tore down vast swaths of the traditional hutongs around Qianmen. Qianmen Street is just south of Tiananmen Square, running on a straight north/south line. They tore down most of what used to be on that street and rebuilt a sort of Disneyland version: new "Qing Dynasty" buildings containing luxury shops and "time-honored brands" and the usual tourist schlock. A lot of the storefronts are still empty. 

"Not Qianmen, but an incredible simulation!"

By this time, I was getting pretty worn out. It was a bad air day in Beijing, bad enough for my iPhone app to go off and warn me that protection was recommended. That meant wearing a mask to filter the particulates and coal dust. 

The pollution just wears you out. It casts a pall over the city that's like some kind of bad spell, a curse, filtering the light through a brown haze, tinting everything a sort of yellow. At night the streetlights illuminate the smog, making the air seem to oddly sparkle. 

I needed to sit. Needed to eat. And thought, huh, my favorite Peking Duck place isn't far from here. Maybe I should just go ahead and check that one off my list. 

Li Qun is the duck place I take people if they want duck. It's in a hutong, unrenovated (or not much), with the toilets out in the alley. Another throwback to Old Beijing. 

I ordered duck, thinking, this is going to be way too much food, and it's not cheap. But I'd come this far, and I was too tired to think straight. 

If you haven't had it, Peking Duck is incredibly rich, the crackling brown skin backed with fat. It's also really delicious. I ate as much as I could but still had more than half unfinished when I asked the busboy to wrap it to go. I wasn't exactly sure what I'd do with it -- my hotel room didn't have a fridge -- but I figured maybe it would make a decent breakfast. It was expensive, and I didn't want to waste it.

After that, I started walking north, carrying my duck, in the smoggy, yellow-black night. At first the streets were small, modest, leftover from an older era in Beijing. I made my way onto a broader avenue, and the buildings got bigger. There were PLA soldiers on the street, an older officer coming out of a restaurant, a half-dozen marching, a few younger guys in fatigues jogging. 

Then, to my left, Tiananmen Square. Deserted this time of night, other than soldiers doing some sort of changing of the guard around the Monument to the People's Heroes. 

I went ahead and used one of the pedestrian tunnels to cross Chang 'an Blvd. 

Just about a week ago, there'd been an incident where a Jeep deliberately crashed into a barrier in front of the Tiananmen Rostrum, where the portrait of Mao hangs. Five people were killed, including everyone in the Jeep and two tourists. The people in the Jeep were, as far as we know, Uighur separatists. In some accounts, they were waving a banner, shouting at the crowds to get out of the way. Or, they wanted to kill as many people as possible. We may never know.

After that, I made my way to the subway, and headed "home,"carrying my duck, still wondering how and when I was going to eat it.

The last few years, I've seen a lot more beggars on the subways. Generally they work in pairs, with one of the beggars having some kind of severe handicap. You know they're coming because you'll hear ear-splitting music coming from a boom box, sometimes karaoke-style, with the horribly burnt guy singing some traditional tune. This happens a lot during rush hour, when it's so crowded you wonder how they can even push their way through one car. They're generally met with irritation, wonder (that someone that horribly disfigured is pushing his way through a subway car at rush hour) and indifference. Does anyone give them money? 

The rap is, beggars are in an organized gang, run by bosses, and giving them money is a waste of time at best, encouraging a criminal enterprise at worst.

I was beyond exhausted, my eyes, nose and throat aching from the bad air. I grabbed a seat, leaned back and closed my eyes. Drifted off.

Then, the dreaded boom box. 

I thought, I will just sit here with my eyes closed and ignore it. I don't like being that person, being that hard, but you shouldn't give these people money, right?

The music stopped in front of me, the speakers pulsing with distortion. Someone tapped my arm.

I opened my eyes. A frail, middle-aged woman, wearing a traditional peasant robe. Maybe she was deaf. Leading a blind man, who was carrying the boom box. 

She smiled at me. I played dumb. 

Then, she pointed at my bag of leftovers. Smiling.

I didn't even have to think about it. I smiled back, and handed her the bag. Thinking, if they really are poor beggars, when was the last time they ate Peking Duck? And what was I going to do with it, anyway?

You shouldn't eat Peking Duck by yourself. 

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. Thank you for bringing me home again, Lisa. Well, sort of. When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh I heard tell of air like that during the "war years," But by the 1950s Pittsburgh air was clean even though national jokes persist to this day to the contrary. Never, though, did I ever hear someone speak of Peking duck and mutton kabobs, for the Original Hot Dog and an Iron City beer--and much later the Primanti Brothers fries on your sandwich-- approach to fine dining ruled the city.

  2. Lisa, Thanks so much for walking me through Beijing. I am not a beer lover, but I was happy to experience the culinary treats, especially the duck. That's a horrible story about the car crash. It never ceases to astonish and sicken me that people who feel that's a useful way to protest. "We hate the way the government is treating us. Let's go out and kill innocent people and ourselves in the process." Really? And that is supposed to help? UGH! However, just seeing the word "Uighur" brought me back to "Rock Paper Tiger." I loved that book.

  3. CORRECTION: Sorry to jump in on your post, Lisa, but I was just informed that I incorrectly announced in my blog post on Saturday, that I'd be speaking in Chicago's National Hellenic Museum tonight. THAT'S WRONG. I'm speaking tomorrow night, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 5th at 6:30PM.

    You may now go back to the Peking Duck and Beer.

  4. Wow, did your post ever make me hungry, especially for Peking duck, which I haven't eaten for decades.

    That's awful about the pollution, but I live in the Big Apple and there are days in which I can't even go outside because it's so hard to breathe. The summer days can be horrific -- heat, humidity, auto exhaust, cigarette smoke, smog, etc. all sitting in the air, not moving.

    What an amazing adventurer you are! Traveling around China like you do is like an alternate universe to me, but a good one.

    Hope your trip continues to be as interesting and as culinary a treat as possible.

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I'm back in California now, but already plotting my return next year.