- 300 dumplings, Swiss chocolate, and a side of fried invertebrate
- Another use for rice
- The Emperor will be doing nothing today, but leaving nothing undone
Ah, that classic Chinese landscape of humping peaks, each like the others, rising from the plain as far as one can see. I’m referring to a table loaded with dumplings (gyoza), lumpy boiled pockets of everything edible. Dumplings are a Tianjin specialty. They are also the specialty of Beijing. And, we’ve been told, every Chinese city. Our dumpling odyssey began with the dinner mentioned in the last entry (four platters), but was exceeded with eleven platters at a lunch in Cheryl’s honor held by two of her professors. We had gyoza for breakfast Monday at a Beijing hotel as well, where Morgan declared that the carrot dumplings were the best yet. Dumplings are simply the perfect comfort food, easy to handle with chopsticks, soft outside but a little crunchy in, identical in their wrappings but always a pleasant surprise in taste, an edible lesson in the distinction between appearance and reality, a table spread of presents.
Every Chinese meal we’ve had here has been superb, but the top was last weekend in Beijing, where my student Leo and his cousin Anthony treated us to their favorite restaurant. (They’ve been in Beijing for summer jobs.) As we sat down to big glasses of watermelon juice, Leo asked, “Are you feeling adventurous?” Among the highlights:
- Thousand year eggs (green eggs inside purple gelatin) (one vote — me)
- Pickled jellyfish (rubber mushrooms in vinegar and dill) (a few sort-of votes)
- Fried bamboo shoots on a bed of delicate seaweed (six votes — a great vegetarian dish)
- Apple sorbet (three votes — ice cream meets apples in a blender)
- Fried waterlily petals with lotus seeds – This was a dessert. The lilies tasted a bit like Vidalia onions or artichoke, but sweeter. After much discussion, we decided that the seeds had an edge of anise. (petals — six votes; seeds — zero)
The main course was duck, delivered as a neat stack of carved meat. You dip a slice in duck sauce and wrap it in a soft tortilla along with slivers of radish, onion, and garlic. After a few rounds, we realized that it was almost as good without the duck, good news for Morgan, who eats neither meat nor eggs. (She had plenty of options at this meal, as at the others. So far, being veggie in China has not been hard. She asks me to describe the meat flavors, which she misses, and she describes the smells.) Not much of the duck is wasted. We finished with a mild broth made from the bones, and they also served the quartered head, an item we pondered but declined to eat.
After we were happily stuffed, Anthony and Leo took us to a long street of food stalls where the rest of the animal kingdom, in its full anatomy, was available in great raw heaps (here’s a video). So, you could pick out the snake, or lizard, or insect, or tentacle, or lung, or stomach that looked just right to you, and it would be fried up on the spot. The street was jammed with Chinese tourists having the same response as us – dare you to eat that! Taking that implicit challenge, Rianna consumed a full skewer of scorpions. “So oily!”
Chinese food, like every ethnic cuisine, reminds us that most living things are also edible. It also reworks the combinations. In the cheese section of the big supermarket, Cheryl found a box with a big picture of Swiss cheese on it, very promising. Inside we found little wrapped items that looked cheese chocolate bars, which is exactly what they are – cheese and chocolate, together at last. Even the little markets have lots of familiar food types, often with local accents. I’m fond of seaweed Pringles, for example. And I’ve found microwave popcorn, a great victory. In two flavors, peach and strawberry.
We’ve also learned of another use for rice. Boiled with egg whites, it makes a nice mortar from which one can brick up a wall twenty feet wide, thirty feet high, and three thousand miles long. Some of the Great Wall was built with rice mortar, we learned as we visited the section at the edge of the Tianjin municipality, three hours from here. The stretch we visited was almost deserted, surprising since it is vacation time here, although it was around 90 degrees and very humid (like most days). Underfoot, the wall is a massive castle, and its undulations up and down ridges are followed by stairs varying from inches to several feet each. As I look up from fiery feet and aching knees, the gritty stones resolve into a wavy promenade, a floating road riding magically just over the crags. Further out, the wall with its repeating blocky guard houses looks like a parade of dragons. Still farther, a ribbon waving in the wind. And beyond that, a line inscribed with a calligraphy brush, part of a minimalist Chinese landscape, in which a single stroke defines a landscape, a mood, and an empire.
The center of that empire, at least for the last 600 years, is the Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing, also on our short list of immediate destinations. City it is, a sequence of immense squares surrounded by imposing buildings. Each are made of wood, composed of a rectangle of pillars supporting that familiar pagoda roof. The roof is broader than the base, its spread supported by elaborate and ornate cantilevers built without nails. Walls are suspended from the roof. The edges of each tiled roof are finished with a line of nine supernatural animal carvings, charms to protect the building from fire. But many of the buildings have burned nonetheless. When they do, the Chinese immediately rebuild a perfect copy of the original. So it’s not clear whether these amazingly ancient and beautiful wooden structures are the originals or replicas. But in China, in general, that doesn’t matter; originality doesn’t count — perfection does.
Walking from the south, each huge square ends with a presiding pediment and palace, poised and powerful. I kept thinking, as I entered each one, “This must be where the emperor sits,” but for three stages each hall was a gate to the next square, suggesting that the hugeness of each somehow fits inside the even greater hugeness of the next. The progression climaxes in a sequence of throne halls, beginning with the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where state functions were conducted (huge throne); then the Hall of Central Harmony (medium throne), where the emperor could prepare for the big events and rest; then the Hall of Preserving Harmony (medium throne again), also for rest and rehearsal (though I could have this wrong). Behind this the city is residential, with one resident in mind (along with his wife and concubines and hundreds of support staff). Over one of the residential thrones is an inscription meaning “Doing nothing.” I pondered this, and guessed that it invoked a prescription of Lao-Tzu, “Do nothing, but leave nothing undone,” a deep thought for an emperor to radiate. But Leo corrected me: this hall was really for relaxing. The inscription means, essentially, chill.
The back, residential city is a warren of small palaces and alleys, now museums of aspects of palace life, with a perfect garden including a manufactured mountain with a gazebo on top. Beijing is a city of wide climate shifts, hot in summer and cold in winter, so I was surprised that imperial life was spread across so many buildings, meaning that one would pass outside to get from one part of the palace complex to another. Or perhaps the lives were more contained in each part? The architecture reflects distinctions of status. Some of the buildings were heated with warm water beneath the floor, but others were not. Concubines could know their relative status by their warm or cold toes.
Each of these buildings, from the greatest to the least (relatively), have characteristic names, which begin to suggest the outlook of the poets who ruled the Middle Kingdom. A sampling to conclude this post:
- The Gate of Divine Might
- The Hall of Military Eminence
- The Hall of Literary Glory
- The Palace of Heavenly Purity
- The Hall of Mental Cultivation
- The Palace of Tranquil Longevity
Real estate developments and apartment towers in Tianjin use similar naming schemes, but that’s another story.