Friday, October 5, 2012

Beyond Chop Suey

I came to Beijing once before in February of 2006. As expected, the Great Wall and Imperial Palace and other big tourist draws were indeed impressive, but the highlight was the food. It simply was extraordinary. Of course, living in San Francisco, I had moved far beyond the chop suey and chow mein of my 1950’s family dinners out at The Golden Lantern Restaurant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. But I never encountered food like this before and frankly, haven’t found it since. Until last night.

San Francisco venture capitalists, take note! If someone could open a restaurant serving anything close to what seems to be standard fare here, you could make your fortune. The first surprise is that vegetables or meat heaped on top of rice or noodles is rare. Instead, there are about 10 to 20 small plates of twenty different kinds of mushrooms each prepared differently, vegetables, tofu, tofu made to look like shrimp or chicken, actually shrimp, chicken, pork, etc. No rice, no noodles, just a Lazy Susan filled with these goodies and germaphobes, don’t be squeamish that your fellow diners reach for their little portions with the same chopsticks they eat with. Each dish distinct and each flavorful beyond a foodie’s wildest dreams.

I remember writing back in ’06 that I missed certain complexities in my amateur hearing of Chinese music, neither the thrilling polyrhythms of Africa nor the intricate polyphony of Bach. I concluded that each culture chooses where to place its genius and that having eaten in Ghana and visited my share of German restaurants, with all due respect, their cuisines are low on the side of complexity, nuance and variety. But these meals in Beijing—oh, my!

My suggestion? Go to a West African dance class, then on to rehearsal with the Bach choir and top it off with dinner at an authentic Chinese restauarant. That would be your entry into The Temple of Heaven. But until some SF entrepeneur figures it out, you’ll have to go to Beijing to do it. 

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