- Food & Drink
Looking back at the reviews I wrote of my Trans-Mongolian train trip, I see I’ve written up 5 meals in Ulaanbaatar and just 2 in Beijing. This needs to be corrected. Even the bad meals in Beijing were a sensory explosion compared to the bland meat’n’wheat fare we stopped up our digestive systems with in Mongolia.
So, back in October 2009 Leonard, DJ, The Enigmatic Mr S and I were in Beijing. Having got our mania for Xinjiang food out of the way at Crescent Moon, we wanted what all tourists want in Beijing: duck. We’d been recommended Liqun and Leonard and Mr S’s swanky hotel had booked it for us. It was our 3rd night and we gaily walked towards the hutongs where the restaurant is hidden.
It really is hidden. The hutongs are steadily being bulldozed and rebuilt as a neater, cleaner versions of themselves and every time we reached a turning that should’ve led us to Beixiangfeng, we found a new wall, a temporary wall or a bulldozer and a hole where a road should’ve been.
Conversation flagged as we furiously scrolled through the maps on our phones, stabbing the screens and saying: “No, I AM right. It IS this way,” only to hit another set of hoardings cheerily reminding us of the great benefit redevelopment would have for the area.
Finally we found a dingy alleyway lit by a pale white light and on the wall someone had drawn a duck. We followed the duck’s direction to the next duck, and the next and the next, until we were by a doorway lit by dim red lanterns with a big duck drawn next to it. We were at Liqun. We were over an hour late.
No matter, there was a table reserved for us in a white and brown tiled ‘VIP’ room. We ordered bottles of Tsing Tao draft (watery stuff, barely worth opening your mouth for), tea and one of the set menus designed for nervous tourists with an appetite for dead ducks.
Spiced roast cashews were plonked on the table first, followed by 2 salads. An indifferent glass noodle salad with cucumber and carrot took up space, while a delicious red and white cabbage salad with carrot, coriander and a sweet and spicy dressing that built to a lingering slow burn earned its place at our feast.
Our duck was brought to our table, gleamingly varnished, so we could agree that it was duck and then it was carved and passed around with see-through thin pancakes, spring onions, cucumber and hoi sin sauce. By subtly observing the Chinese family sat at the other VIP table we learnt that you dip your duck in the sauce, then put it on your pancake with the veg and roll it up.
This was the only time that I ate something in Beijing that tasted like UK Chinese takeaway. All the familiar flavours were there, but rather than the crunchy shreds of overcooked, deep-fried bird, there was flabby, watery meat. It was filler in a salad and hoi sin roll.
Eating the duck on its own I could taste the fruity sweetness of the marinade and the lingering ripple of fat, but in the pancake it gave up the fight to be interesting and settled for being spongy, workaday protein.
Alongside the duck we were brought dishes of broccoli with garlic, aubergine with garlic and chilli, and snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts and lotus roots in a very gloopy sauce. None of them were interesting enough for me to note down anything other than their names.
The bill, including a Y30 charge for the unasked for ‘VIP’ room, was Y515 (approx £50). As I said at the start, even the bad meals in Beijing were a riot of flavours and textures compared to what we had been eating – or do eat a lot of the time in London. And this wasn’t even a bad meal, just a dull one.
But the ordinariness of the food was slightly offset by the thrilling experience of the foetid concrete bunker bathrooms, which had NO SHIT written in dripping paint across the wall, an instruction the restaurant’s patrons had vigorously ignored. Not everywhere gives you the chance to tippy toe through slurry before eating a meal and it’s these experiences that make holidays and homecomings worthwhile.