Part thirteen in a series
We eat like emperors—literally.
White’s Grand Courtyard could not get any more yellow: yellow seat covers embroidered with blue and black dragons, yellow tablecloths, yellow picture frames and decorative panels and window valences. A yellow throne sits at the center of the room for the prince. Two golden cranes flank the throne, each holding a yellow-stemmed red rose in its beak.
Red columns entwined by ornamental gold floral patterns rise up from a red marble floor to a ceiling painted with elaborate dragon and phoenix designs. The dominant colors are green, blue, and white, but the dragons and phoenixes and the trim are all gold.
Yellow is the color of the emperor, and once upon a time, no one but the royal family could use it.
The restaurant tries to recreate the atmosphere of the royal dining room from the Qing Dynasty era, from 1644-1912. Petunia and begonia-bedecked gardens fill the courtyards around the dining room. In back, tables sit around a pool teeming with large schools of koi, and a small dining pagoda sits on a land bridge that straddles the pond.
It is, by far, our most lavish dining experience in a country that has been filled with fantastic dining experiences. But even this meal, as elegant as the restaurant is, still feels pretty typical.
The tables are round, with four pairs of chairs set up at each. Ironically, at some restaurants there are eight chairs but only six table settings—the way hot dogs in a package never match up to the number of buns.
Each setting consists of a small plate little bigger than a coffee saucer, a small handle-less cup for tea, a wine glass, a shot glass that looks like a miniaturized sherry glass, and a pair of chopsticks. Sometimes the chopsticks come wrapped in paper or, in fancier restaurants like the Grand Courtyard, they have their own embroidered slipcases. The chopsticks stretch out where American silverware would otherwise be, with the thin tips resting on a small bone-china stand.
In some restaurants, to the left of the plate, a wet washcloth-like napkin sits folded in a small basket. We wipe our hands with the napkins and place them back in the basket for use during the meal if we get our hands sticky or greasy. It’s hard to hold chopsticks with greasy hands.
Chopsticks pose their own unique challenges. They operate on one of the simplest principles of physics: the lever. The bottom chopstick, tucked against the fleshy part of the thumb, remains locked while the forefinger and middle finger move the top stick. We’ve nearly all tried them at Chinese restaurants back home, usually to the accompaniment of laughs at our ineffectiveness. But by this point in our trip, we’ve all become experts. Some students will still use silverware if given the chance, but most of us have taken the “When in China…” approach.
Most of the table is covered by a circle of glass about four feet in diameter, balanced on a lazy Susan that allows the glass disk to rotate.
Each meal starts with cold appetizers, usually some sprouts of some kind, little slices of glazed tofu, perhaps a leafy vegetable of some sort or some hot-mustard cabbage rolls spicy enough to clear sinuses in three seconds flat.
Today we have leaves that look like some kind of lettuce, but we also have a plate filled with chrysanthemum and carnation petals mixed with a colorful assortment of other flower petals. “This was the concubine food,” our host explains.
A waitress in a traditional dress and elaborate headgear pours us each a cup of tea, and another comes by with Coke, Sprite, or beer—although, because of its three-percent alcohol content, it tastes more like beer-flavored water.
At one restaurant, we find Yanjing beer, brewed in Beijing, with a ten-percent alcohol volume. The beer and the soda all come in one-point-five liter bottles, although the beer comes in green glass and the soft drinks come in bottles not to dissimilar to our own.
We could get water, too, but we’d been advised against it before the trip. China’s water isn’t as clean as ours, so there’s no telling what foreign material might do to our digestive tracks. Bottled water is safe, so we drink that to stay hydrated during the days.
I pick some sprouts with my chopsticks, then twist the lazy Susan so the student next to me can have some. In another twist, the next cold appetizer comes, but already the waitress brings the first dish: venison. The venison gets set down on a free spot on the lazy Susan a few place settings to my left, so I wait for it to make its way to me. By the time it does, though, the next dish—an elongated bowl full of spongy-looking yellow stuff that turns out to be fish skin—gets set down.
Nearly all of our meals have been this way. We’ll usually get five or six entrees per table, usually containing at least one chicken dish, one pork dish, and one beef dish, then a mixture of whatever else. At one restaurant, we get a mixture of pork and squid that proves to be a highlight of the entire trip for me.
Each restaurant has its specialty, too. In Xi’an, we had the incredible dumpling buffet and, the next day, we went to a noodle restaurant where the chef, called a Noodle Master, hand-stretched the noodles right in front of us. He pulled the long batches of dough like taffy, making each strand thinner and thinner until they could be chopped into short segments and shredded into dinner noodles.
Xi’an’s weather makes the people there dependent more on wheat-based foods like dumplings and noodles, but in Beijing and Shanghai both, we had plenty of white rice with each meal. Chefs cooked the rice enough that it clumped together, making it easy pickings for the chopsticks.
In Beijing, we have duck—once called Peking duck, before the city was renamed in modern times, now called Beijing duck. A chef slices off strips of meat and pieces of crispy skin, which we put on small thin pancakes almost like tortilla shells. We add some spring onions, sprinkle with duck sauce and roll them up to eat.
Another restaurant featured a buffet that featured a couple hundred dishes, including eccentric foods like silkworms and locusts (yes, I tried one of each). A live alligator, its mouth fastened shut with a plastic zip tie, sat in a cage on the counter, ready for slaughter. The buffet included a soup made from one of the gator’s predecessors (it tasted like chicken).
Most meals will have a soup, which usually comes out later than sooner. We sample vegetable soups, egg-drop soups, and duck soups. Some of us scoop some rice into our soup bowl, too.
In most restaurants, including the grand hotel, we eat in the main dining room, although many restaurants feature private one-table dining rooms, complete with their own wait staffs, for intimate gatherings. My faculty colleagues and our host, Professor Enlin Wang of the Beijing Institute of Technology, have several such meals during the week.
In places where we order ourselves, restaurants provide a picture menu. Some have English subtitles, but most of the really local places don’t. When the waitresses don’t speak any English, ordering a meal becomes a guessing game, but the results generally turned out well.
Every meal ends with watermelon. In fact, we have watermelon at every meal. It’s China’s favorite dessert. Except at the buffet, we don’t find cookies or cakes. “The Chinese generally don’t eat sweets,” a colleague tells me.
Enlin tells us one day that a visitor could eat something different every day in China and never taste it all because of all the combinations. I sure believe him. It makes me wonder why I always limit myself to the General Tso’s chicken when I’m at home.
“Foods at Chinese restaurants in America tastes almost nothing like what you’ll find in China,” Roger Perkins told me in Shanghai. That has certainly proven to be true, as well.
The tea girl never gets too far, hovering just beyond our table with her tea pot, painted yellow with blue dragons—the sign of the emperor.
Before we finish our meal at the Grand Courtyard, Enlin raised his glass to those of us at the table. “Gambay,” he says with good cheer, and our drinks go bottom up. The waitresses swoop in to refill them.
While we never get a typical household dining experience, the meals we do get prove to be sources of good food, good company, and good cheer.
What more could any emperor want?