A trip that would turn out to change Daniella Illerbrand’s view on life, food and the way she perceives flavors in more than one way.
By Daniella Illerbrand
As I arrived to the airport in Beijing I was immediately taken by the sheer size of it, and of course the heat that right away sucked all the air out of me and left me a feeling like a wrought out dish rag. And there was no smells in the air, except for the faintest scent of disinfectant. I was a little dumbfounded by this as I was prepared to have an almost sensory overload of smells as I arrived in China, but I didn’t have too wait long,
We promptly started looking for our guide in the terminal, but he was nowhere to be seen, everywhere there were men in chinos with shirts neatly tucked in to their pants carrying little signs with names on them, but not ours. After calling and calling, a young man in a checkered pink and black shirt runs up to us, our guide has arrived, our names was on his sign, but on the back.
Call me George, he says. Lets eat.
To say that we have Chinese food in the western parts of the world has to be the greatest understatement ever, I was quickly realizing that I had to throw all my ¨knowledge¨ about food out the window and start to look at everything as a novice. Humbling.
Our first meal took us 2 hours to get to, our driver took the wrong turn more than once and finally stopped to ask for directions, after smoking 2 cigarettes we where on our way again in the blistering heat, with no air conditioning and through a haze of smog and smells that I had never experienced in my life.
We finally arrived at the restaurant I thought, but we only used another restaurants parking space, walked through a chain linked fence, past a dingy looking party boat (I actually prayed that we where not going to eat there) and through a maze of stern looking soldiers with automatic weapons. And arrived at our destination, don’t ask me the name of the restaurant but it was something to do with a bull, inside it was much more normal looking than I had expected, our guide ensured us that this is the best restaurant in Beijing and that the manager was the most important man in the restaurant business. We sat down at the table, all very tired but hungry, thirsty and I was tingling with anticipation for the meal to come.
As the food started pouring out of the kitchen I tried to make sense of the things that I was seeing, olives? No, thousand-year-old eggs. Grapefruit? No, jellyfish! There was nothing coming around on the lazy susan that I had ever seen in my life and a few things that I hoped I would never have to see ( or taste) again.
But the biggest revelation for me was the fact that when my Chinese hosts spoke of their creations they never spoke about flavor. That night I learned an essential thing that would help me with every meal that I would enjoy the rest of the trip, the most important thing in Chinese cuisine is the visual appeal and the texture, our quest in the western world for the best produce and the best flavor is not at all important in the traditional Chinese cuisine, according to my Chinese chef guide. What they strive for is to create something as visual as possible, and during my trip I cant remember anyone asking me about the flavor of my dish, what they would ask is what I thought of the dish. Not a single waiter or waitress asked me if my food was good during the whole trip with the exception of when we went to the more western adjusted places. So far from our way of providing good service in our part of the world, where the normal thing is to ask every 5 minutes if everything taste good, preferably after the first bite. Maybe I was the exception but this was my experience.
Back to my first meal, there was a dizzying array of flavors and dishes and many, many glasses of Baijiu the traditional Chinese white liquor and many Kanpai! I tried to take careful note of what I was eating, I loved the roots of the lotus flower, despised the thousand year old eggs which was a more evil cousin of our Scandinavian ¨surströmming¨(fermented fish) except with eggs instead. The silken tofu was great and as smooth and creamy as its name suggests it should be, the jellyfish just as slimy as you think it should be. There was also a few things that nobody knew how to explain and I could only look at the Chinese guests around the table and emulate their way of eating it, whether it was by slurping out of the bowl or pouring straight into my mouth. By the middle of the meal I was properly taught how to drink the Baijiu, when someone said Kanpai and started banging the glasses on the table you have to drink the whole glass at once. And promptly refill it. The French Chinese gentleman next to me was starting to look a little under the weather, but in order not to lose face he took every chance to refill everyone’s glass, including his own.
I was seeing double and triple by this hour, due to jet lag or too many kanpai is hard to tell but when the last course where coming out on the table I was not prepared, the giant plate had a fish the size of a giant tuna on it, and the smell, like I previous mentioned the eggs reminded me of the Swedish fermented fish, well this was it, only giant and slimy and even more smelly. Every part of my system was saying it’s a no go, but cheered on by the baijiu and the other chefs around the table I took a heavy serving of stinky fish, and regretted it as the first bite entered my mouth and my sensory system was on high alert. What was that? I looked at my guide, he smiled, a mouth full of fish. Stinky fish, good ha? The bigger the fish the better the guests.
I felt honored, and swore never to eat the monstrosity again.
Even if the fish is actually a delicacy in the Huizhou cuisine and supposedly the smell is worse than the taste. I was not convinced. The ride back to our hotel took only 20 minutes, go figure. I fell asleep and dreamt all night that I was trapped in a giant fish tank.
Woke up not as rested as I would have liked, had spicy noodles for breakfast with bean curd and felt ready to hit the streets.
Beijing is a complex place, intoxicating and disgusting at the same time, troves of people, dirty and clean, tempting and revolting, and all this rolled into one massive city, too big to comprehend. And there is food everywhere, food on the streets that looks so good but if you eat it, would leave you asking God to have the decency to end your miserable life, safe food in the western restaurants. And in every district, KFC and McDonald’s on every other street corner. We ate the most amazing Peking duck at Made in China at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, only to have a Peking duck at 1949 – the hidden city, that was even better, crispy skin, moist dark meat, crisp vegetables and the most thin and crispy pancakes to wrap it in. 1949 is in the Sanlitun area which is the area most western restaurants are in, Spanish, Italian etc. But at 1949 they serve you the traditional Chinese food, and maybe it is a little adjusted without too many stinky fish dishes. But we had webbed duck feet in spicy sauce, fermented vegetables, delicious dumplings, and the best part of it all, the fried carcass of the duck, with crispy breadcrumbs that you eat with your hands.
They also have a traditional noodle bar, where we ate the night after, hand pulled noodles in a variety of broths, warming and comforting. Best eaten with heaps of chili and garlic and coriander and a cold glass of Tsingtao beer.
Never have I been on a journey where so little wine had been consumed, sure they pour it at the restaurants but nobody really drinks is, it stays in the glass and if and when they drink it they use the same technique as with the Baijiu, all at once.
On our quest for the traditional Chinese market we took a lot of wrong turns and found a lot of kind people trying to guide us to the ultimate place to find the produce we where looking for.
We ended up at the tourist markets where scorpions where being fried alive and little dried sea horses where served as snacks, to finally arrive at the Sanyunali market.
Fresh produce was everywhere, little women where making bread filled with vegetables in their booths and old men without teeth was selling amazing looking langoustines.
I bought tea from a young woman sure to cure every illness that I could possibly have, didn’t I look a little pale, rose tea would help for that. I didn’t bother telling her that I was still feeling the pain from over eating on Peking duck.
As the day neared its end there was a street that was looming ahead of us, Ghost Street, the infamous food street with over 100 restaurants, where all came together over a meal. Headed in the right directions and screaming to our cab driver, not being rude just the normal tone in which to speak Beijing cabbie, I wondered over the wonders of food. And over how completely set I am in my western ways. What we regard as food and good produce means so little in some other cultures, do we focus too much on the trends? I haven’t heard anyone in china speaking of organic chicken feet or organic vegetables, even if the vegetables were grown organically in China they where not very organic after spending an hour or so on a busy street corner.
But I didn’t care, the amazingness of the culture was overpowering all my senses and all I wanted was to eat more, learn more and sleep less.
Ghost Street has a very interesting name; the street itself has nothing do to with ghosts and is really one of the most alive streets in all of Beijing. You can eat almost anything and it is open all night into the early morning hours. So onward and upward towards Mongolian hot pot, where the mutton comes straight from Mongolia, or ma xiao, the spicy prawns and great menyu, fish stew. Everything is hearty and satisfying. Guaranteed to make you sleep trough the night in a daze of spice and flavors.
Since everything was new there is never a moment to reflect on what I thought things would taste like. Only the enjoyment of being blissfully unaware of what was next to come.
And that was the traditional Sichuan food at Transit.
Our last night in Beijing was going to be spent in the company of esteemed chefs and friends alike.
We met at Transit to enjoy some of the hottest food in the world, Sichuan. I promptly started with a refreshing cocktail, not knowing that I would very soon enjoy quite a few more as a fire started to spread inside me. We started with chicken cold cuts, drenched in chili paste it was the prefect combination of cold moist chicken and hot spicy chili, we promptly ordered one more serving. On the table where some of Transit homemade pickles, they serve as relief workers. Helping to ease the heat of the food, and telling you that its ok to eat some more of it.
By dish number 4 which where spicy prawn with chocolate sauce I had lost track of the vodka tonics at the table and someone had started to order champagne, extremely chilled. As the meal continued with heaps of hot dumplings in a peppercorn broth that was so delicious that before I had a chance to go for a second one they where already gone, and there was a smiling chef next to me. I realized that the only was one law at the table, the law of the jungle. Nobody was taking my food anymore. Out on the table came spicy squid, spicy wheat noodles, pork ribs in sticky rice and everything was more and more wonderful, I was sweating and maybe even a little delirious by this point. The heat of the food puts you into a drugged like state, there is only one way to ease the heat and that is to drink, and when you drink you can eat more, an evil circle of joy.
But nothing had prepared me for the last course. Spicy beef and Sichuan peppers, at first I didn’t see the meat as the peppers covered everything, I took a big serving and with my mouth full I realized that somewhere I had made a wrong decision, the looks around the table confirmed it. You should not eat the peppers, only the meat. That ended a wonderful meal and the only thing easing my pain was another vodka tonic. Amazingly I could still feel my tongue.
After that meal the only appropriate way to end the evening was at a Beijing rooftop bar where a beautiful woman sings Nancy Sinatra and there is a never-ending supply of champagne. Somehow both the western and eastern world managed to come together at last.
I left Beijing the next day, full of energy and joy. Joy over the fact that there are places in the world so amazingly different from my everyday world, and that I got to be a part of it for some time.
I made a promise to return in a near future and I know that I will keep it. There are still some parts of the animal encased in jelly that I haven’t tried.
Daniella started her culinary career working on the floor of Aquavit with Marcus Samuelsson, while finishing up her sommelier education at the American sommelier association. She stayed with Marcus at Aquavit for 2 years, and then moved on to Bagatelle in Norway for Eyvind Hellström. After another stint at Aquavit, she met Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm, and was fascinated by his cooking and restaurant philosophy, She spent 4 ½ years as a General Manager for Mathias Dahlgren, during which the two restaurants Matbaren and Matsalen reached a combined three Michelin stars. Today she runs her own company where she works with chefs including Mathias Dahlgren and help them with projects and development.