Peking — One of the most fascinating paradoxes of today's China is the food. Tourists with visions of fanciful, elaborate banquets typical of old traditional China are surprised by the austerity of the restaurants and hotels, the lack of extensive menus, and the limitations of a country undergoing many changes.
Americans, especially, are amazed at the lack of formal service, the scarcity of fresh ingredients, and the minimum choice of dishes, compared with the lavish abundance in Chinese-American restaurants at home.
The food of the Chinese people has definitely changed since the advent of the Communists, and it will probably never again be the way it once was. Certainly it will not be as elaborate as when it was at its height in the Ching Dynasty. But neither is the French cuisine as extravagant as it was in the 14th century.
China is full of changes in many areas, and the cuisine is evolving into one more appropriate to the life style and needs of the people. So don't expect to find many places serving extravagant delicacies such as hummingbirds' tongues, tigers' and bears' paws, snakes broiled at table, a menu of dog meat, or other elaborate dishes served to the royal courts years ago.
Even so there is no question that the Chinese are still capable of greatness in the kitchen, despite the lack of glamour in the restaurants for foreigners.
During a two-week tour of China with a group of 15 American chefs and food writers, I sampled Chairman Mao's favorite -- Stinky Bean Curd -- at the Fire Palace Restaurant in Changsha. I tasted paper- thin spring rolls -- ones never touched at home; noodles that attract diners from miles away; sweet and savory minidumplings; and bubbling fire pots with pungent dipping sauces.
At the romantic, century-old Fang Shan restaurant in Peking's Bei Hai Park, chefs cooked for us the minced pork in sesame seed buns and the savory cold dumplings, favorite recipes once used in the palace kitchens of the empress dowager.
On a beautiful sunny day we had lunch at the Pavilion of the Singing Orioles, a former temple inside the Summer Palace, now open as a restaurant exclusively for foreigners and not open to local Chinese people.
Food was excellent at the Pavilion, including several appetizers; whole roast chicken; another chicken dish, delicate and silky, called Chicken Velvet; a whole cooked fish with savory sauce; and several vegetable dishes -- total cost about $12.
In Hunan, hot, spicy Hunanese chicken and pork dishes made our tongues sing, with chili peppers combined with the lingering taste of salted black beans. I have no idea how they achieved the mingled flavors of smoke, molasses, and sugar in some of the ham and pork dishes in this province.
It was all very exciting. But although the Fang Shen restaurant is worth seeing because of the beautiful setting, the food was unsatisfying and expen sive.
The many courses of the traditional Peking Duck dinner, authentically served in Peking at the Big Duck Restaurant, were overwhelming.
The succulent, crackling, lacquerlike skin of the duck is served as the first course, wrapped in a Mandarin pancake with a rich dark hoisin sauce along with a pungent scallion brush. The combination of flavors was spicy, salty, and even a little sweet. Other courses included the duck meat, special parts of the duck, soups, and vegetables. Although the Big Duck is a famous place, it pro vided quantity rather than quality.
It was actually the street food and the food served in little back alley places that was really the best, and of course the most inexpensive. Very respectable meals were available for 45 and 50 cents, including meat and vegetables, soup, and rice. Even in the smallest places, those with only 10 or 12 seats, the noodles were steaming hot and the fried dumplings were crisp and delicious.
While the food may be excellent, decor is usually Spartan and bare in most China restaurants. Tablecloths are changed once a day. Napkins, if any, are the helpful kind that are damp, rolled up like egg rolls, passed, then collected. Menus, written in Chinese characters, are often pasted on the wall or on a blackboard. Some fastidious people carry their own chop sticks. There is no tipping.
Although the slogan "serve the people" is widespread, to the point of being ubiquitous, what we Americans call service in a restaurant is obviously one of the mysteries of this country as well. While the service in the "foreigners' rooms" is better than in the people's restaurants, it is generally not up to international standards. But recently there has been a campaign to improve it.
Most restaurants are crowded. But the Chinese people are very friendly and polite and often give up their tables to foreigners waiting in line.
Chinese hotel food can be as dull as hotel food in any other country. The answer is simply to avoid hotel fare and look for something better. Try the street vendors, the people's restaurants, and the early-morning market stalls. That's where the good food is and where the Chinese people eat. Here is what I found and the way I sum it up:
* The most interesting and unusualm food is sold by street vendors and at street stalls.
* The freshest foodm is available at the agricultural commune dining tables.
* The most elegant and refined foodm is served at banquets.
* The most congenial diningm is at the so-called people's restaurants when you sit where the Chinese people are eating, rather than in the private foreigners' rooms.
Foreigners' rooms are something like our function rooms. There is special service and a special price. You pay more than the local people, but there is more variety in the menu. There are also little accommodations like bottled water, white tablecloths and napkins, and more-attractive dishes.
I didn't especially like the foreigners' rooms, because I enjoyed eating with the Chinese people.
My first experience with this kind of "segregation" was in Changsha, in Hunan Province. Three of us went to a restaurant recommended by a Chinese student who spoke to us on the street wanting to practice his English. Called Another Village, the restaurant had a large room, bustling with people, at the street level. But we were led upstairs to a large, empty room with a small sign saying "Foreigners' Room." We had no guide or interpreter, but we managed with our elementary Chinese and sign language to explain that we wanted to sit with the people, not alone in this big room.They understood, after a while, and took us downstairs to a booth where other customers were curious, but friendly and polite. Service was very good. And although our food was the same as what others were served, we dined on fine china, while the regular customers ate from simple rice bowls.
We managed to choose good dishes from the menu but ordered too much, far more than any others had on their tables. We were embarrassed. We did feel complimented, however, when people in the next booth clapped their hands when they saw we could handle the chopsticks.
The food was excellent and the price was less than $8 for four of us. We had ordered fish, a chicken dish, vegetables, and tureens of soup. It was a very rewarding, pleasant experience.
The street food in China is perhaps most fascinating of all. We seemed to be eating our way through the country with snacks -- buns and pastries, some hot, some cold, some on sticks, even lemon ices on sticks -- from these sidewalk vendors. In the early morning we would buy crullers while watching the cruller makers twist long pieces of dough and deep-fry them in huge works on sidewalk braziers. The pastries, 12 or 14 inches long, were hot and delicious and cost only pennies.
On our way to the Great Wall some sidewalk vendors sold cooked corn on the cob, but it seemed large and tough compared with our own sweet corn. And when we came down from the wall, concessions were selling fresh fruit, buns, and other interesting foodstuffs, including what looked like a small loaf of bread that was called "instant meal," according to our guides.
If you get up early -- 5 or 6 o'clock -- you'll find authentic Chinese breakfasts at the tiny restaurants near the outdoor vegetable markets. They are what we call "holes-in-the-wall," too small to have a foreigners' room, which make them even more appealing.
Some had only a dozen or more seats. Others were selling crullers and buns to go. They were all busy and crowded, and we would have been happy to wait our turn, but people would always get up and give us a seat. We ordered by pointing and paid by holding out a few coins so the right change could be taken. We had congee -- a rice porridge -- and crullers, and sometimes salted fish, pickled vegetables, or other typical Chinese breakfast food.
One of the first questions people ask me is whether the Chinese food in America is as good or as authentic as the real thing in China. The answer is yes, we do have good Chinese food in America, and in the best Chinese restaurants it is authentic.
It's easy to see why. We have chefs who were born and trained in old China. It is also customary for the staff in American Chinese restaurants to be from the Orient. In addition, the top-quality foods, ingredients, and special equipment available from all over the world in our bigger cities make it possible to produce or reproduce almost any kind of dish. But perhaps most of all, we have a receptive audience -- people who are interested in eating good Chinese food. Given all these advantages, there is no question there are some wonderful Chinese restaurants in the States.
The situation makes for some interesting contrasts. In China we notice right away that service is not up to our standards. But this is understandable when you examine the life style in China today. Incentives are not the same as ours. Everyone is equal, even in the kitchen. When the chefs create, they are all creative together. No one person is a star.
Although the government once closed some of the restaurants to free the people for more "important" work, the situation is different now. More cooks are being trained, new restaurants are opening, and more of the imperial dishes are being made once again. Already there are many new restaurants in Peking since I was there several months ago.
The art of cuisine will always be an important component of Chinese culture and history, but for now there is a wonderful quality in the everyday people's restaurants, where food is simpler and more satisfying.
China is making such rapid strides in many ways that we might one day find it making a contribution to solving food problems of other countries of the world.