Unlike Christmas which comes once a year, the Summer Olympics come but once every four years, making the next two weeks a time to remember. While people are watching their televisions around the world to see races raced, matches played, and medals won, they will also have their eyes on something else: China, the country that is hosting this year’s games.
Up until recently, many Americans probably thought little of China aside from the take-out Chinese restaurant where their favorite Kung Pao Chicken was only a speed dial call away. But as China has grown as an economic power, so has our awareness of everything from the safety standards of imported toys, to the importance of freedom of expression without censorship, to the ability of a country to recover and unite after a devastating earthquake.
And beyond that, with millions of people tuned in to catch their favorite sprinters, wrestlers, or water polo players, hopefully some great segments from our friends at NBC will help expand our knowledge of Chinese culture--including their food beyond the neighborhood takeout.
I’ve had the pleasure of traveling around China for several weeks, taking in culture, seeing wonders both natural and man-made, and of course eating my way through the countryside. But what I love about Beijing, home of the Olympics, is that like many of the world’s capital cities, the cuisine really is a melting pot of the many diverse tastes of its own nation.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Beijing snack market. The Chinese love their street food and the vendors at the Beijing snack market take their offerings to a more diverse level than can be found just about anywhere. Although it tends along the lines of touristy fare, there are rows upon rows of vendors hawking foods that are meant to represent snack foods from all over China. These range from noodles to sugar coated strawberries, from deep fried seahorse to deep fried scorpion.
If deep fried insects are not your idea of a good Chinese meal, there is always the classic Peking Duck. Peking Duck is known to most Americans as being a distinctive, delicious--albeit cholesterol laden--Chinese food, one too labor intensive to make ourselves but so satisfying when done for us. And in Beijing, they do it right. A whole roasted Peking duck is brought to the table and carved in front of you then served with pancakes, scallions, and plum sauce. You take a pancake, add some duck, top it with sauce and scallions then roll it up to make a mini Peking Duck burrito of sorts.
The great thing about a capital city like Beijing, and not unlike our own capital city, is it brings in people and cuisines from all over the country, and all over the world. Visitors to China for this Olympics will be able to sample a variety of foods from all over the country: Hong Kong noodles, Mongolian hot pots from the north, mouth burning food from the Sichuan province, grilled meats from Muslim Chinese vendors, to noodles, steamed buns, and omelets from a proliferation of street vendors.
As long as one takes the time to leave the hotel and avoid the familiar golden arches, Beijing offers so many diverse flavors representing its own country that a first time visitor might start wondering how General Tso’s Chickens with a side of fried rice was all he or she knew of Chinese food all these years. It would be like the Chinese thinking all Americans eat are Big Macs with fries.
Some Chinese food is probably outside the abilities or time availability of the American home cook. Stir-fries, dumplings, kebabs, are all easy enough to execute at home. But it's probably best to head to your local Chinatown if you are looking for freshly made noodles or a Peking Duck made the real way. Unless you are a particularly gifted hurdler, you most likely will have to content yourself with glimpses of modern China from your flat screen. So if your talents won’t take you to the Olympics, perhaps they will serve you in the kitchen. This week might be the time to put the takeout menu away, pick up a wok, and try your hand at a little Chinese feast worthy of all the champion athletes we will be watching so closely in the weeks to come.
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