A foodie couple from Berlin embarked on a culinary road trip in the Middle Kingdom. Their goal: to rediscover Chinese cuisine.
The older you get, the fewer “first times” you encounter in life: Your first concert, your first kiss, your first trip abroad took place so many years ago… But then, one day, my girlfriend and I tried out a new Chinese restaurant in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood and, boom! Flavors exploded on our tongues like fireworks. The Wuxian tofu, Suan La Fen sweet potato noodles, Dan Dan Mian hot-and-spicy noodles all tasted of adventure, and suddenly, an idea was born. We would go to China – for the first time – and embark on a culinary journey of discovery. Several weeks later, we touch down in Beijing. Our itinerary is still sketchy but our heads are full of ideas for compiling an amazing travel cookbook to document our trip.
On a gray, wintry morning, we trudge through the artists’ district of Dongcheng, past the Gate of Heavenly Peace and through the last preserved hutongs, those narrow alleys built in the traditional way. We have an appointment to meet Nathan and Starry, the Chinese owners of the White Tiger Village, a hip crossover restaurant that could just as easily be found in London, Berlin or New York. Nathan Zhang meets us in turquoise sneakers, dark knickerbockers and a wollen hat. A man in his late forties (he won’t tell us his exact age), Nathan is the patron of the local art scene. The White Tiger is the fulcrum for all artistic activities in Dongcheng. “I never planned to own a restaurant,” he says in fluent English, “but my friends needed a place to meet and exchange ideas, so I created this place.” The White Tiger is a true anomaly in Beijing’s restaurant scene. Nathan’s sense for aesthetics, his eye in choosing the robust wooden furniture and high-quality tableware, and the interior design created by his artist friends is a far cry from the purely functional look and feel of most other restaurants. Better yet: This love of detail is reflected in the food, and that is Starry’s doing. Although only 26, Starry has already worked as a chef in England, Canada and Australia and even freelanced as a food stylist. “We want our food to explode people’s expectations,” he says. “Traditional and modern go hand in hand here, and we add a Western touch to Eastern dishes.” From baked rice in a pot to tofu skin salad, each dish is a masterpiece that sets just the right tone for our trip.
Even the smell of stinky tofu, which briefly makes us reel when it assails us from a nearby street-food market, does nothing to staunch our enthusiasm for Chinese food. Many people here love this fermented bean curd marinated in a spicy sauce, and a grumpy woman offers us a little paper dish of it. We take one bite and decide it will be our last. The locals laugh as they watch us trying not to gag, and the taste of adventure turns to sulfuric acid on our tongues.
A VILLAGE IN HUNAN PROVINCE
Two hours north of the town of Huaihua in south-central Hunan Province there’s a tiny mountain village. A friend of ours from Berlin who grew up in Huaihua recommended it to us. Her father, who hadn’t been there since his youth, accompanies us. When we ask him the name of the village he pronounces a string of consonants and sibilant sounds we fail to make sense of. Nobody here can read or write, there’s no electricity, no sanitation system, no heating. The cold bears down on us and penetrates everything and everyone. We see the affects of life in this village in the bony bodies of the ancient peasant couple who show us the traditional way of making sticky rice buns. They fill a vat with cooked rice, hand each of us a large wooden hammer and we proceed to hit the rice with as much force as we can, pounding, turning, pulling it out. After several minutes of hard, sweaty work the rice turns into dough. We fill each bun with chopped vegetables and impale it on a stick. Later, sitting around the open fire and baking the delicious buns, we forget how much hard work we had put into making them.
We travel on toward Mount Song, a sacred mountain in the heart of China. In the city of Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple (birthplace of kung fu) and meet Shi Yongxin, the highest ranking Buddhist monk. In the audience chamber, we talk about reincarnation and the advantages of a vegan lifestyle. Then Shi Yongshin admits his soft spot for McDonald’s french fries. We talk about kung fu as well, of course. He no longer practices the martial art, he says, but prefers to fight the good fight with his mind rather than with his body. “But you never forget what kung fu training teaches you. Never.”
We get in the car and drive northeast to Zhengzhou, where we have an appointment with Mr. Wang, a property mogul who owns entire blocks in this city of six million – as well as several vegan restaurants where poor people are allowed to eat for free. “I’m rich, I have lots of everything,” he explains, “and so I can afford to give a lot away. That’s why I’m invested in spreading the vegan concept. I’ve noticed how much better I feel as a vegan myself.” Mr. Wong receives us in his office, where we see furniture, paintings and sports trophies, many of them still wrapped in plastic as if to protect them from wear. Wang sits behind a laminated wooden desk large enough to park an SUV on. It has an integrated fixture for preparing tea, which Wang does frequently, pouring the hand-picked, hand-rolled green tea over a porcelain frog (for luck) or serving us. “To you, and to a long life!,” Wang says, draining his teacup. We follow suit. Each sip is worth five euros, but such extravagance serves a profane goal: To demonstrate what you have in China is to demonstrate who you are.
Before leaving Germany, we had made plans to meet the Michelin-starred chef Stefan Stiller. Ten years earlier, he had allowed the lease on his Palatinate restaurant Crand Cru to run out and followed a business invitation to Shanghai. His latest project of two years’ standing is the gourmet restaurant Taian Table. With modern, international cooking, Stiller tries to counteract the prejudice he encounters toward German food. Most of his guests, in fact, think he’s French. “A German who can cook? That’s beyond their imagination.”
After traveling south for a day, we arrive in Shenzhen, a city roughly 20 kilometers from Hong Kong. Construction work is everywhere in this city of 12 million. We meet Xue, the owner of an unassuming, sparcely furnished restaurant who had the following story to tell: She and her husband used to own a company that sold building materials. One day, they went to renovate a restaurant where people were eating monkey brains. Completely taken aback at seeing what was generally regarded as an urban legend (eating monkey brains is illegal in China), she didn’t wast much time but purchased the premises and opened a vegan restaurant. “I still feed off the positive energy we freed up – and I bought the place ten years ago!,” she adds with a laugh.
Our last stop is the Chinese capital of all kinds of desert. Hong Kong even has restaurants that serve only deserts: black sesame soup, a fruity ice cream made from taro root (a potato-like tuber) or stuffed rice balls. Some of the treats made of durian, a fruit that’s used to make little patties or as a filling for fried rice balls, take a little getting used to. Durian has a meaty texture and tastes like rotten onions – which is why it’s also referred to in China as “stinky fruit.”
After several days spent searching everywhere for beautiful pottery and only finding cheap stuff, we were told by a news agent to try our luck on a factory floor in Kowloon Bay owned by Yuet Tung China Works. Upon entering the building, we are amazed to find ourselves in a labyrinth of porcelain, with thousands of plates, cups and bowls stacked right up to the ceiling. Joseph Tso, the owner, takes us up and down the aisles of the 90-year-old family enterprise. “We have good, loyal customers,” he tells us. Fancy hotels and wealthy families buy their tableware here, as did British nobility once upon a time. “Unfortunately, our employees of 50 years will soon retire,” Joseph says with regret, “and these days, young people are not interested in learning a traditional craft.” Yuet Tung had no trouble lightening our wallets, but in return, we were given a chance to participate in a history that we are now also part of, having enjoyed Chinese hospitality, eaten with monks at Shaolin Temple and soundly thrashed a tub of innocent rice. In the end, we gained some insight into an unfamiliar culture in a faraway land, and what began as a culinary journey changed much more than just our palate.
Food and drink in China
South Street in Luoyang turns into foodie heaven as soon as the sun goes down.
The fragrant smells of Arabic and Chinese cooking intermingle in the Muslim quarter in Xian.
Hong Kong’s best buns are celebrated each May at the Cheung Chau Bun Festival.
The former German colony Qingdao holds a beer festival every August.
GETTING THERE FROM GERMANY
Lufthansa flies daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC) to Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (SHA) and Hong Kong (HKG). To calculate how many miles you
can earn, go to meilenrechner.de