Thursday, February 3, 2011

Day 2 - Part I. Surveying the Jet-Lag Damage

We made it to Beijing and to our hotel.

And woke up at 3am.

However, since we want to keep early hours to go along with Alec's glob straddling work schedule... and the Chinese get an early start to their day (shops can open any where between 8:30 & 10), we just had a snack, drank some bottled water (since "Drinking water from faucets is not recommended" according to the hotel guide).  We flipped around the english heavy hotel TV selection, watched Dirty Jobs (Oh! Mike Rowe, where don't you go?) and generally fooled around while we planned out our day.

Step one - breakfast

Since I really had no idea what our position in the city really meant, and though awake, I still felt pretty stupid, I caved and opted for the hotel breakfast buffet.  In this instance, while the prices definitely lived up to the Grand Hotel (built hastily for the Olympics), thankfully so did the spread.  
There was the European side which was fairly standard (I'm gonna say the pastries were possibly even better than what I've seen elsewhere - if a tad mislabeled), and then there was the Beijing-er side, which I will describe in its staggering variety in a moment.

We started on the European, or "Continental Breakfast" side grabbing juice from the choice of 6 (orange, pineapple, grapefruit, apples, mango and guava).  On the 2nd trip back to the juice bar I noticed the flunky behind the bar furiously decanting 2L plastic jugs of "Tropicana" or equivalent into the fancy serving containers.  Interesting - but the mango juice was excellent.
We stopped by the pastries, and Tavin picked out a "plain" mini croissant.  The yogurt, cereal and fruit looked fairly standard (pineapple, underripe melon, muslei, coco puffs) except for a few notes that caught my eye - dried sugared sour plums with the cereal toppings, dried sour plums and something that looked like capers with the yogurt toppings.  Dragon fruit cubes with other fruit cubes (those were also a little under ripe, but not bad), so we headed for the Beijinger side.

First, ALL the Beiging style breakfast options - at least in the dead of winter are hot selections.  Seems only sensible.  Second, every last one of them was savory, putting the weight behind the assertion that Beijingers only eat sweets as snacks, and not at meals.
The first options were warmed (not chilled, warmed) hard boiled eggs, next to a braised dish of diced chicken and green leafy vegetables that looked and smelled pretty appetizing, next to something labeled, "Sausage Stew."  And when opened up that's exactly what it looked like - with a sweet tomatoey sauce, and a few green bits of a leaf or herb.  Two nearly meter high columns of dim-sum baskets (unlabeled).  One contained some sot of shu-mai, and the other contained a potsticker (jiao-zi).  I only know this because people kept opening the baskets and lifting out the contents to inspect them, and the dumplings inside where those distinctive shapes.  1 pan displaying "coconut paste balls," and another "fried cooked dough" (yeah... that means doughnut to me too.  And Tavin.  He snagged one.).  

Next came the noodle soup station.  A selection of noodles - mostly or all wheat based I think.  No rice noodles, I was sure of that.  Skinny, thick, really skinny.  then things to be cooked with your noodles.  Small pieces of raw chicken, raw beef, or squid rings, quarter sized slices of some sort of large wheat fleshed mushroom, 4 inch long pieces of peashoot and beansprouts.  The tongs among this selection was mix and match.  Cross contamination alarms are primed to go off, until you see that the selections you make and place in your bowl are handed to the cook across the counter.  He boils the bejezzus out of them in a huge pot of furiously boiling water with cute little noodle holding baskets around the rim.  Then, after the appropriate wait he tips the hot group back into a fresh new bowl, ladles over a light meaty broth (not even gonna try to guess at what it was, other than, "darn decent fancy hotel winter breakfast broth"), and hands it back for you to garnish with the flavor sauces of your choice; soy sauce, black vinegar, chili paste (dark red kind with the seeds still in it) and sesame oil.
The sight of this nearly made Tavin swoon.  Brothy noodle soup for breakfast?  Really!  So he made himself a bowl.  Grinned maniacally, and garnished his bowl with a teaspoon each of black vinegar and soy sauce.  I added a bunch of veggies to mine, and a few pieces of beef.  On our way back to our table we looked in at the "English Breakfast Bar"
Unlike those Europeans on the continent, the English also demand a hot breakfast (again sensible in a country where in some years a pleasant spring day hangs out in the 50'sF (10's C).  All the usual suspects were there.  Sausage, bacon, eggs, waffles, french toast, and baked beans.  All of these options were doing a lively business, though many of the fried eggs thus supplied were ending up over the vegetable and chicken dish, or with noodle soup.

At last we arrived back at our table and dug in.  Wonderful, warming, invigorating, 
      "Mom, my criossant tastes funny."
"What flavor?  Maybe you got an almond one by mistake?"
"No... I think it's coconut."
"What does it smell like?"
"Really coconutty"
"Let me taste.  {chew chew chew} Yup, that's coconut."

Small slivers of dried unsweetened coconut were all through the croissant.  When I went back for more juice , I double checked.  Nowhere are coconut croissants indicated.  And the batch had been refilled, and they were coconutty too.  Undaunted, I got a little "plain yogurt," since I had been told that as part of Northern China, there is some great yogurt to be had here in Beijing.  Nope.  Turned out to be over-sweetened vanilla yogurt.  Not plain at all.

This start to the day was good preparation for the rest of it.  Everything was really pretty nice - and using the tiniest but of flexibility, and simply looking out for ourselves we could get an extremely satisfying version of what we wanted, but it felt a little bit like walking around a house that isn't quite up to code.  Maybe all the stair risers are a little off.  The stair treads may be straight, but the amount you have to lift your foot from stair to stair keeps changing.  Or the door handles are all at different heights - not out of reach mind you, but when you reach for them with your body, without engaging much of your mind, you keep missing, so you have to actually look at them to find them.  The whole day was going to be like that.  Not a big adventure with trials and danger, just many, many micro adventures that added up to an evening of entertaining pictures.

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