So near yet so far from mom's home cooking
Updated: 2011-03-16 08:07
By B.W. Liou (China Daily)
More than 9,500 kilometers away, my mother fumed in her kitchen. Pots and pans collided with a bang as she hurled them into the sink with a huff that said: "You would, too, if you had to put food on the table every night." The news that I might have found her replacement in Beijing had not gone down well.
To be clear, a mother's cooking is almost impossible to supplant. But for at least one night, Feng Huang Zhu, a Yunnan restaurant in a hazily lit corner of Gulou Dajie, came close to doing just that.
Feng Huang Zhu is a two-story restaurant one block from the Drum and Bell towers and is surrounded by purveyor upon purveyor of meat on a skewer. Inside, wooden statuettes with menacing faces hang from the ceiling near the entrance. Large peacock feathers line the walls and baskets of light illuminate the unfinished tables. It's dark and rustic but not romantic.
Not surprisingly, the food is homely. Yunnan food fits right in to Beijing because it is often spicy, pungent and hearty. Stews in large clay pots dominate the menu at Feng Huang Zhu, as does the use of mushrooms.
One particular stew, called mama dun de rou, was fantastic. Cubes of beef (tendons and sinews intact) with chunks of carrots are cooked in a tomato broth that packs heat. I can easily imagine using the soup base for a unique hotpot.
Another stew was the huang men ji, and it too tasted of life at home. There were bite-sized chicken pieces (with bones), Chinese broccoli stems and julienne potatoes in a thin, soothing soup that uses fermented tofu sauce and had that one-of-a-kind tanginess of a can of bamboo shoots.
Soon after my visit, I let my mom know she had been usurped. "Go again," she said. "Then we'll see."
So, three days after that first wonderful dinner, I returned. Unfortunately, my second experience, along with the hope that I had found an eatery that reminded me of home, fell flat.
The suan cai chao was packed with potatoes, bell peppers, broccoli stems, chicken and rice noodles in an indistinct soup, whose only virtue was that it at least seared my tongue. The fish in the xiang mao kao cao yu, though fresh and plump, lacked any striking flavors other than the power of chilies. It was, however, beautifully plated in a bed of banana leaves.
Despite the uneven quality of dishes, the service at Feng Huang Zhu is efficient and pleasant. The restaurant has a couple of Yunnan red wines that go well with all of the dishes, but they do have a bit of sediment. Otherwise, there's always Yanjing beer or Budweiser.
On Skype the next day my mother squealed in delight: "I told you so."
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