Good eats in Beijing / by Simmon Li

Today, I wanted to talk about some of the eating experiences that I’ve had in my week in Beijing. So far, some pretty fun stuff. First, let’s talk about today. I had donkey meat for the second time. It really wasn’t something I thought to write about the first time I had it until I got to thinking, “Where can I have this in Toronto?” When I was unable to find an answer, I knew I had to at least write it down somewhere. Likely, if I looked hard enough in Toronto, I’d be able to find it, but it wouldn’t likely be as good as it is here.

Anyway, the donkey meat didn’t seem too weird; it was like eating a horse, which I’ve had before. The dog meat was different, but we’ll get to that another time. I want to have it again before I post about it. Back to the donkey meat; I figure it wouldn’t be all that different than cow or chicken. The place we go to have donkey makes it really well, according to my cousin, who’s had the rounds. It really does taste like any other meat, but it’s the way in which it is prepared that makes me like it so much. (I will say, it makes a fine beef substitute.)

Basically, when you order 1 piece of the donkey meat, it comes in a pastry pocket. If you’ve ever had Chinese onion pancakes, it’s very similar to those. The pastry is made into a pocket in which the meat is slipped in. With the meat, there are some pieces of fat and other spices that the meat is cooked with. The meat is actually cooked beforehand (probably in the morning), and it’s actually the pastry that is cooked when you order the piece. It makes for a very nice mouth feel, because while the pastry is hot, the meat in the middle warms up a little cooling down the whole. The place we go to also does the pastry right, in that the outside is crispy while the inside is nice and fluffy. My cousin says that there are some places that completely overcook the pastry, and thus fuck up the dish. Now, the donkey itself is really good, but the gem of the whole meal is actually having the donkey pastry with the soup they serve. The donkey pastry is good on its own, but you really have to have it with the soup to really make it all jive. The soup is very simple, actually. I’d wager it’s a simple boil with donkey bits and Chinese parsley with a tiny bit of spice. It makes the soup a bit spicy, which actually compliments the dish very nicely.

The pieces of donkey pastry are actually not that large (for comparison, I’d say it’s about the size of a Pilsbury pizza pop), so people tend to order 2 or 3 with a soup. The best part of it is that it’s actually really cheap to eat donkey. It’s about 4.5 RMB (they call it “qwai” colloquially) for 1 pastry and two for the soup. You can get a meal for 15.5 RMB, which works out to close to 2.50 CND on a bad exchange rate. Not bad at all, considering the fact that a grande cup of Starbucks coffee is 24 RMB.

Speaking of Western brands in China, I also managed to get my hands on a Big Mac meal a few days ago. Now, there’s actually not much to say for the meal itself, it tasted like a Big Mac I’d get in Canada. I think it is pretty amazing because it’s a little taste of home. But yes, the McDonalds in China taste the same as the McDonalds in Canada. It wasn’t really a surprise though; chain restaurants (especially fast food) survive on standardization of their food and preparation. I think next time I’ll try some of the localized menu. I’ve been eyeing some KFC because they have a localized menu in addition to their traditional standard fare. Anyway, the most amazing part of the McDonalds meal was that I had it in my place of dwelling but I didn’t need to get out of my house. That’s right. McDonalds in China delivers right to your door. Amazing. But I thought about it a little, and it makes a bit of sense. Because not everyone has a car and can drive to a McDonalds, it makes sense for them to hire people to deliver the meals. It means that they have more market reach. All those middle class Chinese aspiring to the Western lifestyle now have McDonalds in their reach, even if they don’t own a car yet. I was eating my Big Mac and all I could really think about was the fact that the meal was delivered to us. Like pizza delivery, but with McDonalds. Insane. I still can’t get over how amazing that is. At 24 RMB a meal, it’s about the equivalent to a fine dining experience per person in downtown Toronto (talking strictly in magnitude terms). It was put to me like this, “Would you drink coffee from Starbucks if it cost you 24 dollars a cup?” Perspective is everything, and up until then, I thought about everything in Canadian terms. However, even in Canadian terms, the Starbucks here is expensive. On the flip side, a meal at McDonalds does not even compare with the meal at the donkey place. I’d say that the donkey pastry was much more delicious and filling than the McDonalds. Who knew something like that would come out of my mouth?