Overserved and overstuffed, but happy, in Peking
Yellow eel balls, scrambled eggs with scallions du jour, sweet and sour pineapple fish, banana fritters with wispy strands of caramelized sugar, soups as varied as peasant chicken broth and a sweet almond curd concoction served in small, elegantly carved melons - the food images ranged from the earthy to the sublime during a month of travel to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In all, our small group of American political writers tasted nearly 600 separate courses.
We ate on Lijian River boats in Guilin: freshwater snails, deep-fried crayfish, saut'eed peanuts with pickled eggs, wood-ear mushrooms with Chinese cabbage - all cooked on woks in the open air at the stern of the shallow-draft vessels (no microwave chow in China).
We hit the early morning markets in Canton: wire baskets full of wet, squirming frogs; vendors still asleep on mats and boards laid across large fish tanks, others cleaning squid and prawns; farmers arriving on motorcycles or bicycles with sides of freshly slaughtered pork strapped to the saddle, or wicker cages crammed with ducks or chickens, or enormous loads of fresh vegetables and greens.
We ate with Japanese and Western tourists in the various local restaurants with which the government travel agencies contract. And at times we dined alone or with friends: al fresco at the Ritan Park in Peking's embassy quarter, or at a private apartment with a chef, assistant, and butler hired for the day.
To sum it up, Chinese food today varies enormously in the quality of its preparation and service. At least in the spring, as during our visit, great amounts of food are available for purchase as a result of recent agricultural reforms that encourage private marketing of foodstuffs produced beyond modest quotas set by the state.
The Western visitor is overserved and overstuffed - usually a 10 or so course banquet for lunch, and another for dinner. Out of, say, a dozen courses, two or three dishes may be remarkable - for example a slice of eggplant folded in half to encase a meat stuffing, then dipped in batter and deep-fried, as in a Guilin's city hall restaurant. Foods are generally oversalted.
Menus for travelers lean too much to proteins, which often makes one long for the simple bowl of plain white rice he mistakenly might have imagined he would find everywhere. Instead, it is the local beers that are ubiquitous, along with more orange soda than one might have downed since a youth in the American Midwest possessed by a crush on Nesbitt's Orange.
By and large, eating in China can be an ordeal for the traveler saddled with a set itinerary. The courses of often heavy food stretch on and on. Flexibility appears to be a Western concept which the mainland Chinese travel services choose not to master.
Those who escape what is planned for them will have many pleasant surprises. One of the most delightful lunches was an impromptu Cantonese meal in a restaurant overlooking the Shanghai Friendship Store courtyard - spring rolls, chicken flavored with garlic and ginger and wrapped in paper, and a sweet and sour mandarin fish, well prepared and served by a young and attractive staff.
Our finest meal was a special dinner at the White Swan Hotel in Xian. Talking with Percy Olssen, the hotel's Western chef, I asked what it's like to run a first-class food operation on the mainland. His most notable point was about rice: He would prefer to order Uncle Ben's rice, with its reliable quality, from the US through Hong Kong, where he orders flour milled from American wheat, but the Chinese government will not allow the import of foreign rice to China.
Mr. Olssen finds fresh Chinese produce superb. Chickens are a problem: mostly hens are available, which need to be boiled and are not good for roasting.
Chinese beef has good flavor, but the hanging and aging of beef is not practiced, so Olssen imports special cuts from the West. Fresh salmon comes from Norway via Hong Kong or Canton, lamb from New Zealand, frozen all-purpose butter from Australia, and special pastry butter from Denmark.
The Swedish-managed hotel has two separate kitchens, one for Szechuan food and another for Western. The Western kitchen is equipped with United States-made ranges, the Chinese kitchen with gas-fired woks and tree-stump chopping blocks. The kitchen staffs are separate - the Szechuan chefs rotated every six months from their native province.
Our Szechuan dinner was uniformly excellent - fresh asparagus with black mushrooms, a beef tenderloin aux poivre, duck breast with peanuts, deep-fried fish filets with a tomato-cucumber garnish. Just as notable was the practice of the kind of portion control and presentation the modern diner expects - whether in China's ancient capital or in Paris or Rome.
Many private restaurateurs offer excellent dining in China today, but the surge in travel since the 1979 re-opening of China to the West has outpaced the country's resources for training kitchen personnel. Young Chinese are studying cooking at night schools, or, like 31-year-old Yin Kang Jie, a chef at Shanghai's Hua Ting Sheraton Hotel, in the culinary program at the Shanghai Institute of Tourism.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are, foodwise, up to speed with the West, since they've long been accustomed to tourists who want good food. And restaurants and hotels in Hong Kong and Taiwan were quick to absorb the top chefs who fled the mainland during the Cultural Revolution.
Still, mainland China, with its tumult of images, smells, and tastes, remains a privilege for the Westerner today. But it could take some years before the country's modern culinary practice catches up with its ancient and exalted reputation.