Food Frustration

Beijing Travel Blog

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How is it that in a land, so aptly known for its international influence on cuisine, can I have such a painstakingly difficult time finding something to eat? This is getting pretty ridiculous, considering my appreciation for the edibles. When I was a young girl, I would routinely and willingly find myself going to great lengths to either find or create my next meal. I fondly remember dozens of instances when I would march off to a local grocery store, to create “my OWN DINNER MOM!!!” rather than settle for what was on the menu that seemed to be clashing with my latest taste bud evolution. One of my favorite activities at home with friends is putting together large dinners on very little time and ingredients. It’s almost a game of sorts, as I relish in scanning the fridge and pantry, throwing together creative appetizers and main dishes from all of my roommate’s shelves. So when I told friends and family that I was heading to China, I began receiving all kinds of requests to “eat yummy foods for me” as one of my former teammates said best. This, in particular, has proven to be the greatest challenge of my entire trip thus far…

On our second day in Beijing, as I wind up the slick, curving staircase to the second floor of, yes, the golden arches, my nose is annoyingly thankful for the first familiar scent of the trip.  I realize how atrociously sacrilege that may sound to all of you health-conscious die-hards. But this moment is one that I gladly savor. Initially, I was mildly disappointed when I discovered that our meeting place with Kim Everist would occur at such a Western culinary pastime, but now that I’m here, you couldn’t drag me away even if you told me Nadal was outside waiting to give me personal backhand lessons (but apparently, he WAS down the street in a hotel lobby).

I reach the top ledge, with my arm through Bobby’s, as we scan the chaotic dining hall packed full of Chinese citizens wolfing down their Big Macs, McNuggets or desperately trying to keep up with their rapidly disintegrating soft-serve cones. Children are absurdly loud, something I thought I would never miss. But in this country, it’s deliciously amusing to see the tiny little toddlers speak at audible levels far above their subdued caretakers. One young girl, in particular, is speaking with such intensity, that I don’t believe she realizes a large fry is still hanging on for dear life, smack dab in the corner of her wry mouth. It just dangles and sways there slightly, as if  Tarzan, in midair, lost all momentum on his most faithful branch, looking foolish and lacking direction. At this point in my journey, I am ill aware of the next time I’m actually going to enjoy a meal. As I take in the smells of the controversial fast-food chain, as much as I enjoy the familiarity of it all, there is no part of me willing to partake in the communal consumption.

Yet later that night, as my travel partner and I begin our nightly ritual of scanning the area for the perfect place to dine, we come upon a sushi restaurant. Seems harmless right? Japan isn’t INSANELY far away and considering it’s a ten hour flight from LA to Japan, our sushi in California must be second in caliber to any place in Asia. Um, how can I put this delicately…in the words of Top Gun “negative Ghostrider. “ As we walk into this seemingly fine establishment of raw and fresh fish, we are asked to choose our seating arrangements. We can sit either in front of the moving train of sushi, which, I must say is really tickling my fancy at this point, considering I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in my late teens and frankly, any moving machinery carrying food (or shiny objects, in general) seem to put in me in a zombie-like trance. Thank the heavens for Bobby, though, as he walks over to a corner table and I gladly follow.  Bobby gets his beer and I, my trusty warm Sprite (as most restaurants don’t carry diet soda of any kind and I refuse to gamble with the ice here). We take our chances with the sushi combo plate, looks convincingly safe with the familiar images of the variations on California and cucumber rolls, along with one specialty roll that’s refusing to disappoint.

Our waitress brings over a large circular almost dim sum’ish looking plate and takes the top off. All is looking good at this point minus the one that resembles a combination of mashed up eels brain and barf sleeping in a blanket of seaweed. I grab the furthest thing from the nightmare I just described and take a hold of the shrimp roll. So far so good and we continue. But that eel brain is just staring at me as though I just killed its father. I know what it’s saying underneath all that muck and goo, if I could understand it’s fantastical language, it would be screaming “allo, my name is Inigo Montoya, you keeled my father…prepare to die!” I politely tell the goo that it has the wrong guy. I’ve never even been to Spain and I definitely don’t have six fingers, but it just won’t let me off the hook and it’s stubborn as all hell. So I politely ask Bobby to cover the two obnoxious and accusing pieces of sushi posing as food and keep eating as though this is all just a normal night at a Chinese sushi bar. But then we get to the salmon. As I pick up my sticky rice and pink fish, all is going swimmingly (no pun intended) but when I proceed to invite this combo into my mouth, I realize I’ve made a terrible mistake. The coral colored muck slab is literally sticking to the top of my mouth. I can smell the fish more so than I can taste it and this flavor loiters without invitation for the rest of my meal. Let’s just say that I’m no longer hungry. Mmmmmmk?

Yet, sadly, this is not the end of my troubles. Almost every meal we have experienced here has been somewhat of a letdown. I thought, surely I can just find some white rice to munch on drizzled with some soy sauce!! Granted, not the healthiest of choices, but I know I can’t get sick from this combo. Yet, I’ve discovered on this trip that soy sauce is not a staple in China! They consider it a Japanese condiment!! What the heck P.F. Chang’s!!! You’re such a poser! Authentic my a@#$!!  But this is what chow frustration looks like, folks. When all of your meals are boiled meats dripping in beef sauce, with a cauliflower-esque cluster of chewy fat leftover afterward, it comes to this! I’ve eaten more beef in this country than farmer John on his Idaho plantation has in one year. That isn’t by choice, either, I’ve merely narrowed down all of my meal options based on the fact that everything else either still has eyes or looks like a close relative of the jellyfish I avoid on the northern California beaches.

Even going to the Olympic venues causes me frustration and a grumbling in my stomach only comparable to the sounds made famous by Jabba the Hutt. For the love, people, how can you survive on fluffy cookies and popcorn drenched in substitute buttery caramel oil? I will say, that I broke down and chanced it with the popcorn…my bad. After I ate about three handfuls, I found myself taking my index finger to both sides of my gums and scraping off yellow slippery oil for the entirety of the Australia vs. Greece water polo game, yesterday. Once again, thank goodness for this, because I wasn’t going to be consuming my first real meal of the day until eight o’clock that night and I really needed someone or something to murder my appetite.

So the search continues, it’s a new day. I started this morning off with some potatoes and flavorless Chinese ketchup (which I SERIOUSLY considered adding a packet of table sugar to ) a dry croissant and some coffee. I’ve never appreciated California food choices more so than I have in the last week. San Diegans, please revel in your sushi, Nor Cal kids, hit up your local Whole Foods and all of you that have the luxury of eating fruits and veggies void of any trace of human waste, please, make a fruit salad on my behalf…holler.

*Note: Bobby and I are on a tight budget, I know that Kim has some very delectable food choices where she is staying. I am aware that if you don’t have a ton of money here, your choices are more limited.
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photo by: Eric