by Rick Green
It was a sunny, clear September afternoon in Beijing, defying what I had read so many times about the city's notorious air quality. I was exploring the hutong of the Dongcheng district, in search of some new accommodations. As I walked down one of the ancient alleyways, I came across a local guide explaining the architectural details of a traditional Beijing courtyard house to three foreigners. Interested in this also, I stopped for a moment to listen. After a few minutes, she asked if we had any questions. I then said, "Nǐ yǒu míngpiàn ma?" (Do you have a business card?) She didn't, so I gave her mine and told her to e-mail me.
I received an e-mail from Eleven shortly after she had finished with her group, asking me what I wanted. I told her I was interested in knowing more about her tour as I planned to bring people to visit Beijing. Was she available to get together to discuss it? She agreed to meet me after work – 5:30pm at the north gate of the Drum Tower.
The young, diminutive Eleven rode up to me on a well-used, folding black bicycle. We immediately set off, strolling around the neighbourhood as we chatted about introducing visitors to the hutong and engaging in the typical getting-to-know you banter. A call came on her mobile phone and a long, intense conversation ensued. She apologized afterwards for the interruption – work!
At that point, my mind strayed to thoughts of food, so I asked Eleven if she wanted to join me for dinner. (In China, unless you are eating street food or snacks, it's better to have at least two people when going to a restaurant, although four is really the ideal minimum for a decent mixture of dishes.) She agreed and asked me what I wanted to eat. I told her I was looking for something local and inexpensive, a place where no tourists go. She called her colleague, Lotus, to join us, whom we met a short time later, having just finished leading a tour of her own.
We set off down Dìānmén Wài Dàjiē towards the Forbidden City, I balancing myself on Eleven's bike and Lotus doubling Eleven on the back of hers. Within two minutes we were in front of a small, nondescript restaurant featuring málàtāng. Although originating in Sichuan, málàtāng is popular in Beijing. It's like a personal version of hotpot where instead of collectively choosing and cooking the ingredients, you select what you want which is then cooked and served to you individually. Apparently, there's more demand for málàtāng in summer because the weather is too warm to indulge in hotpot. Sitting around a vessel of bubbling broth is more pleasant in the colder months.
Standing at the back of the restaurant was a large, open refrigerated case, the type that you see in supermarkets. On its shelves, arranged neatly in white plastic baskets and clear plastic containers, was an assortment of raw, pre-measured meats, seafood, vegetables, noodles, and tofu arranged mostly on skewers. The procedure is to take a plastic basket, pick your ingredients, then bring it to the counter where the amount you pay will be tallied and the food cooked. Street food vendors may already have the skewers cooked so that you don't have to wait if all you want are skewers.
I left it up to Eleven to surprise me with the proviso that I was not fond of organs. Spicy? Absolutely. She gathered bundles of cabbage, mushrooms, and vermicelli and skewers of sausage, sweet potato, and tofu, then handed it over for cooking. How was it? Much of it comes down to what you choose to have in it. Eleven's selection was a pleasing combination of colours, flavours, and textures enhanced by a spicy peanut broth. It amply satisfied my appetite. With a large bottle of Yanjing, a local industrial rice lager, the grand total for dinner was 39 yuan for the three of us or US$5.84.
Thanks to a minor act of boldness that afternoon, I found myself introduced to a new dish in a restaurant I likely wouldn't have set foot in. Better still, while enjoying my discovery, I had the company of two new friends by which I could get a better understanding of the people who call Beijing home.