Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: Pizza in China!

I recently returned from a two week trip to Beijing, Xi'an (ancient walled city, near the terra cotta soldiers), and Shanghai.  I had so much wonderful food, including Sichuan, lots of street food, Muslim food in Xi'an, Shanghai style, and even some chains. There were KFCs and McDonald's everywhere, but I never tried it. I did see several pizza opportunities and sampled two of them.

Here is a pizza joint in Beijing that we did not sample. It did not look promising, however.
At the airport in Beijing, I bought a "pizza" to take on board the flight to Xi'an. It was round dough, with cheese and a tiny amount of tomato sauce. It had toppings of ham, bell pepper, and onion. To the credit of the airport food vendor, they did heat it in an oven, not a microwave. It was not gonna be too good under any circumstance; the dough was a soft white bread and the peppers and onion were uncooked. It suffered a bit more insult when they encased it in a plastic box to sweat for the 30 minutes before I got to eat it.
Airport pizza

As noted, the crust was soft and bland. It was a cheese bomb, mostly, but it had some flavor from the toppings. It mostly reminded me of the fare you'd get on turnpikes before privatization. Actually, it was about Sbarro level. Astonishingly, it would not be the worst pizza in West Chester. I give the crust a 2, the toppings a 4, the sauce a 0 (for its absence), and the cheese a 4. Overall, 2.5.
The soft underbelly of Beijing Airport pizza

Out next pizza was two cities later, in Shanghai. But first I need to mention some of the goodies we had in Xi'an. They eat some spicy food there, but there is a lot of scrumptious peasant fare if you have a good local contact, which we did.

gān bēi!
I can't say enough good things about this wonderful gentleman. He is the brother-in-law of one of our American friends and he was asked to "take care of us" in Xi'an. He drove us to the tourist attractions and took us to meals, he stopped at street stalls to buy local delicacies for us, he taught me to say "Bottoms up!" in Mandarin, and he refused to let us pay for anything.
These crackery breads are made by laying the dough directly on hot blacks stones, which explains their dimply texture. Each is about 4 inches across. These crunchy doughy delights stayed fresh for days.

Our next stop was Shanghai. The first night, we ate in a huge food-court type of place and sampled all sorts of fish, fowl, rice, and noodles. It was good and fun.
Roasted whole tiny bird on a stick
Another evening in Shanghai, we visited a modern outdoor mall of various dining places. Most were designed to appeal to western tastes. There were more Germans there than Chinese. Steakhouses, Italian food, burgers -- all the things I did not seek to find in China. We settled on a "Tapas Fusion" restaurant where we got some Chinese dishes, a tomato-crab tower, and pizza!
The pizza was a thin-crusted personal pie with some eye appeal, smartly topped with a smattering of fresh arugula.
Shanghai Pie
If you look at the cornicione, you can see that the crust is made from some pretty good dough. There was no particular char to the underside, but it was a firm crust with a good balance of crunch and chewiness. The sauce and cheese were not standouts, but they harmonized well with this simple but nicely executed pie. Crust was a 7, cheese and sauce each a 6, execution an 8. Overall I'd give this pie a 7 and it's clearly superior to almost all West Chester or Main Line PA pizza. How sad is that?!
Finally, here are a few more foods we had in and around Beijing. At a wonderful fish restaurant near the Great Wall, we had the well-known scallion pancake. Sometimes called "Chinese pizza," this pancake was fluffier, less oily, and more tasty than I've had in the states.
Scallion pancake
Speaking of pancakes, there is a marvelous breakfast offered by street vendors. They make a large crepe, add an egg and some hot sauce and scallion, lay on a rectangular puffy crunchy wafer,, then fold it all up. An explosion of flavors and textures. I really loved it!
Street food - pancake with egg and more
We went to a night market in Beijing where they famously offer lots of weird street food. I did not try the starfish, seahorse, scorpion, or larvae roasted on a stick. I did have some roasted snake skin (tastes like chicken).
OMG peeps eat that?
Fittingly, I'll talk last about dessert. The Beijing Zoo gets a lot of western visitors and tries to cater to them (unlike the locals-only places I got to visit in Xi'an, where there are no forks, napkins, or English spoken). They offer plenty of western style snacks, including ice cream. In general, I find Asian frozen treats to be superior to western stuff. Get to an H-Mart and try the melon pops, or the red bean Popsicles. Here at the zoo, I saw and had to try the corn-flavored ice cream. Excellent!

No comments:

Post a Comment