China: Invitation from Mrs Zhang

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush experiences courtyard cuisine in the back streets of Beijing

Beijing's back streets, like these, have stood since the Ming Dynasty. Photo / Getty Images
Beijing's back streets, like these, have stood since the Ming Dynasty. Photo / Getty Images

"In Beijing you eat." This byword of the great city is ringing in my ears as I'm carried along in a surging current of humanity.

A traveller finds it hard to go hungry in China. Oriental flavours permeate the city air. The swankiest restaurants are open all hours.

Today, I'm salivating for something unique - a back-street banquet in a private courtyard with a woman who does hot and spicy, blending yin and yang to perfection. I'm about to enter a hidden world beyond the incessant roar of traffic on Beijing's bustling boulevards.

A convoy of red-topped rickshaws takes us through narrow lanes where cars are banned. Many other pedal-powered vehicles pass us in the twisting, turning back alleys, some of China's 300 million bicycle fleet.

Daily life goes on in this part of old China quietly, unobtrusively. I see women doing laundry in plastic buckets and cooking dumplings and sticky rice on outdoor stoves. A young girl feeds grated carrot to her pet grasshopper.

An elderly man, permanently bent from a lifetime of manual labour, ambles along. A handsome wedding couple pose on the footpath.

We are penetrating a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys called hutongs, on our way to meet Mrs Zhang. There are 100 million Zhangs in the Chinese white pages, but this Mrs Zhang is special. She is a youthful-looking 56-year-old whose exceptional culinary skills are well known here. It was no surprise when she opened her home to tour groups.

Our lunch is served in a small family room with concrete walls, a round dining table and eight chairs, a sideboard and narrow sofa bed. Mrs Zhang cooks on a two-burner stove in a cramped kitchen across the metre-wide lane. Our guide shuttles to and fro with steaming pork meatballs, hot tofu, sticky rice, tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, beans, green peppers, bok choi, mushrooms, peanuts and a mixed salad. Each delivery is preceded by a heady, intoxicating mix of aromas that tantalise our palates.

Chinese custom provides for hosts to be generous and having food left over is expected. It is also traditional to share everything equally and to pay the chef lavish compliments about their culinary skill.

We thank Mrs Zhang for her kind hospitality and the delicious meal and bow in respect. She beams in appreciation.

Here, in the hutongs, is where life in the booming capital of 12 million people is seen in its most traditional form. These residential areas date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and form a miniature grid of walled courtyards and passages. When New China was founded in 1949 there were 6000 hutong alleys in Beijing; today there are fewer than 1000 and these are under constant threat of redevelopment.

My visit to the humble hutong was a thrilling cross cultural experience - a piquant way of discovering the true flavour of Beijing.

Paul Rush travelled to China with assistance from Cathay Pacific and Adventure World.

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- Herald on Sunday

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