I was greatly saddened to hear recently that the Yangtze River dolphin had been named as ‘functionally extinct’, which means those that remain are so old and disparately located that the chances of them breeding are practically nil (the dolphin version of Children of Men). Looking like a cross between a duck-billed platypus and an oversized sea slug, this particular cetacean had an almost prehistorically enormous beak, the end of which turned up ever so slightly to give the impression that it was perpetually smiling, which somehow makes it even sadder. The last confirmed sighting was in 2002, though a Chinese man saw something white-coloured loom large under the water in 2007, and so some people have notched that up as a sighting, others as a ghost.
The wellbeing of a species is dependent upon two things, according to most studies on the subject: food and shelter. So long as you have enough to eat and somewhere that’s not too horrible to live, then you’ll probably be inclined to breed. The poor old Yangtze River dolphin suffered on both accounts. The Yangtze River is one of the most polluted stretches of water on the planet, making it not only a rather horrible place to live, but there was nothing much to eat in there either, thanks to the factory toxins poisoning all the fish. Couple this with the tendency of the Chinese to gobble up anything that moves, and you have a critically endangered species on your hands.
The human habitation of China is, however, a rather different story. In the past half century, the population has doubled from 650 million to 1.3 billion, making it one of the most successful breeding programmes in history. Having spent a few months in China, I can verify it is not a horrible place to live by any measure. But to attain such a monstrously large population, one would have to conclude that the food must be culinary gold dust.
And yet, very often it is not. Eat at most Chinese restaurants and the dishes are so laden with MSG-saturated gravy that your tongue feels like it’s been soaked in acid by the end of the meal, leaving you with an unquenchable thirst. Stumble out of one of those and the last thing on your mind is breeding. Surely, you ponder, a billion people don’t live on grub like this?
Pop into Beijing Chinese in Adliya and you’ll see what the Chinese actually eat, as opposed to that which they export. A beacon of health thanks to its no- MSG policy, this is a restaurant is where you actually get a chance to taste the food you are eating, rather than being overwhelmed by artificial flavourings.
Situated in Adliya’s corridor of culinary excellence (also known as Block 338), Beijing Chinese has a muted interior that gestures towards the culture without giving in to gaudiness. We visited for lunch, when the rooms were awash with light, though one can imagine at night with numerous little alcoves this place must get rather romantic.
My lunch guest and I started with a couple of soups, some crunchy Vietnamese-style summer rolls infused with peanut sauce, and some steamed vegetable wantons. When they arrived, the presentation reminded me of the organic restaurants in the UK that my mother frequents, and from which you can imbibe good health just from the smell of what is being served.
As I dipped my ceramic spoon into the soup, I suddenly had a fear: what if this has no taste at all? What if I’d become so accustomed to MSG that to not be nibbling on it in a Chinese restaurant was to suffer withdrawal. Fortunately, the soup was flavoured with mild spices that gave the traditional broth a whole new dimension. The crunchy rolls were superlative, as were the dumplings.
Chinese mains can be miniscule in size, and at around BD2 a pop, I was convinced we’d need several. A shrimp chop suey (a Chinese American invention) is always a good indicator of the fare, while my friend had his heart set on Szechwan chicken. Having recently watched the 1987 Oscar-winner The Last Emperor and being suddenly intrigued by the north east of the country, I also voted for the Manchurian vegetable balls.
The great thing about Chinese restaurants is that they are nothing if not efficient; the food almost takes more time to order than it does to cook. Within minutes we had a feast steaming before us, the Manchurian balls perched upon a burner, bubbling away in a dark broth. The chop suey noodles had been, for a fraction of a second, deep fried, and looked like a straw bonnet on the plate, while the Szechuan chicken could have been a platter. Sure, the presentation was more home-cooking than haute cuisine, but the actual taste of the food marked it out as some of the best Chinese cuisine I have ever eaten. And for the price, is an absolute bargain.
Beijing Chinese clearly demonstrates that oriental food, if it uses high quality ingredients, does not need artificial flavourings, and is a huge success because of it.
The bill (for two) Tofu and vegetable soup BD1.000 Hot and sour soup BD1.400 Crunchy summer rolls BD1.800 Steamed wantons BD1.600 Szechwan chicken BD2.900 Manchurian veg balls BD2.200 Shrimp chop suey BD2.400 Total (incl.service) BD15.100
Time Out Bahrain staffhttp://www.timeoutbahrain.com