On Monday I flew from Seattle to Beijing, 27 years since my first visit to China’s capital city. I feel like a modern day Rip van Winkle.
Gone is the sleepy city of Mao-suited bicyclists, the blue and grey peloton outnumbering cars, which in 1987 were a rarity. Today, bicycles are a novelty in much of the city, which is choked with motorized traffic that makes rush hour on I-5 look tame.
Gone is the city of one-story historic buildings with glazed tile roofs. They’ve been replaced by dozens and dozens of skyscrapers.
And gone is the invisibility of wealth, as Maserati sports cars that cost more than my home in Seattle vie for parking spaces in front of palatial malls.
But while Beijing and I have both changed in the past three decades, one thing we share has stayed the same: our love of food.
Fewer countries offer a better buffet for the traveling chowhound than China, and Beijing is one of the best eating cities in the world. A recent breakfast underscored the collision of old and new in a city determined both to showcase its historical richness, and to blaze trails into the new century as a global crossroads.
Let’s start with what I ate for breakfast.
Beijing has a history of mouth-watering street food, and one of the most popular grab-and-go items for the harried morning commuter is a jian bing, or savory crepe and egg dish.
Vendors set up on street corners across the city, where with deft strokes they pour and spread enormous crepes, crack an egg atop and whisk it across the crepe to cook it quickly, smear the crepe with plum sauce and a dash of chili, and then garnish it with chopped scallions and crunchy fried dough center.
Once folded to the size of a pocket paperback novel, the jian bing is handed over to the eager customer for immediate consumption. It’s cheap (less than $1), delicious, and fast.
I hadn’t eaten a jian bing since 1995. Tasting it on this trip was culinary time travel. From the first bite I was transported: the taste, texture, and temperature were exactly as I remembered.
In my other hand was a fixture of contemporary Beijing. Not to mention deeply familiar to this Seattleite: Starbucks.
The Chinese market is an important one for Starbucks—they boast their own website for the market of a billion potential customers—and have over 500 cafés in the Middle Kingdom. I know of two stores in walking distance from my Beijing apartment and I’d be willing to bet a kuai or two that there are more.
While Starbucks is out of reach for many in Beijing (my latte cost over five times as much as my jian bing) the stores are full of the Chinese rising middle and upper classes, hands clasped around their Venti Americanos.
So there I was: a jian bing in one hand, a latte in the other. It was China’s current balancing act right there, wrapped up in one meal: expensive new status food for the relative few, and cheap traditional food for everyone else.
Try Jian Bing in Seattle:
I learned right before my trip that Seattle is home to “Bing of Fire,” a jian bing food truck.