Where the Ordinary Chinese Eat

BY ERIC MU
Jun 16, 2010

Dining is more than food for the body; it is food for the soul. At Minjian Soup Restaurant, our blogger Eric Mu gets more – the art of really living life.



A simple meal of gaifan and clay pot soup, with plenty of drama on the side.

A simple meal of gaifan and clay pot soup, with plenty of drama on the side.

Photo credit: Eric Mu

 

Dinner at Minjian Soup Restaurant (民间煨汤馆) is a slow affair. A gaifan (盖饭), or a veggie-topped rice dish, usually takes 10 minutes to arrive, or even longer during busy hours. Reasonably priced, gaifan is many people’s run-of-the-mill everyday meal that can be found on the menu of most small restaurants in the city. But here at Minjian Restaurant, there are special offers that are unlikely to come by elsewhere: baked bamboo shoots with cured pork and extra-spicy stir-fried tofu skin. These dishes have become my supper by default of late.

As its name suggests, Minjian, which means “folk”, distinguishes itself from the more stylish, and therefore more expensive restaurants which usually bill themselves, sometimes dubiously, as “court style” (宫廷菜 ) or “official style” (官府菜 ). A small, humble establishment with minimum furnishing, this is where the ordinary people have their meals. Stuck between flashy, starred hotels, it may just escape your notice as it did mine. Even though it is on my way to work every day, it didn’t enter my consciousness until one day, a visiting friend told me: remember the clay pot soups that we used to have when we were in Nanchang? We can get it here, too. Seeing my incredulous look, he took me to Minjian Soup Restaurant and almost immediately, I found I liked it.

I mean I am truly fond of it, despite, or perhaps because of its lack of space and slightly longer waiting time. You don’t need to feel bored while waiting. Order a pot of their clay pot soup before the main course is ready. The soup got its name because it is prepared and served in small round pots. After simmering for a minimum of seven hours to allow the ingredients to be thoroughly dissolved into the broth, they are kept warm in the stove ready to be served anytime. Nothing is more hearty and warming than a steam-pumping soup on a cold winter afternoon.

The variety is so rich that you can always find a favourite that suits your particular taste; from the more controversial “double whips” soup (animals genitalia are among the ingredients), which supposedly boosts a man’s virility; to vegetarian ginkgo nut soup, which is believed to have the effect of cleaning your lungs of Beijing’s inescapable dust. You are supposed to sip and savour, not hastily gulp down. Smile if you like. Or read the history and medical value of the soups from the script hanging on the wall while you imagine how this liquid is going to do wonders to your health, such as balancing your yin and yang and fortifying your immune system. Try to put aside your sceptical intellect for a while. Positive thinking is all it is about.

My favourite pastime is to observe other dinners, which, when you are lucky, can be as fun as watching a mini-drama unfolding itself. Here is one:

Two Beijingers walk into the restaurant. One is bald; the other sports a moustache and a brush-like crew cut, with an empty liquor bottle in one hand, a bunch of lamb kebabs in the other. They are so involved in their loud conversation that the frowns and downward mouth tick of another lone dinner all fail to interrupt them. They curse a lot while talking. They sit down and curse more. The moustached stands up, goes to the drink cabinet and takes a bottle of Red Star erguotou (a strong white liquor quite popular in Beijing).

 

“Hey, boy, come over.” the bald yells.

The waiter, a teenage boy, meekly comes to them.

“Two eggplants!”

“How do you want to have it?” The boy looks confused.

“Just two eggplants. The long kind. We want to eat them raw!”

“Eggplants? Raw?” The southerners are always surprised by their northern compatriots’ less civilised eating habit.

“Move. What are you waiting for? As if we will not pay you.”

The boy vanishes into the kitchen and re-emerges with two raw eggplants on a plate.

“Are they clean?”

“Yes, I just rinsed them.”

 

The bald man takes a huge bite on the eggplant with a big “poom” sound. Then he takes a swig of his erguotou, making an exaggerated sipping sound, and swallows down the eggplant and alcohol mixture.

A stout chef also comes out of the kitchen, attracted by the circus of men eating raw eggplants. “Awesome,” he exclaims as if it were no meaner feat than landing a man on the moon.

Five minutes later, they start to get a bit tipsy and their talk grows more emotional.

The moustached brandishes an eggplant in the air like a proud conductor demanding attention from his orchestra, which consists of the contemptuous lone dinner and the amused me; Laobanniang (lady boss) and the waiter are both in amazement. A stout chef also comes out of the kitchen, attracted by the circus of men eating raw eggplants. “Awesome,” he exclaims as if it were no meaner feat than landing a man on the moon.

The bald man is totally drunk by now and has to lean on the moustached to stand stable. The moustached insists on paying twenty kuai for the two eggplants. Laobanniang refuses to take the money and insists it is her treat. “No, if you don’t take it, we won’t come again.” says the moustached. “Right, we won’t come again.” says his drunk brother. Shoulder by shoulder, they leave and disappear into the crowd.

The owners of the restaurant are an amiable couple in their early 40s, both from Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. Laobanniang, after learning that I went to university in their hometown, started to address me as “xiaodi”, or little brother. It makes me feel privileged and obliged to come again and again. Call it subtle manipulation, but I am just very happy to accept it. Usually after I finished my meal, having paid my bill and ready to go, Laobanniang would tell me “Xiaodi, man zou.” – “man zou” being the Chinese way of saying “be safe”. For some reason, she had the impression that I was a cargo delivery guy – maybe because my red jacket and pair of sneakers resemble the uniform of a nearby logistic company. I never bothered to correct her, secretly taking pleasure in the anonymity.