Beijing Black Sesame

First order of business: buy a cheap mobile phone…sound familiar?

After our long bike ride, we took a shower and changed closed because we were DRENCHED with sweat. That felt a lot better, and Alison promptly fell asleep on the bed. As much as I wanted to do the same, it was 5pm and I needed to get a phone to be able to communicate with the tour guides on our next two stops.

I went back to the busy street near our hotel, and thankfully everything was now open. I scanned each shop on the side of the street where I remember seeing the shop and eventually it appeared: a small stall, no bigger than a closet with a glass case displaying his wares — many different iPhone types, and then a few cheepo Nokias. Perfect! RMB200 later (I’m sure I should have haggled and I’m sure I was over charged, but $35 for a new Nokia seemed fine to me…) I waked out with a working, texting phone! I immediately texted Michael’s number, and he immediately texted me back. Hooray!

Having gotten that done so quickly, I decided to figure out where Black Sesame Kitchen was located — we had signed up for a dumpling class there on Saturday. It’s also in a hutong, not far from our Courtyard 7 Hotel hutong, except they were located in a small bit that had been built into the courtyard space by subsequent generations of residents over the centuries, so you entered a gate into is best described as a “warren” turning left, then right, then right, then right, then left every few steps until you enter a small open space in front of Black Sesame Kitchen. I was greeted by Coco, one of the workers who speaks English, and I confirmed that I would arrive for the dumpling class the following day. She asked: where will you eat tonight? I said that we would like to find a nice duck restaurant, and she told me where she likes to eat duck, but then she said: Would you like to eat here? She showed me the menu, written up on a small chalkboard on the wall, and it looked like a compilation of many many dishes that I’ve cooked, or wanted to cook, but would love to experience when done by a skilled chinese chef. She said they had two open spaces around the two communal tables they sit people at, so I said I would ask my wife and get back to them.

The BSK space is probably no more than 100 feet from our hotel room, but, as they say in Maine, “you can’t get there from here.” Still its only a five minute walk around the warrens and the lanes, and when I described the option to Alison she enthusiastically said YES so I confirmed and we showed up at 7:00pm on the dot.

Black Sesame Kitchen is a little company founded by the Beijing based food writer Jen Lin-Liu together with some of the people she describes meeting in her book “Serve the People” (worth a look). They give cooking lessons in traditional chinese dishes, as well as serve communal dinners a few days a week. It turns out their dinners are the #1 rated restaurant in Beijing (of over 8000 that are rated) in Trip Adviser…I wasn’t focused on their dinners as much as on their workshops, and very much looked forward to making dumplings the next day, but tonight we feasted.

Dish after dish came out, each one perfectly cooked and delicately flavored. There were familiar dishes like Red Braised Pork Belly (we had tasted this in Shanghai as well), and very unfamiliar but equally wonderful rice stems cooked with Chinese bacon. In the latter dish, the thinly sliced rice stems were bland but had a nice crisp crunch, much like a bamboo shoot, but they were paired with a wonderfully strong smoky “bacon” which was more like ham (no fat on the thin slices) that perked up the rice stem, while the rice stem calmed down the bacon’s strong flavors.

The communal tables were interesting, and an obvious solution to their tiny spaces. The operation took place in three rooms, a shallow entry, a large room with the kitchen on one end and a high workshop/dining table beyond it, and then a smaller room with a low dining table and a comfy sofa to one end. The large table sat ten people comfortably. The lower could also seat ten (it being a wider table it sat two people at each end), but in our case because of a British couple who never confirmed their reservations but then arrived anyway, we squeezed 11 onto that table. If they operated like a normal restaurant with four top tables they might seat 12 to 16 people (if they were all parties of four) instead of the 20 person crowd tonight made up of twos, threes and a party of five.

In addition their clientele appear to be an international group who are either traveling, or are temporarily living in Beijing. A couple of food bloggers were regulars there, but for most everyone else this was a first visit. At our table were groups from Singapore, Japan, Australia, England, and the US, and English worked for almost all of us — the Japanese couple had the hardest time joining in the conversations, but the Singaporians tried their best to include them. I spoke mostly with a young Australian couple who were spending a year in Beijing learning Mandarin and chinese writing, as well as the Brits who had just completed a three week journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, beginning their trip in Moscow.

The food was fabulous, and the conversation was fun. The beer and wine flowed endlessly as Coco took care of our every need. Alison wandered about with the camera, snapping pictures of the kitchen, of both tables, of Chef Jiang, from outside, from inside, and of the food. The final dish was a sweet dessert (traditional Chinese meals normally end with fresh fruit) of their signature Black Sesame ice cream with sugar coated deep fried bananas sprinkled with black sesames. I tried a bit of the ice cream, and it was quite good, not too sweet, with the ground sesames adding a mealy grain to it as well as a smoky sesame flavor.

So what is an authentic Chinese meal? Is it one that is cooked in a western setting for westerners (and those comfortable with western settings) by an authentic Chinese chef with authetic Chinese ingredients (obviously of very high quality and expertly prepared)? Or is it in a Chinese owned restaurant pointing at pictures of dishes that MIGHT look familiar, and not really knowing what ingredients and “traditional” preparation is being used? I don’t think I can answer this now, but we will be seeking meals in every way possible over this vacation, so maybe we will find enlightenment by the time we load ourselves back onto the plane to the US.

We said our goodbyes to the international companions, and Thank You to the BSK staff — the meal was prix fix for RMB300 each (a little less than $50) which is much more than a “typical” dinner in Beijing, it seems, but well worth it for the quality of the food and unlimited beer and wine. We were very pleased with our choice. We walked in a crazy circuit finally winding up back at Courtyard 7 and our comfy little (air conditioned!) room and fell into a deep and happy sleep.

3 thoughts on “Beijing Black Sesame

  1. If by “authentic” you mean “what most Chinese eat,” go to the cheapest, most crowded restaurant you can find that has a menu similar to many other crowded restaurants on many other street corners in many other cities. Or got to someone’s house disguised as one of the family members. I think otherwise you’re using a different definition of “authentic”.

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  2. As in the US, little brother, the crowds are not necessarily drawn to the “most authentic” meals, but those meals with good taste AND good value. KFC draws crowds here in Beijing, and McDonalds has a line for their Bubble Tea take out window…and good value often means that chefs take shortcuts using lower quality ingredients and making up for it with a healthy spoonful of MSG. (There’s an excellent examination of the myths and realities of MSG use in China in Jen’s book “Serve The People” — another excellent reason to read it). In this case the chef was not trained in the Banquet style (for rich chinese only) or in the Western style, rather he has “perfected” dishes that are very traditional and commonly prepared around Han China, and he depends on the quality of his ingredients and skillful preparation to maximize the flavor, not some cheap white powder. I’m sure the largest cost of the meal was in the wine that was available whenever we asked for it — French style wine is NOT traditional in China, and it is heavily taxed and thus expensive. But they must cater to the people, largely Western, who will pay 300RMB a person for a nice meal, and wine is kind of compulsory for most of them. So the wine, not so traditional, but the chef is, the ingredients are, and the recipes are…so again, what is “authentic”? It’s really in the eye of the beholder. And as far as the going to someone’s house in disguise…wait until we write about the next leg of our journey…

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