A Canadian in Beijing: Hot Shots, Hot Pots & Distant Thoughts

On Sunday night, I had the great pleasure of having dinner with my cousin. Well, actually, he’s the son of my Mother’s cousin and so I suppose that means that we’re second cousins, to be precise! He and his partner are on vacation and this was their last night in Beijing. We made plans for dinner and I solicited my friend Rui to come with me.

Remember when I fell in love with the moped? Well, motorcycles are even more fun. In fact, I’ll have to upgrade my love affair from moped to motorcycle, which further distances me from the relationship I have with my bicycle. She and I have had a talk and she knows that I can’t be tied down to one mode of transportation and so all is well in my original matrimony! Seriously, though, I always feel like a “hot shot” when I’m on the back of a motorcycle — like I’m right out of the Grease movies (especially Grease 2!) and I’m pretending to be Michelle Pfeiffer. Okay, so it’s a remnant of my childhood but it makes me smile!

Rui has a motorbike and I have to admit that I rarely refuse if he offers to drive me home or pick me up when the motorcycle is involved. (Of course there are also helmets on our heads, so don’t worry!) I wonder sometimes if he will start to feel used for his motorcycle but I’m careful to thank him and not the bike when I arrive at my destination. It’s actually conscious and so I suppose that’s the true definition of conscientious!!But, really, there’s something so incredible about the zipping through traffic like it’s a video game, the whipping wind in my hair and the heavy sound of the engine between my legs. Okay, I’ll stop there (on that note) but you get my point! Why has it taken me until China to realize that motorcycles are amazing!? Not quite sure.

We arrived at their hotel just a bit late (which is a wonder of wonders in Beijing where it’s easy to be extremely late at the best of times) and it was great to see them. Tim and Paulie looked refreshed and excited about their vacation and I felt for a moment like I was much closer to home than I am.

They decided they wanted some authentic Chinese food (despite the plethora of western restaurants surrounding their hotel) and so we agreed on a “hot pot” place. Rui called a friend and got a recommendation for a good restaurant that specializes in hot pots just about a ten-minute walk from the hotel. We set off down small alleys, around corners that only Rui knew and found ourselves on a wide street with large trees casting their evening shadows on our faces.

We walked slowly and talked while Rui pointed out local landmarks and we caught up on our lives. I would characterize our pace as a stroll and it felt good under my feet – a plush summer evening rolling out before me like a carpet.

The restaurant was quiet and brightly lit and had nothing in the way ambience except our smiles, but we settled in and they brought out the huge hot pot tower, the likes of which I have never seen before. It’s a copper structure with a coal fire glowing in its core and a small chimney extending up the centre with a cap on its top. This oven heats the water above which is divided into two sections, one with hot spices and one without. Throughout the meal, the “fuyuan” (wait staff) regularly fill up the trough with fresh boiling water so that it never boils all the way off.

They then brought our large selection of vegetables and tofu and stacks of beef and lamb for the meat eaters at the table, i.e. everyone except me. I have become quite a fan of “xiang gu” or “fragrant mushrooms” and I was happy to see a huge plate of them arrive and before we knew it there were several different kinds of vegetables sizzling happily in the hot pot and my stomach was growling. They also brought us a sauce that was delicious. Not quite a peanut sauce and not quite a hot sauce but perfect. I wish I had the recipe!

I had already prepared myself for the likelihood that I would be sharing this hot pot water with meat. Being a vegan in Beijing has had its moments, as you know, and sometimes it takes some psyching up on my part to be able to accept what I believe to be inevitable. i.e. that I will be in a food situation that I can’t control and so I may have to quietly exit or simply accept that I’ll feel ill afterwards.

I filled up my side of the hot pot with vegetables and tofu while the water was still meat-free and cooked things all together and quickly, hoping my head start would mean that I wouldn’t detect the meaty aftertaste in the water after meat had been added.

I soon noticed that everyone was just eating vegetables, tofu and noodles. In fact, ten minutes later they still had not touched the meat and it dawned on me that they were waiting for me to eat enough before they started to cook their meat portions. When I realized what was happening, I was overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness and I said: “go ahead, it’s okay! I’ve had lots and I’ll be alright!” I was pretty full, to be honest, and I had a huge plate in front of me with my quickly cooked food that still needed to be eaten. I was also so touched by the gesture that I couldn’t possibly let them stall any longer. They hesitated and resisted a little, but then I convinced them to dig in. Soon all the food was being cooked and the conversation was flowing.

We agreed that it’s not “what is cooked” but “how it’s cooked” that makes all the difference. Being able to engage with your food while enjoying lively conversation is a total treat. I loved it! I would definitely get a “hot pot” again in this city. The experience was totally memorable, not to mention delicious.

Over two hours later, we left the restaurant having filled up on fantastic food and the exchange of ideas. We talked non-stop all evening and when we arrived at their hotel I was surprised at how quickly we had strolled back in the cool night air.

We posed for some shots in front of Rui’s bike (he’s taking the picture) and then said our goodbyes. There’s nothing like seeing family when you’re far away from home. It felt like a breath of Canadian air in my lungs. I could almost smell the clover and honeysuckle in the fields of Eastern Ontario.

I hopped on the back of the bike and waved goodbye as we sped away, feeling cool and hot at the same time and excited to be back again on my favourite mode of transport. I closed my eyes as we motored through the streets towards Wudaokou, letting the wind stroke my face with familiarity. I let the Beijing air get to know me that night. Maybe I could have more than one home in my future? Hhm. . . The thought lingers and seems less and less distant every day.