Thursday, October 11, 2012

"The Carp"

Gosh, I thought I'd written about this place long ago, but... it seems not. I think I must have alluded to it here and there, in comments if not in posts, but I haven't yet given it a post of its own.

"The Carp" was the nickname my buddy Big Frank gave to the restaurant on Jiugulou Dajie where he and I and Tony The Chairman ('The Three Amigos') would most often eat during our first year in Beijing.

It was larger than most restaurants on the street (in fact, one of the only two-storey buildings, although the upper floor was given over to something else, not connected to the restaurant space at all as far as we could tell) and, being towards the north end of the street, just off the Second Ringroad, it was a popular haunt for resting cab drivers (it could be quite terrifying to watch the way some of them would quaff beer and baijiu in the early hours of the morning, before going back on duty). It was slightly up itself, in that it was about the only restaurant on the street then charging 3rmb rather than 2 for the standard big bottle of Yanjing beer; but we soon managed to haggle them down on that, as we were becoming such regular customers. (We'd always get complimentary pickled peanuts as well.)

The main thing that won us over in our early days was that it was the only place on the street with an "English menu". I was the only one of our trio who could speak any Chinese at all (and not very much), and none of us could read much more than and (mian and rou: noodles and meat). Picture menus, almost ubiquitous since the Olympics here, were at this time a real rarity. So, the "English menu" was potentially a godsend, something that might save us from having to make do with the same handful of dishes night after night.

In practice, though, the "English menu" at this place was very little help at all. It was just a scrap of paper, crudely handwritten in biro, which included only a dozen or so of their most popular dishes. And some of these, it seemed, were not in fact within the chef's repertoire. It became a ritual for us to always try ordering the 'Chicken in garlic and ginger' first; it invariably provoked a mumbled meiyou ("We don't have that."). It seemed inconceivable that a restaurant would not have the three commonest ingredients in China, or that any Chinese chef would be unable to knock up such a simple dish, but.... well, this is China. The "English menu" was evidently not quite the same as the Chinese menu; and if it wasn't on the Chinese menu, no-one was going to put themselves out even slightly to try to make it for us.

The waitresses invariably countered with the opening gambit of trying to interest us in the most expensive dish on the menu (an almost ubiquitous tactic in Chinese restaurants at that time; but it seems to me to be becoming much less common now). The most expensive dish on a Chinese menu (unless you're in one of those stupid-expensive Hong Kong places that features abalone and shark's fin) is almost always some basic kind of fish. In this case, the biro scrawl said bluntly 'Carp'. It was at least 5 or 6 times as expensive as any other dish, and none of us were particularly big fans of fish anyway, so we always declined. But repeated failure did not discourage the staff from trying, again and again, to persuade us to give it a try.

We were frequently introduced to the carp in person, as were other Chinese diners. Many Chinese restaurants that offer fish dishes keep the fish in an aquarium by the entrance, so that diners can select the particular fish they'd like to eat. This rather grimy, low-rent establishment had only one fish dish, and, I suspect, only the one fish - which was kept out the back in the kitchen, in a plastic bucket. To try to interest diners in eating it, it was periodically brought out into the dining room and carried up to a table, writhing in the waitress' arms. Well, I say 'brought'; in fact, it was usually thrown. One of the young chefs would remove it from its bucket and lob it lustily through the tiny serving hatch into the arms of a waitress. On the return journey, the chefs seemed to like to make a game of catching it directly into its bucket - as we judged by the sploosh usually emanating from the kitchen just after it disappeared from our sight through the hatch; occasionally, of course, we would hear instead the wet thud of a fish missing the bucket and landing on the floor.

This was great sport for the staff, but not a lot of fun for the fish - and hence a source of considerable moral discomfort for the Amigos. We often debated buying the carp dish, just so that we could liberate the poor creature from its long captivity (since NO-ONE was ever seen to order the carp dish, we assumed that the same fish might have survived for months, despite the cramped confines of its bucket home and the nightly trauma of being flung through the serving hatch three or four times in each direction) and return it to 'the wild' in nearby Houhai lake. I'm sorry to say we never got around to doing so.

Anyway, that was how "The Carp" got its name from us. We were, inadvertently, following something of a Chinese tradition: many small restaurants - in Beijing, at least - are too unimaginative to give themselves a unique monicker, and simply name themselves after a 'signature dish'. "The Carp", we eventually discovered from a Chinese punter some months later, was in fact called The Small Lobster Place (I suppose it must have been this: 小龙虾, xiao longxia, a type of crayfish or langoustine; this appeared to be a seasonal speciality, something we never witnessed in our first six months of almost nightly attendance).

"Don't go looking for it. It's not there any more."


KingTubby said...

Best post for ages, FROOG.

Are you sure you didn't indulge in a bit of literary licence?

When it comes to cheap beer, I was a big fan of Qui Han which a pretty decent Fuzhou drop. Save your bottle tops and you generally got a extra few free bottles. A promotion when that mongrel rubbish Snow came on the market.


Froog said...

Why, thank you, KT. Not a word of exaggeration, I assure you. It was a place of magical weirdness.

Luckily, Snow has never gained much purchase in the capital. Although the Tsingtao we get here is mostly pretty vile. I always favour the local Yanjing product where possible. Or Harbin - which is the one Chinese bog-standard lager I've tried that actually tastes quite nice, rather than serving simply as a water substitute.

Froog said...

I hope you noticed the Spinal Tap reference at the end there.