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奥运的味道

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At Hua Jia Yi Yuan, a mainstay of Beijing's 'restaurant row,' the Olympics metaphors are piling up. You might say, a three-month marathon of prep work is nearing the finish line. Completed plates are being passed like batons. And judges are ready to hand out perfect 10s in a final event far more about glory than gold.

Specifically, today's contest is for a spot on the restaurant's sports-oriented menu planned for August, the month of the Summer Games. Hua Lei, the restaurant's owner, has invited four groups of cooks from his restaurants, who have come up with some 40 dishes, all straining for an Olympics association.

A stack of jellied bean paste? 'Gold and Silver Medal Cake.' A crock filled with sea cucumber and other high-priced goodies? 'Big Bowl Looking Forward to Big 2008 Party.' A rowing scull of asparagus, bearing duck? 'Smooth Sailing Meat.' A rather gruesome stewed crocodile claw? 'The World Hand-in-Hand at Olympics.'

'Having the Olympic Games in my city in my lifetime -- that's a golden opportunity I must seize to make my restaurant world-famous,' declares Mr. Hua, 40 years old. 'This is my way of taking part in the Olympic spirit, which is everyone's business.'

His isn't the only Beijing eatery with an Olympic-size dream. All over China's capital, the race is on to show patriotism, gain publicity and do what Chinese have done for eternity: mark their special occasions with unique culinary creations.

At Hua Jia Yi Yuan, Mr. Hua and his invited arbiters must first select something that can actually be put on the menu and made for a profit. Judge Fang Duan Yuan, a restaurant consultant, compares many of the dishes to fashion runway outfits: 'dazzling to look at, but you wouldn't want to wear them every day.'

Some don't even pass the dazzling test. Quivering rounds of scallops in a five-ring logo are deemed too droopy; the Olympic torch carved from a carrot is something 'I've been seeing for 20 years,' sniffs Mr. Hua. The sectioned 'squirrel fish,' undulating to look like a dragon covered in an Olympic rainbow of sauces, is something to see -- but just 'old flavors in a new shape,' he says.

Each judge carries a printed scoring sheet, with several weighted categories -- taste counts for 15%, appearance 20%, plates and containers 10% and so on. The dishes are presented in anonymity.

'Things like this usually aren't very fair in China, so I have made sure than nothing will be done out of friendship,' says Mr. Hua, who's so serious about avoiding nepotism that he says he won't hire anyone who shares his family name, even if they are unrelated.

The prize? Just 300 yuan ($43), but chef Duan Shi Cheng notes, 'This could further our careers -- and improves our learning in any case.'

The 27-year-old chef has been working a month on a 'harvest' medley, implying China's harvest of Olympic medals, that's clearly aimed at less-adventurous Western tastes: It features salmon eggs on mashed potatoes and a prime lamb chop balanced to stand on end inside a golden, crusted ring.

Elsewhere, the state-owned Quanjude Roast Duck has Olympic dishes already on the menu at a new branch near the main stadium. (It also has chafing dishes for warming the duck punched with the five holes of the Olympic insignia.) In honor of the women's doubles tennis team who took the gold for China at the 2004 Olympics, there's a shrimp salad festooned with a chocolate tennis racquet. Table tennis is celebrated with breaded duck liver in the shape of paddles, rowing with abalone on a raft of asparagus spears, golf (though not an Olympic sport) with a taro-root duffer swinging at a ground-fish ball.

But the most ubiquitous edible use of Olympic symbols will be stir-fried dishes served inside a basket of fried noodles made to resemble the main stadium, which has been nicknamed the 'Bird's Nest.' Many restaurants around the former Forbidden City also will be dusting off 'imperial menus' for the games, while bakeries and cafes will serve cakes and drinks with games-related titles. The Kerry Centre Hotel, 60% of whose rooms have been booked by the Beijing Olympic Committee for its guests, plans blue doughnuts and a ringed cake with 'no artificial colorings' at its Bento & Berries cafe; its Centro bar will honor five past Olympic host cities with cocktails and also serve a 'One World, One Dream' brew of coffee, melon and banana liqueurs, with floating jellied rings.

Some of Beijing's trendiest spots for fusion Chinese fare, like the nostalgia-themed Red Capital Club and the new branch of Shanghai's Whampoa Club, will offer special set menus, anticipating a high demand for banquets. But none will unveil menus until the last moment, claiming the need to be seasonal, if not secretive.

Even during ordinary times, eating in Beijing could be considered a culinary steeplechase. As China's capital, the city draws a wide range of regional and ethnic food, from the camel's hoof and whole lamb (sometimes served with a knife still in the skull) of Mongolia to the spicy stewed dog of Guizhou province's Dai people. Even Beijing's own longstanding champion, Peking Duck, was adopted from neighboring Shandong province.

For that reason, celebrated chefs such as Da Dong, whose new roast-duck palace not only features appetizers based on classical poetry but China's first computer-controlled room for duck drying and rendering, sees no need to get showier for the games. 'Every meal is Olympian,' he says.

Easy for him to say, with lines out the door. But inspecting creations submitted by entrants in his competition, Mr. Hua is still seeking that elusive signature dish to help him stand out. He has expanded Hua Jia Yi Yuan by purchasing and remodeling two traditional courtyard houses out back, expecting 2,200 diners daily during the 17 days of the games. He is also opening a 'boutique' outlet along Chang'an, Beijing's high-priced, central boulevard.

'We don't have the privilege of catering to high officials, so we have to fight for the market,' says Mr. Hua. 'And since we don't have much budget for television advertising, we are hoping to really stand out this way.'

Judge Zhang Fang Shong, a chefs' supervisor, concedes, 'It's difficult to balance looks with flavor -- and to make sure there's the proper complexity.' When the scores are added up, the only entry that definitely makes it onto the August menu is a meat-stuffed melon topped with ketchup to simulate the Olympic flame. Mr. Hua admits that prices for all dishes will 'be a bit higher during the Olympics.'

And the end of the Olympics won't mean the end of competitions, Mr. Hua says. 'Next year,' he declares, 'we're going to have a contest for the healthiest dishes.'

在北京号称“餐饮一条街”的簋街,花家怡园 (Hua Jia Yi Yuan)餐馆的奥运气氛不断浓厚起来。可以说,为期三个月的马拉松式奥运准备工作已接近尾声。在这里,做好的菜肴如接力棒一般陆续呈上,而评委要给每道菜打分,最终选出一道金牌菜。

更特别的是,当天的美食比赛争夺的是进入奥运菜单的一席之地──花家怡园专门针对今年8月的北京奥运会推出了新菜单。餐馆老板花雷(Hua Lei)让花家怡园的四组厨师准备了约40种与奥运主题相关的菜肴。

豌豆黄?现在名叫“金银牌蛋糕”(Gold and Silver Medal Cake)。海参和其它高级食材汇聚的“佛跳墙”?现在名叫“2008年迎奥运大餐”(Big Bowl Looking Forward to Big 2008 Party)。两边装饰芦笋为桨的填鸭?现在名叫“一帆风顺鸭”(Smooth Sailing Meat)。有点可怕的煮鳄鱼爪?现在名叫“奥运手牵手”(The World Hand-in-Hand at Olympics)。

“这辈子能赶上奥运会在我所住的城市召开,真是千载难逢,因此必须抓住机会,让我的餐馆闻名于世。”40岁的花雷说,“这是我参与奥运的方式,奥运会是大家共同的事。”

他不是唯一一个拥有奥运梦的北京餐馆老板。在北京,许多餐馆都在争先恐后地展现奥运主题,扩大知名度,以及做中国人几千年来常常要做的事:用独特的美食来庆祝特殊日子。

广告在花家怡园,花雷和受邀而来的评委必须首先选出一些既能真正放入菜单又能赚钱的菜肴。评委之一房端元(音)是一位餐饮业咨询顾问,他把其中很多菜肴比喻为T型台上的时尚服装:“看起来眼花缭乱,但没办法真的穿出去。”

有些菜肴甚至都没通过造型这一关。把扇贝摆成奥运五环标志,这个创意似乎过于牵强;而用萝卜雕刻成奥运火炬的样子,“我20年前就见过了,”花雷对此不屑一顾。把“松鼠鱼”这道菜摆成起伏的腾龙,浇上的番茄汁构成一个奥运图案,虽然看上去还行,但“味道跟原来一样,属于换汤不换药。”花雷说道。

每位评委都拿着一张表格,按各类权重进行评分──味道占15%,造型占20%,盛菜器皿占10%等等。每道菜都没有标注厨师的名字。

“评分这种事在中国往往不太公平,所以我要确保评委不会投人情票。”花雷说。他坚决反对裙带关系,表示不会雇佣任何姓花的人,即使那些人并非他的亲戚。

比赛的奖品呢?不过是人民币300元(约43美元)。不过参赛的厨师段时诚(音)说,“这有利于我们的职业生涯,而且能从中学到很多东西。”

这名27岁的厨师已经花一个月时间准备一道名为“大丰收”的菜,寓意中国将在奥运奖牌上获得丰收。这道菜旨在迎合不太敢尝试新食材的西方人的口味:土豆泥点缀着鱼籽,一个金色环圈里竖着一块鲜美的羊排。

国营的全聚德烤鸭店(Quanjude Roast Duck)已经在奥运主会场附近的新店推出了奥运菜肴。(店里还有一种给烤鸭保温的器皿,上面打了五个眼,形成奥运的五环标志。)为纪念中国赢得2004年奥运会女子网球双打冠军,全聚德推出了一道大虾沙拉,上面点缀着一块用巧克力做成的网球拍;乒乓球主题菜是用粘有面包粉的鸭肝做成球拍状;划艇主题菜是一块鲍鱼放在由芦笋尖组成的“竹筏”上;高尔夫(虽说不是奥运项目)主题菜是一个用芋头做成的假人挥杆击中鱼丸做成的高尔夫球。

不过,奥运主题菜最常见的表现形式是用炸过的面条做成“鸟巢”主会场的样子,然后把炒菜放进去,端上餐桌。故宫附近的许多餐馆将把“皇家风味”的菜单撤下,换上奥运菜单;各种糕点房和咖啡店也将提供以赛事命名的蛋糕和饮料。北京嘉里中心饭店(Kerry Centre Hotel),其60%的房间已被北京奥组委(Beijing Olympic Committee)预定,计划在Bento & Berries咖啡店推出蓝色的甜纳圈和“不含人工色素”的圈型蛋糕,并将在Centro酒吧推出五款以奥运举办城市命名的鸡尾酒,还会提供名为“同一个世界、同一个梦想”的咖啡、西瓜和香蕉味利口酒,里面漂浮着果冻做成的圆环。

北京一些最奢华的餐厅也不甘落后,新红资俱乐部(Red Capital Club)和上海黄埔会(Whampoa Club)北京分店将在奥运期间推出特别菜单,并预计将吸引很多人前来。这两家店都不愿提前透露菜品细节,表示这要看具体情况,其实更多的是为了保密。

即使在平时,北京也被视为美食之都。作为中国的首都,北京吸引了来自全国各地的特色佳肴,从蒙古风味的驼峰肉和烤全羊(有时上菜时羊头上还插着一把刀)到贵州傣族风味的麻辣狗肉煲;甚至连北京长盛不衰的名菜“北京烤鸭”,其实都是从山东的鲁菜演变而来。

因此,像大董(Da Dong)这样的著名厨师觉得没必要为了奥运而奥运,他经营的大董烤鸭店推出以中国古诗命名的开胃菜,而且还兴建了中国第一间电脑控制的烤鸭房。“这里的每道菜都有奥运精神。”大董说。

大董说得轻描淡写,毕竟他的餐馆顾客排成长队。然而,花雷看着厨师们的参赛作品,仍在寻找一道能让自己餐馆脱颍而出的奥运菜。他已经扩建了花家怡园,买下后面的两个四合院,重新进行装修,并预计在奥运会的17天中,每天将有2200名客人来这里用餐。他还在地价昂贵的北京长安街上开了一家分店。

“我们这里不是政府高官的用餐之地,所以必须争夺大众市场。”花雷说,“我们没有足够预算来做电视宣传,所以希望通过推出奥运菜的方式让餐馆独树一帜。”

厨师长张方颂(音)也是评委之一,他坦言,“很难让菜肴实现造型和味道的平衡,此外,还要确保一定的品味。”评分结果出来后,唯一一道肯定能入选奥运菜单的菜是:填肉甜瓜,上面浇有番茄酱以模仿奥运圣火。花雷承认,店里所有菜的价格“在奥运期间都会稍高一些”。

不过,奥运会的结束并不意味着美食比赛的终结,花雷说。“明年,我们还要举办一场最健康菜肴的比赛。”
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