A quest for the best food in the Beijing Winter Olympics bubble

Follow our live from 2022 Winter Olympics.

BEIJING — The robot bartender was a worrying sign.

He came to life one of the first days of the Olympics, right at cocktail hour, and unceremoniously began tossing fruity drinks with his long swinging arm.

There were robots everywhere, in fact: across the room, they were piling up burgers and wrapping them neatly in waxed paper; around the corner they simmered dumplings; others hovered overhead, lowering plates of food from the ceiling.

There was proof, as if it needed more, that this was no normal Olympics, that the pandemic could otherwise steal the human heart from a global sporting gathering; that one of the joys of the Games in normal times – deep dives into local culture and cuisine – could prove difficult to achieve.

Yes, other subjects were more pressing: doping, geopolitics, sport strictly speaking. But inside the high fences of the so-called bubble, where all Games participants were separated 24 hours a day from the city outside, food, and where to get the best of it, was on the end of the line. everyone’s language.

It therefore became a pleasant surprise, as the Olympics progressed, that despite all the constraints, curious athletes, officials, volunteers and journalists were able to find moments of culinary entertainment, however minimal.

It may have taken effort and perseverance, but good food finds a way.

A conversation about Olympic food, like all things here, could start and end with the inescapable Eileen Gu, the Chinese-American freestyle skier who, in many ways, is the face of these Olympics.

Gu, who was born and raised in the United States but competes for China, announced her arrival at the Beijing Games by posting a photo of dumplings — “I finished them allshe wrote – which garnered thousands of likes on Weibo, the Chinese social media app.

After winning her first medal, she said she would celebrate with Ghirardelli chocolates, an obvious nod to San Francisco, her hometown. And as she competed on the track, she was pictured eating jiucai hezi, a Chinese pie and a roast pork bun, sending social media into hysterics each time.

It was charming, perhaps reminiscent of an American politician munching on a corn dog at a state fair. People ate it.

Likewise, Jenise Spiteri, a snowboarder competing for Malta, has become a Chinese fan favorite, despite finishing 21st in the women’s halfpipe snowboarding competition, after being filmed in the middle of the competition snacking a red bean bun she had pulled from a breakfast buffet. and tucked away in his jacket pocket.

“Embodying the bread-eating snowboarder of the Olympic spirit” read a title in the state-run Shanghai Daily.

The food in the athletes’ villages and venue canteens generally does not inspire rave reviews, no matter when and where the Games are taking place. In Beijing, food prepared by robots was cooked with precision – the broccoli always crispy, the wonton skins always bouncy – but mostly uninteresting. (Some critics were harsher: South Korean athletes opted to eat boxed meals provided by their organizing committee, according to a report from Yonhap News.)

In the past of the Olympics, one could simply venture into the surrounding town for a palate cleanser. Even at the Tokyo Games last summer, visitors in somewhat looser pandemic protocols enjoyed the semi-religious privilege of stepping into the city’s ubiquitous and surprisingly tasty convenience stores.

So it was daunting to be behind those fences in Beijing, one of the great food cities in the world. The game plan for intrepid diners became very clear. Sampling the famous Chinese cuisines, in something resembling their natural state, could only happen at the many hotels inside the Olympic walls.

It has become a hot topic of the Games. People shared notes and gossip. They whispered rumors of regional dishes prepared by skilled cooks, of classic cocktails mixed by humans. A Google document inviting crowdsourced reviews, including photographs and menus, has made its way into journalists’ inboxes.

A satisfying meal materialized from a text message sent to a colleague: there was potentially delicious food from China’s northwest provinces to enjoy at a place called the Tarim Petroleum Hotel.

A group quickly gathered and ventured onto an Olympic bus, finding a tattered dining hall with signs reminding visitors of a recent government initiative to reduce food waste: “We’re serious about the campaign Clean Plate,” we read.

It wasn’t going to be a problem. We crowded around a small table and cleared a parade of plates: lamb chops coated in cumin and pinned to a stainless steel tower like ornaments on a Christmas tree; pieces of translucent fish head torn from a mound of chopped peppers; garlicky, shimmering aubergines, cut into addictive little pieces.

Tasting pleasure could be achieved, it turned out, with an open mind, an enterprising spirit and tempered expectations.

On Valentine’s Day, for example, British speed skater Ellia Smeding joked that she was planning a romantic dinner with her boyfriend, Cornelius Kersten, who also skates for the national team.

“We could go on a KFC date or something,” she said, referring to one of the bubble’s few fast food outlets.

And in the mountains of Zhangjiakou, where some snowboarding events take place, word has spread of a Chinese restaurant tucked away on the fifth floor of a resort. Soon enough hungry Olympians like Shaun White were eating there that a wall of fame was forming by the door, with notes from satisfied customers.

“So good Chinese food,” reads snowboarder Ayumu Hirano of Japan, who won a gold medal at these Games. “Thanks very much!!” (The note disappeared at one point, then reappeared the next day, laminated.)

Most of my days were a blur of random cafeteria food, snacks stuffed into bags for long bus rides. A refuge emerged in the form of a nondescript convention center hotel around the corner from the main press center. From the second week, it was difficult to get a table.

My first time there, the sight of small plumes of steam rising from hot pots sitting on several tables gave me an adrenaline rush – and that was before the Sichuan broth rush. I asked the waitress if I had ordered too much. Yes, she said laughing and she walked away.

We made another quick visit, before entering various late night competitions, for a colleague’s impromptu birthday party. We ordered a whole roast duck, one of Beijing’s quintessential foods, which a cook wearing a mask carved by our table with a huge blade.

I had a pancake, but a Chinese colleague suggested that I first find the purest sliver of fat possible, then dip it into the plate of white sugar in front of me.

It melted softly into my cheek. The robots, thank God, dug deeper into the recesses of my mind.

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