Monday, August 9, 2010

Beijing Cooking

Friends of mine had a beautiful wedding in Beijing this July, and about 30 people from Norway were present to witness it. It was a traditional Chinese wedding and was utterly fantastic. I mean, there were dancing dragons and bow & arrows involved, what's not to love?

I was in China and Tibet for about three weeks and this post and possibly the next one or two will be about that trip.


So I'm standing on the street across from my hotel. I have been for 20 minutes. I'm frantically trying to wave down anything resembling a taxi, but it's rush hour, and there just aren't enough taxis to go around, what with the like 20 million people who live in the city.

Finally one pulls over. I show the driver the slip with Chinese letters on it I have with me. No, no, he shakes his head vigorously, waving his hand. "But it's just down there," I say in English, as if that will help, pointing down the street. No, no, he shakes his head again, and I climb out of the taxi and shut the door behind me.

I sigh.

And then I start walking through the streets of Beijing in the direction I have just pointed. I'm going to be late for my cooking class.

Chinese food has always been a mystery to me, plus I can't think of anything other than cooking I'd rather spend a day doing and being in Bejing made no exception to that. I did a little research before my trip and found out that a woman named Chunyi Zhou runs a fabulous cooking class out of the courtyard of the hutong she lives in. So I signed up.

Hutongs ARE Beijing. They are a kind of neighborhood of courtyards made up of small one story houses connected by small alleys. You can immediately sense Community once you step off of the main roads and into them. People use the space connecting them: they cook on the street, play Mah Jong or Chinese Chess long into the night, hold one another's babies, are basically just present in their neighbors' lives. (Sadly, many hutongs have been and are being destroyed to make way for skyscrapers that can house so many more people than the traditional one-story houses)

So, I'm walking as fast as I possibly can through the steamy streets of Beijing. It's hot, even though it's only 8:45. I'm sweaty and parched. The distances are longer than they look on the map, but eventually I arrive at the meeting point, only 15 minutes late. Except, no Chunyi, no other cooking class people in sight. They've already left for the market, and I have no clue where that is. Blarg! I was so looking forward to this. What now? Do I just go back to the hotel? I stop a few girls my age on the street and ask if they speak English, but they just smile and keep walking. I look at my slip of paper and and realize from the map that Chunyi's house is close, so I step off the main road and into the hutong. Only it's like a maze of courtyards and the group's not there right now anyway, they're at the market.

I remember how thirsty I am (how could I forget?), so I go to a little hole in the wall shop nearby and get a bottle of water. They must have a phone, I think, but what's the word for phone in Chinese? I put my hand to my ear, my thumb and pinky forming a makeshift receiver. At least I speak International Tourist.

Chunyi is happy to hear from me. She was wondering what had happened to me. A friend of her's comes to pick me up and takes me to the market, where I join the group.

The market is a large indoor place, with different stands and sections for different types of food. Chunyi is just explaining the difference between firm and soft tofu when I arrive. And next she shows us spices (Ah, so THAT's what sichuan pepper looks like!). Then different types of noodles, pasta, vegetables (oh, lotus root looks like THAT when it's whole), fruits (turns out a something I thought was a cucumber was a melon)... This is what's great about this market tour: I've been in Chinese markets before in NYC and Boston, but there's always been so much I didn't have a clue what WAS, let alone what to do with. The 6 other people in the group obviously feel the same way, because we're all asking: what's that, what do you do with it? Many questions answered and mysteries solved. Chunyi buys a little of this and a little of that, things we'll need for the day's cooking.

We all head back to the hutong (where I've been already!) for a short class on Chinese seasoning, meaning soy sauce, vinegar, and rice wine, and the importance of getting high grade types. Turns out light soy sauce has more flavor and dark soy sauce, which is heavier, is used more for coloring than the flavor.

And then we cook. And it's awesome. It's vegetarian day, which doesn't mean much in China, since meat is used to season pretty much everything, just a spoonful of pork or beef to give that extra flavor. There are a few bona-fide vegetarians here, though, and it almost breaks Chunyi's heart to let them omit the meat in their dishes. "It's not going to taste like anything," she says.

First we slice up things we'll need, like spring onion, garlic, chili, tofu, then we all stand in the heat of Chunyi's simple kitchen while she demonstrates. We take turns cooking up dry stir fried green beans, jia chang tofu (chili), and five spice tofu in big woks. The rest of us sit out in the courtyard and chat while the others are working, waiting to sample things as they come to the table. All the food is fantastic, so much flavor in every bite, and every dish is totally something we could make at home now that we know what the ingredients are.

We all sit around and talk, and it turns out there are some really interesting people here: an antiques dealer from Hawaii who sells Chinese antiques to the new rich in China (there are so many fakes in China, they'd rather use foreigners who acquire their merchandise abroad), a professor at an American college who did field work with a minority group that were forced to lease their land to the Chinese government in the south of China (now there's a tourism park there that has very little to do with the original culture), a mother-daughter team, the daughter studying food nutrition in Australia, a woman working on her Phd in Beijing.

I love the eating culture in China. You get a bowl of rice, and then you sort of pick at the food with your chopsticks and eat until you don't feel like eating anymore. And everyone shares. It's such a communal thing, which eating should be.

Finally, Chunyi shows us two more dishes, a stirfry with celery and lily bulb and this amazing hot-sour soup. (see recipe below) What a fantastic, amazing day! And to think I almost missed it.

If you're ever in Beijing, spend a day doing this!


Chunyi's Hot Sour Soup

200g soft tofu
5 dl water
50g minced pork
a handful dried mushrooms
1 egg
1 Ts vegetable oil
ginger, chopped
spring onion, chopped, green and white pieces separated
2/3 ts white pepper powder
3 ts black vinegar
2 ts light soy sauce
2/3 ts salt
2 ts rice wine
1 ts sesame oil
1.5 Ts corn starch
2 Ts water

Soak mushrooms in water until soft, at least a few hours. Use the kind of mushrooms that are black and super-thin. Cut them in strips. Combine vinegar, sesame oil, white pepper powder, and the green parts of the spring onion in a big bowl. The soup will be served in this bowl later. Heat vegetable oil in a wok to medium heat. Add ginger and white parts of the spring onion. Stir for a bit, then add minced pork. Stir until cooked through. Add wine, then water. Stir. Add tofu and mushrooms and bring to a boil. Mix corn starch with the 2 Ts of water. Beat the egg. Add salt, soy sauce, thickening, and egg. Stir. Turn off heat and add everything to the bowl with the vinegar-spring onion mixture. Serve.

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