October 10, 2006

Uniting two of my passions, cooking and learning, into a single activity (namely a cooking class) is one of the most wonderful ways I can think of to spend my time.

I’ve been really interested in finding out about what foods were typical of the northern region of China. Being the imperial capital of China for the last 500 years, I thought that there must be a very distinct style and dishes that were typical of the city. This was the home of the dowager empress Cixi, who was infamous for having over 100 dishes prepared every night that were never eaten, simply to satisfy her eyes.

I found a culinary tour of Beijing online, which included a translator and driver. I thought it would be much like the other cooking classes I had taken, where 8-10 people show up, you cook at individual stations while a teacher in the front does the demonstrations.

Upon being picked up by our guide, I discovered that Jonathan and I were the only 2 people in the “class”. We pulled up to the Beijing New East Culinary School, and was met by the manager of the school. We were led on a brief tour of the school, passing through an open courtyard where 40 students were practicing their chopping skills.

I will never forget the unsynchronized thwacking of 40 cleavers on wood blocks.

We took a peek inside one of the teaching classrooms, where at least 50 students each stood by a wok and prep station, cooking up a storm. By this time, we had gathered a crowd of students, mostly young men, openly staring at us and wondering who we were. I began to understand why, as we were ushered into a room where 4 chefs in full European chefs uniform complete with white toques were standing there waiting to receive us. They had set up a table with 2 plates and chopsticks in the middle of the room, and behind us were a few rows of chairs. As we entered the room, the entire back of the room, which is glass, was gathered with curious students. Who were these two?

The master chef Xu Yongli was personally doing the demonstration, with 3 of his sous chefs. Along with that was the manager who accompanied us in, the translator and driver, and another administrator who was videotaping us. All for my cooking class!

A sous chef turned and wrote the names of the dishes that they would be preparing on the blackboard. It was worst Chinese handwriting I’ve ever tried to read, really resembling chicken scratch. I was a little disappointed when I found out it would be Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour pork, and Steamed Fish. I was assured that these were typical Chinese dishes. Oh well…while I was hoping for more regional food, I was sure I would learn things nonetheless. (I’ve since found out that Beijing really lives and dies by its street snacks).

I got a blow by blow tutorial from the master chef, with (barely adequate) translation from our tour guide, who was clearly not a cook. When I said that to her, she enthusiastically said “No, but I like to eat!”.

While I am familiar with the basics of Chinese cooking, I learned a lot on how to prepare and present fish, to increase surface area of meat for frying, and how to use some new condiments. One distinct difference between Cantonse cooking is the use of vinegar. I watched as he stir fried the chicken, double flash fried the pork and steamed the fish. They do have incredible fire, as the stoves are powered by propane tanks in the corner. The wok gets HOT! Not one of those sissy Viking stoves…

As I was intently watching the chef, Jonathan was intently taking pictures. When the chef was finished preparing the meal, he asked if we would like to try to prepare the sweet and sour pork. Jonathan had no interest, so I stepped behind the counter.

This was quite a bit more intimidating than I was expecting. The master chef is watching me, along with his three sous chefs, the guide, the driver, the two managers and Jonathan with his giant lens. There is a row of curious students crowded in the doorway. He hands me his cleaver and I get to work.

It was alot of fun as I learned how to properly hold a cleaver, tenderized and sliced pork, dredged it in a mixture of cornstarch and “custard powder”, got criticized on my prep of the pepper (too big!) and double fried the meat. I watched his technique for putting ketchup into the wok directly, and made a passable sweet and sour sauce.

The chef was very polite, as we sat down to a huge meal containing both his and my sweet and sour pork. He sampled mine and said “Good!” Nice try, but not even close – my pork cubes lacked the crispy exterior of his, due to my cutting them too big, and the sauce was a bit ketchupy, but overall not too bad.

There was definetly a moment there which reminded me of my father. I asked the chef how he knew the oil was ready for frying – expecting him to say something like “I intently watched for the size of the bubbles”, or whatever.

He just chuckled at the translator, and replied “you just know”.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent, now when you come to Boston you can practice for me whenever you like!

    Comment by Seth — October 10, 2006 @ 12:50 pm

  2. At LA too!

    Very well described.

    We specifically picked our range because it outputs 16K BTU for each of its burners. Not one of the those sissy Viking stoves as you say. :) Although, whenever you do settle down, I can recommend some 30K BTU wok stoves for you. Double flash… yum…

    Comment by ken — October 24, 2006 @ 1:56 pm

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