Monday, July 6, 2009

Cookin' up a storm.


T
he past three days I’ve been on my own to explore Beijing. While there are times that I miss being with my tour mates, I must say it is nice to just be able to do what I want and when I want.

Months ago, when I was planning this trip, I decided that I would probably be tired of sightseeing once the tour was over so I deliberately some non-sightseeing activities for myself. To start with, I signed up for hutong cooking class, a trip to see a Chinese doctor and of course, there was ample time for shopping :-)

Today was my cooking class and despite all my years of cooking and eating Chinese food, I must say that I walked away with some new cooking techniques and an deeper appreciation of Chinese cuisine. I had a really fun time!








A few days before the class, I received an email with instructions to meet my instructor at the corner of Nan Luo Gu Xiang and Sha Jing hutongs. Sure….no problem. There are only 6500 hutongs in Beijing! I’m thinking a taxi is the way to go. Luckily, I was able to print out the information that I needed and handed to the taxi driver. A short drive later through rush hour traffic and I was at the intersection of the two hutongs…..tucked into a pretty little neighborhood just off one of the main streets of Beijing. While I waited for the instructor to show up, I strolled up and down the streets just to get a look at what life is like in the hutongs. Soon enough, three other non-Chinese people showed on the same intersection so I was suspecting they were also in the class and sure enough, they were! There was a mother and son originally from Canada but now living in Dubai and a gentleman from Finland. I can’t remember any of their names but they were really nice.

Our instructor, Zhou Chun Yi, showed up a few minutes later and we immediately headed off to a nearby neighborhood market to buy the ingredients that we would need for our cooking class. On the way to the market, we passed by a teeny storefront window. Behind stood a man making what looked like crepes except these were savory and intended for breakfast. First the batter goes on the griddle and is thinly spread out.

Then an egg is cracked on top and shmeared.

Next a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

The crepe gets flipped over and layer of some sort of paste is spread on.

Cut green onions are tossed on....

Then the whole thing is folded up and put into a plastic bag.

I took a bite and wow, what a tasty bite. Fast breakfast food, Chinese style!


When we arrived at the market, I was a bit surprised. I was expecting to see an open air market like the ones you would commonly see in this part of the world but instead, it was a covered market. Almost like a supermarket but with small vendor stalls each selling different products.

We started with the meat vendor when Chun Yi bought a small slab of very lean looking beef and some pork ribs. I was already imagining what we would be making! While she was haggling with the vendor, I was checking out the items in the freezer. Hmmm…..first thing I noticed was a small bag labeled “Frozen Separated Chicken”. On closer look, I realized it was a bag of chicken heads. I was hoping those weren’t going to be on our lunch menu!
















We got to the soymilk/tofu vendor and I bought a plastic cup of freshly made, warm soymilk to wash down my breakfast crepe with. It was then on to the noodle vendor before heading down the fruit and vegetable aisles.

What an amazing variety of produce. Some veggies I recognized, others I had eaten on my trip but had never seen them in the raw and others I had neither tasted nor seen before. It’s no wonder Chinese love their veggies – there’s something for every palate. Same thing was true for the fruits. This time of year is melon season and I have never seen such a variety of melons in my entire life – including that I thought was a pear because of its shape.

Chun Yi bought some veggies for our lunch and then it was a quick stroll past through the spices and dried foods section of the market.

Back out on the street, it was a short walk back through to the hutongs to Chun Yi’s house. Such a cute place it was. The covered kitchen was just off the small entryway which was open to the sky but was shaded by a large tree. A small, friendly dog greeted us…..Dodol was his name. Such a cute little thing he was.




























      

Laid out on the table were four, identically laid up prep setups – cleaver, plate, apron and recipes. We donned our aprons and took a spot at the table. The lesson for the day would revolve around 2 meat recipes and one veggie recipe. We would each recipe with a slight variation so we could taste the different that a slight change in ingredient or amount of ingredient would make.










The first recipes we prepared ingredients for were two variations of beef with peppers – one was with black pepper as the seasoning and the other was with red bell peppers. Since there were four of us, Chun Yi had two of us work on one recipe and two on the other. I prepped for beef with black pepper because I am a black pepper fiend!



We sliced our meat and prepared the marinade. While the meat was marinating, we mixed up the ingredients for our sauces and Chun Yi explained and demonstrated each step of the recipe. Key was making sure we had our ingredients sliced up all about the same size and dimension and we followed the proportions for the sauces.

After the beef, we prepped the recipe for steamed pork ribs with fermented soybeans....a classic Chinese dim sum recipe. With the ribs, the only variation we did was to add some fresh chilies to give the dish some *kick*. I was really keen on doing this dish! Same type of prep as for the beef but with different ingredients.

Once we had everything prepped, we headed over to the woks to cook our beef dishes. The flames that came out of the stove was incredibly hot and the cold iron wok was scorching hot in just a few minutes. First a bit of oil went down to coat the wok. Then the garlic was tossed in and was soon followed by the meat which sat for a few seconds before being stirfried. Once the meat was cooked, it was ladled out and the veggies tossed into to cook. Once the veggies were done, the meat was added back and the sauce was poured around, not on top, of the meat. As soon as the sauce thickened, the dish was ready. In all, it took maybe a couple of minutes to cook the entire dish.

 
Each of us then took turns at the wok. Although I was standing in front of the wok for only a few minutes, the heat coming from the flames was so intense that I was starting to sweat just as I finished cooking my beef. We sat down at a small table in the entryway to enjoy the fruits of our labor with small bowls of plain white rice and cups of green tea. Of course, everything was very tasty. :-) As we ate, the plates of ribs we had prepared went into the steamer. The ribs would only take a few minutes to steam.    Dodol entertained us while we waited.     When the ribs came out of the steamer, we forgot all about Dodol....there were ribs calling me. Of the two recipes, I must say, I liked the one with the chilies better. Spicy rib girl....that’s what I am! We sucked the rib bones clean and then they were tossed into a bowl for Dodol whom I am sure would thoroughly enjoy them later. hun Yi demonstrated the last dish to us – a vegetable dish consisting of Chinese celery and water lily bulbs. Ordinarily, I’m not a celery lover but Chinese celery has a more subtle flavor to it and it’s far less stringy….the stalks are much thinner and smaller than the western celery that I’m used to seeing in the supermarkets at home. As for water lily bulbs, I had never eaten one….seen them raw before but never knew how to prep them. Turns out they have layers like an onion and prep is to separate the layers. The flesh of the bulb has the taste and texture of a soft water chestnut. The blandness of the water chestnut was the perfect foil to balance out the anise flavor of the celery. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the dish.   After we finished eating, we all hung around for a few minutes to chat and relax. It was a nice way to end our cooking lesson. By now it was early afternoon and I kept thinking I should start to make my way back to the hotel but it was so nice sitting, in the entryway of Chun Yi’s house, under the shade of a tree. She was also enjoying the company and didn’t give any indication that we had to leave anytime soon. Eventually, I did get up to leave and the other three followed me. Chun Yi walked us back to the hutong intersection that she had greeted us at that morning. From there, I made my way back out to the main street and after quite a few tries, managed to hail a taxi to take me back to the hotel. Back in my room, I realized how happily stuffed I was from the huge lunch that I had eaten and just how much fun I had had cooking and eating it! I will definitely be adding cooking classes to my future travel itineraries. If you are interested, Chun Yi has her own website that you can contact her with your inquiries.

It had been a long day and I was tired. A quick shower and straight to bed. Tomorrow would be another busy sightseeing day.