I LOVE cooking and I am especially curious about the authentic dishes and flavours that one can discover in cuisines around the world.
My husband knew that very well. So his idea for my birthday was to take me out for dinner during our visit to Beijing.
It involved eating an authentic Chinese meal, with ingredients I had bought and cooked under the guidance of a Chinese chef. And it all started with one of my favourite activities: shopping!
Chao Zhou, the younger brother of the chef and owner Chunyi Zhou, met us at the entrance to the market of the Li Shi hutong (traditional Pekinese district).
He was holding on to his bicycle and a purple plastic groceries basket. Chao introduced himself and invited us to follow him into the market. I was very excited to hear that I would have my personal guided tour unbothered by another participant; well my husband was with me but he made sure I had the time and space to ask every single question I had exactly what a proper husband should do.
The market was covered; spread over two stories, and buzzing.
It had everything one would need to make a dish from vegetables to meats to breads. As we hit the first stand, Chao immediately started explaining the difference between the cabbages that were on sale. “This one we use for soup but it is too strong to use in a dish. Instead we use a cabbage with a softer flavour, like this one…” he would say.
I was ecstatic. This is what I have been dreaming of doing since I started watching TV programmes of famous chefs.
Chao moved from stand to stand buying the different ingredients. He would ask if I knew the ingredients at display. We exchanged information on how some ingredients are cooked in my country and he would tell me in which dishes they are used in China. He let us smell the different chillies and explained in which dishes they could be used so that they do not overpower the taste.
He shared tips on the use of some herbs for traditional Chinese medicines and gave us pointers on how to identify different sorts of eggs on the basis of their colour and shape. He showed us a chicken with a black skin, which amused us incredibly.
But when you are having fun time flies.
Our market tour came to an end but I have heard so much about the dishes that we were about to cook that I was excited to move on.
As we walked through the Deng Cao hutong where the house and kitchen of Chef Chunyi Zhou was, her younger brother was explaining their choice to live in the hutong. “It is more interesting than the new areas” he told us. “It has something special about it”. He also told us that his family came from Southern China and we exchanged some views on Hong Kong where we had spent few days before arriving to Beijing.
He also shared with us the story of their business. His sister had started the cooking school after working in the cooking industry in South East Asia. When she returned home, she spent time learning how to cook authentic regional dishes, in the different Chinese regions, and she opened the cooking school in order to share her passion for Chinese cuisine with whoever is interested to learn.
She is now training her brother, a 20-something Chao, who has been helping her for a couple of years already. He is now qualified to give classes himself – although the big sister was always around to check up on how well he was doing and to ensure that he was providing high-quality teaching to the students.
Chao opened the door to an old courtyard house and guided us into the kitchen. There were two kitchens in the house now. Chunyi explained how they started with one kitchen but due to increased demand for their classes they built a second kitchen to cater for two classes simultaneously. Business was going well. Besides expats, foreign companies were now bringing their staff for a night of team building through cooking.
Chunyi introduced us to the basics of Chinese cooking, its ingredients and materials. With guiding notes, which she printed for us to take home, she explained the difference between thick and thin soya sauces and when to use each one of them. She also taught us how to pick good quality soya sauce from the bad one. “You know it from the level of the acidity” she said. “The level of amino acid nitrogen should be superior to 0.7”.
We started preparing our dishes after another participant had joined.
It had to start with the iconic Beijing dish: Peking duck.
It was incredibly simple for such a mystical dish.
Chao then took us through the steps of cooking the other three dishes that we had; steamed shrimps with garlic, sautéed lettuce with Soya sauce and Sichuan chicken salad. One by one we sautéed or fried our ingredients, tried to make sure those sesame seeds did not burn, threw in the soya sauce at the right time and tried to keep up the fast pace that is required when cooking Asian food. Throughout we were very closely guided as we gained more knowledge on the dos and don’ts of Chinese cooking.
By the end of the evening we had made four dishes from Northern China, the Sichuan region and the Canton province in southern China. It was a true feast and a great way to gather an idea about some of the cooking styles of China.
That was certainly one of the most memorable evenings I have had in my trips.
For more information on Hutong Cuisine school and for appointments, visit their website on:
And from me, Màn man ch? (bon appétit)!
Travel tip shared by fatentravels