Ben Lerwill heads to Beijing’s hutongs to learn the art of family-style Chinese cooking
Defying the smog-blurred headlines of recent times, it’s a sharp, chilly winter’s day in Beijing when I meet Carlyle Ma outside a Buddhist temple. I’ve been instructed to arrive hungry. Bright December sunshine is washing down on flared-roof pagodas, and in the shade there’s a crunch of ice underfoot. It’s 11.30am, and outside the temple the pavements are busy with grocery shoppers. By the roadside, two men in heavy anoraks are playing Chinese checkers on an upturned crate. They look cold.
Carlyle and I set about working up an appetite. He is taking me first to a local market, after which we’ll be heading to a kitchen to prepare and cook a three-course meal. I tell him my only previous experience of trying to cook authentic Chinese food resulted in abject failure. “No problem,” he laughs. “Different today.” He’s 28 years old and runs the small Beijinger Kitchen cookery school, set in a neighborhood a little way north of the city centre. He tells me that he used to have a government job before opening up the school. His father had tried hard to persuade him to stay in stable employment. “But I like it very much,” he says.
It’s true that, where Chinese food is concerned, there’s plenty to like. The national cuisine is famously divided into eight main regional styles — ranging from herb-heavy Anhui to hot and spicy Hunan — and Beijing’s status as capital city means that it draws influence from all eight to some degree. Adopted ‘American Chinese’ specialties like General Tso’s chicken and chop suey, meanwhile, are generally nowhere to be seen.
The market we visit is an indoor bazaar stocked with a bewildering array of oils, pastes, powders and spices. I learn that even simple-sounding dishes contain a hefty list of ingredients. It’s with a certain relief, then, that when we’ve wandered through a network of nearby hutongs (neighborhood alleys) to reach the kitchen itself, I find that Carlyle’s colleague Chef Guo — a smiling man of few words and many knives — has most of these ingredients already laid out.
We work on three dishes: Chinese pork dumplings, wok-fired chicken with peanut, leek and chilli, and a relatively straightforward Cantonese-style kale. The dumplings are labor-intensive but a lot of fun (“the dough should be the consistency of your earlobe,” advises Carlyle) and I’m taught the deceptively tricky procedure of folding the dumplings to seal in the prepared mixture. Ours contain minced meat, shredded vegetables and a myriad of different flours and wines. The dumplings boil for no more than 3 minutes, and then we tuck in. They taste astonishingly good, revealing an army of complementary flavors.
The half-moon shape of the dumplings is intended to resemble a gold ingot, the currency used in ancient China. This auspicious shape means they’ve been eaten in vast quantities over the Spring Festival period for more than 500 years. The chicken dish we make is rich in heritage too, taking its formal name (Kong Bao) from that of the Qing dynasty official who first developed it. As we cook and toss the various components that give the chicken its fragrancy and heat, it’s explained to me that the very same dish would have been served regularly in the Forbidden City. And while it might be trite to say the end result tastes fit for royalty, I can’t imagine it disgruntled too many emperors.
The advice I received to arrive hungry was well judged. When the kale is done too, we descend on the dishes in a blur of chopsticks, knocking back ceramic cups of potent sorghum wine. Outside, the winter temperature is plummeting further as mid-afternoon arrives, but in here we’re being warmed through by chilli and alcohol. There’s a saying that the Chinese conquered the world through their food. That’s some claim, but right at this moment I’m going with it.
Classes at Beijinger Kitchen can be arranged through Audley Travel.