CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With an expanding clientele of Chinese business executives, my husband needed to expand his Chinese language skills. Marc signed up for three weeks at Capital Mandarin School in Beijing, which also offered Chinese language and culture day camp for our children, 13-year-old Jeremiah and 10-year-old Caroline. Our daughter was adopted in Shanghai in 2002, so having our kids learn about Caroline's birth country was an appealing idea.
Studying Mandarin is not on my personal bucket list, but becoming more proficient in Asian cooking is. Luckily, there is a special learning center in Beijing catering to the expatriate community -- The Hutong. With all sorts of interesting classes, workshops and lectures on a variety of topics, The Hutong had me spending many days immersed in Chinese cuisine.
I mastered the Beijing subway to get to the school, which is located in -- surprise, surprise -- a hutong neighborhood much closer to the city center. A hutong is a warren of traditional courtyard homes all connected by narrow stone alleyways. (View the fantastic film, "Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger" to see a good example of a family hutong.)
Hutongs are a very important aspect of Beijing culture, with each having its own legends and stories of the every day people who make up these ancient communities. To this day they are vibrant residential neighborhoods that are the heart of old Beijing. Making my way through the maze of old stone homes, I could sense the benefits available to those living in such a close neighborhood in the middle of a giant metropolis.
In each class, I learned at least three recipes (there's one at the end of this article) as well as some very cool chopping and cutting techniques (think carrot daisies).
To market, to market, to buy a fat ... frog?
Food shopping in a foreign country is a fun challenge. Trying to make sense of labels that aren't in English, searching out familiar corporate logos on packages, or trying to decide if the skinned meat in front of you is frog or chicken.
Early during our Beijing stay, I toured a neighborhood wet market with chef Pei from the school. It's called a "wet" market because of the large amount of water used to keep the fruits, vegetables and floor clean and to keep fish and seafood alive. It was an interesting and educational place to visit, and, yes, it was wet -- not a place to rest your shopping bag or fall down.
In a permanent building less than half the size of Charleston's Capitol Market, thousands upon thousands of fresh food items were for sale. Along our way, Pei pointed out a fruits, vegetables and seasonings I had never seen before and animal body parts I had never considered consumable. And nearly all the produce I'm used to seeing at Kroger was there too -- but in so many more varieties.
Every Chinese locality, from giant metropolis to tiny village, has a wet market. Although cities also have modern grocery stores (complete with produce packed in cellophane and sprayed with preservatives, as we like it in the West), Chinese shoppers are more apt to choose food fresh from the farm whenever possible. In fact, before the SARS outbreak in 2003, it was common to see live mammals and birds waiting to be selected and slaughtered in these markets. Talk about fresh!
From farm to table
One weekend, we traveled northeast by air to Lianing province and drove through the countryside to visit some of Marc's Chinese clients in the city of Anshan. Lianing province is one of China's "bread baskets," and during our drive we were surrounded by one green rolling field after another of corn, sugarcane and soybeans. Despite it being the weekend, folks were out in full force working by the land entirely by hand. During the drive we never saw one farm machine. Although I didn't see any water buffalo, I did see some mule-pulled carts. Dusty little towns sprang up here and there, along with farm stands selling fruits and veggies.
With Chinese cooking being the focus of my Beijing stay, I thought a lot about the available food and its origin. Feeding its own people has been an issue for China throughout the ages. Indeed, only 15 percent of China's total land area can be cultivated. It's a delicate thing to make sure the farming of that 15 percent is done well because the stakes -- the well-being of a huge population -- are so high.
Recent history has shown that upsetting the balance has disastrous consequences. Chairman Mao Zedong's so-called Great Leap Forward campaign of the late 1950s and '60s took farms away from landowners and tenant farmers and forced rural families into collectives, where they had to work and eat together. Mao also called for a nationwide hunt on sparrows, as he thought these little birds were eating too much wheat.
These two campaigns created disaster -- farming inefficiencies in the case of the former and, in the later, the near extinction of sparrows from this part of Asia, causing an imbalance in the natural ecosystem and the proliferation of crop-eating insects. Mass starvation followed; estimates of the human death toll range from 14 million to 43 million.
The communes have long been dismantled, though each farmer still belongs to a collective unit and must provide a quota of specific crops each year in exchange for tools, draft animals, seeds, etc. After meeting the quota, though, a farming family can grow and sell any crops they wish on land they lease.
I was intrigued by the large amount of organic produce available here. I learned that the Chinese government actually pushes organic farming for food safety and health benefits, as well as for profit to be made by exporting in-demand organic food.
I learned about the number of small farms inside city limits, including Beijing. This giant capital city is not exactly in an ideal spot for food production, as it is near the edge of the vast Gobi Desert, which makes up much of the interior of China. No vast fields or ranches here. However, smaller farms within greater Beijing actually provide up to 70 percent of the city's vegetables and milk. The many farms in suburban Beijing ensure that I always found incredibly fresh produce in every market. Can you imagine the same to be true for any American city outside the Sun Belt?
Wielding wok and cleaver
I thoroughly enjoyed my cooking classes at The Hutong. The one-hour each way subway commute, journeying through the hutong alleys to school, and the camaraderie found among my classmates has given my stay in China a unique, fulfilling focus. And of course there's the knowledge I gained of Chinese food preparation and cooking that went a long way to broadening my repertoire of dishes back in my Quarrier Street kitchen:
Naturally, each chef at The Hutong taught different styles and recipes, but all accentuated the importance of ingredients. And, the importance of certain ingredients that transcend all regions of China is hammered home, specifically the trio of ginger, spring onions (leeks) and garlic, as well as sesame oil, pepper, peppers, soy sauce (light and dark), vinegar and rice cooking wine.
The chefs often brought culture into class. For example, we learned from Pei that past shortages of food products led home cooks to strive to get every single speck of flour into their dough -- leaving no flour on the sides of bowl or on the kneading board. Currently, the cost of clean water is driving people to use every speck of dough so that less water will be needed for dishwashing.