Even before making any firm plans to visit Beijing I had been looking at cookery classes in the Chinese capital. There were several options, however, I kept coming back to one in particular, Hutong Cuisine, I was going to be Wokking Beijing.
They offered classes covering the cuisines of Canton, Sichuan, Beijing, special dumpling classes and more. Stir fried broccoli with garlic, black pepper beef and Chairman Mao’s Red pork……that was it, I was going to Beijing.
Tickets were booked and then life happened. A few hectic days passed, time for my departure drew nearer, and then it dawned on me, I had forgotten to book my cooking classes. Opening the site again, my heart sank, the classes I wanted were full. I hurriedly sent off an e-mail, to which I received an immediate response from Chunyi Zhou, the proprietor and wok-master of Hutong Cuisine. All was well with the world once again. Chunyi very kindly opened up evening classes for me, even though she had no other bookings.
Once in Beijing I needed to go pay for the classes and found myself wandering along the Deng Cao Hutong, looking for number 35. I walked passed it the first time, a very nondescript door indeed, with no evident signage. I was greeted by the ever smiling Xiao Jing, Chunyi’s right hand lady, and the gorgeous Dou Dou, the school’s resident dog and principal meeter and greeter! Deposit paid, off I went in search of lunch, my mind whirring with excitement.
At this point, it is probably best to mention that food plays a very important role in my life. I love it, and eat too much of it, and am definitely better at eating it than cooking it. This does not stop me trying to cook it though, and soon I was to be a master of Chinese cuisine it all it’s culinary glory.
Some of the food they prepare at the Beijing Cooking School
As things turned out, it was fortuitous that my forgetfulness had meant the classes I originally wanted were fully booked, for two reasons. The first reason, was that having evening classes, meant that my days were free to explore Beijing, and evenings spent doing what I loved. The second, was that no one else had signed up for the classes for the first two nights, this meant that I was getting one on one tuition.
Let me wind back a little first, I had also booked the market tour, prior to my first lesson, and highly recommend this to anyone thinking of doing classes. Chunyi’s brother, Chao Zhou, who had recently returned to Beijing from teaching in southern China, took me around the local “central” market. I was for some reason expecting a chaotic, dirty place, and yet found an incredibly well organised, beautifully turned out multi-storied market. Chao lead me round the market picking up ingredients for the evening’s class. He must have been extremely tired of the “what is this?” “what is that over there?” “what do you do with these?” type questions that seem to flow incessantly from my mouth.
In fairness though, there was just so much produce that was so foreign to your average Westerner. This was especially true in the vegetable section. Being used to the usual cabbage, lettuce, carrots etc, this was like a treasure chest of green delights! We get garlic back home. Here we had your common garden garlic, baby garlic, garlic leaves and even garlic leaves that have been grown in virtual darkness, so they grow long, pale and spindly, producing a very mild and subtle garlic flavour. That was just the garlic, let alone every other imaginable vegetable known to man. At least that is how it seemed to me. Then of course there were the spices, the meats, poultry, fish etc etc. I would have been a happy boy just spending the entire evening exploring the market, but more important issues needed to be dealt with!
Back at the cooking school, Chao took me through a few of the basic staples of Chinese cuisine. Patiently explaining the difference between light and dark soy sauce and when it was appropriate to use them, the different vinegars, rice wines and even what to look for on food labels once I was back home.
Chao Zhou teaching at the Beijing Cooking School
From here, Chunyi took over, out came the chopping boards, cleavers and woks! The first night was fiery Sichuan food, famed for the numbing heat of the Sichuan pepper corn (though not actually a member of the pepper family). Chunyi had printed step by step instructions, and would prepare the food in stages. After each stage it was my turn to, attempt to, copy what she had done. Every step had a reason, from the angle of your slice, to the quick blanching of the meat or ensuring just the right heat for the oil in the wok for any given task. Even the way you use the Sichuan pepper changes depending on what you want from it, from just frying it in oil to flavour the oil, to grinding it finely or chopping coarsely for some real kick!
They say time flies when you are having fun, and indeed it did. All too soon the class was over. However, this was not a bad thing, because it meant we now got to sit down and enjoy our labour of loves! A steaming bowl of rice was placed on the table to accompany our gongbao chicken, duck braised in beer, green beans fried with chilis and Sichuan pepper and the icon Sichuan classic, mapo doufu.
Wokking Beijing – getting hands on at the Beijing Cooking School
With a full tummy it was time for Dou Dou to see me out, onto my bicycle and head off into the cool April evening air for the 20 minute cycle back to my hotel. At least I still had two more nights ahead to enjoy. Cantonese and Beijing cuisines lay ahead, and who wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of black pepper beef, braised pork rib with soy sauce, stir fried cabbage with dark vinegar and chilli and sugar and the finger licking Chairman Mao’s Red pork, all rounded off with some caramel coated sweet potatoes!
After 3 wonderful evenings spent with Chunyi, Chao, Xiao and Dou Dou it was time to leave Beijing, recipes safely tucked away, amazing tastes still lingering, and a quick check on their website to see which classes I will take next time!
Since my visit, the name of the school has changed, from Hutong Cuisine to Beijing Cooking School ( www.beijingcookingschool.com ), but never fear, the same team are in the same location, ready to introduce you to the wonders of Chinese cuisine!