It was a cold and cloudy Beijing morning and I was explaining to the hostel staff why I was looking nervous about my next food job. Another week, another kitchen, this week should not have differed from my experiences so far. Except it did. This kitchen encompassed everything people had warned me against: language problems, dangerous conditions, inexperience… But now, with 36 weeks completed, I was ready to live on the edge, I am in China after all. However, little did I know that by the end of the week I would have committed murder, taken local narcotics and had a run in with a political figurehead. Not what I had anticipated for job 37…
Although China has eight great regional culinary traditions, to me growing up Chinese food meant one thing – sweet and sour. It was both my most guilty pleasure and greatest culinary weakness. Sit me at one of the finest Chinese restaurants in the UK and tempt me with many delicious dishes but the S&S junkie in me will always want a quick fix to feed my addiction. In a last ditched bid for rehabilitation, I made a stand. My time in China would be dedicated to exploring as much food outside of Cantonese style as possible. I was therefore delighted to land a week at Karaiya Spice House, a Beijing restaurant specializing in regional Hunan cuisine.
If you ever step inside a Hunan kitchen and you will immediately notice the cuisine’s main ingredient – chili pepper. Within moments of arriving at work I was coughing, spluttering and weeping from the intense aromas of spice. If you ever cook Hunan food don’t touch anywhere on your body. Hours after the end of the shift I could still feel the sting of chili in my eye from when I rubbed it mid service.
In addition to chili, Hunan food uses a lot of other big flavours such as garlic, shallots, smoked meats, rich sauces and plenty of oil. Owner Alan Wong, told me traditionally this was to cover the flavour of poor quality ingredients, but looking over Karaiya’s selection of fresh fish, meat marbled with fat and tender veg clearly this was not the case here.
On my second morning at the restaurant, I experienced a rather unique example of Karaiya’s fresh produce when I was given a moving bag, a meat clever and some scissors. Inside was an army of bull frogs. I was given my instructions. Hack off the head, snip down the chest, scrub away the innards, peel off the skin and chop into bite sized pieces. My first attempt did not go well. After my first beheading the bull frog took one last to hop towards me miraculously springing up the sleeve of my chef whites. I can assure you nothing endears you more to new colleagues than jumping into their arms like Scooby Do because you were frightened by a daily kitchen task
A few hours later I enjoyed my revenge as I tucked into a portion of bullfrog with towel gourd. Karaiya serve a lot of stir fried frog, but steaming truly preserves the soft flaky texture of meat in all its glory. And the eating didn’t stop there. In a kitchen where no one speaks English the only way of communicating is by sight and taste. Every minute or so a chef would portion off a spoon of their dish to try. Lotus leaf broiled duck soup, chilled cucumber tossed with fern root jelly, fried eggplant in chili sauce and whole mandarin fish decorated with a thick layer of fresh chili simmering in special Camellia oil collected from Hunan trees.
When it came to cooking I was grossly under qualified for this job and arrogant enough to have believed I would be able to pick up Eastern cooking methods in such a short space of time. The woks were heavy, the utensils large and the heat intense which made stir frying difficult to master. I had to flip the pan with my left, control the heat with my knees and try not injury anyone with a ladle of hot oil in my right. It was seriously dangerous. When service is in full flow it looks like the wok chefs are performing a finely choreographed dance troupe… albeit one with a useless Foodish Boy at the back moving out of time and back to front.
If mastering the wok didn’t prove difficult enough, one fateful evening after a few chillied gizzards, the staff handed me a pack of dark brown dried pods. I was instructed to chew on a pod for as long as possible. It was foul. A thick, smoky, bitter liquid began to form in my saliva – by far one of the most unpleasant things I’ve eaten during my world trip. But the staff insisted I chewed it longer. I later discovered why. A few minutes into dinner service I started to feel pretty high. Though the staff found it very amusing I can assure you there is nothing funny about trying to wok fry on that stuff!
By the end of the week despite the huge language barrier I started to feel part of the team. It’s very bizarre forming relationships with people without speaking to one another. I can’t profess to have had a rough deal, but in speaking no Chinese I at least had an experience authentic to the culinary world in which many kitchens are propped up by a hard working immigrant work force that face similar challenges. By the last night the chefs and I had grown close. As I had been calling them by their ‘English’ names all week, I asked them as a parting gift to christen me with a Chinese name. The chef wrote down on a ticket several Chinese characters and we bid one another farewell. Feeling triumphant over my first Chinese kitchen experience I returned to my hostel to tell the staff about my final night. Handing over my new name, there were immediate giggles. “This is the Chinese spelling for… David Cameron.” Perhaps my attempts to embrace Chinese culture failed after all? Quick, someone fetch me some sweet and sour.
A huge thanks to Kristen from the excellent blog Lum Dim Sum for making this job possible. Kristen runs a kick-ass food tour as part of Bespoke Beijing. The tour will have you sampling the city’s tastiest snacks and visiting one of its biggest open air markets – an exciting romp through a part of Beijing most tourists never see. For more info please see Bespoke Beijing.