When I told my friend Rob that I was coming to Beijing straight from cooking lessons in Sichuan, he immediately suggested a dinner and of course immediately I agreed. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be the *first* night– but that’s when people were free, so we rallied Sunday morning to figure out a menu and buy ingredients. I sleepily browsed through Rob’s substantial cookbook collection while he researched wet markets online. Reviewing the available culinary implements in Rob’s kitchen, we found them to be lacking and added tools to the list. Finally we decided to do this the same way I usually do things: buy a bunch of ingredients and beer, and figure it out along the way.
We grabbed a taxi and headed to Beijing’s Dongjiao Market, a legendary culinary destination rumored to have everything an aspiring chef might need. Man, it was cold. I was wearing everything warm I had– long underwear shirt, turtleneck, sweater, jacket– but I still felt chilled. I switched shoes, but these too quickly became soaked as we jumped between puddles and dodged traffic. It was quite a change from sunny Chengdu.
Dongjiao lived up to the legend, at least for us. Rows and rows of meat vendors stretched into the distance, all selling their obviously fresh wares for no-bullshit prices. We were immediately drawn to the tanks of mao xie (hairy crabs), and an entrepreneurial fishmonger enthusiastically promoted their virtues to us. “Look, they have lots of tasty crab sperm!” he showed us, lifting the tailbone to expose a juicy reproductive organ-packed underside. Mmmmm, crab sperm! Since my mao xie recipe in Shanghai, the season had turned and it was now considered the optimal time to eat the males rather than the females. How could we argue with that?
We bundled up four aggravated crabs, a guiyu (fish), some chicken and pork, and then made our way for the spices. Oh, the spices! I know huajiao, qingjiao, baijiao, huojiao and heijiao, but there were still piles of intriguing spices that I couldn’t name and had never cooked with. Rather than figure each one out, we bought a spice combo pack along with some white pepper, dried hot chillies, star anise, sichuan peppercorns, and these wonderful little red peppers that look like scary red habaneros but actually aren’t spicy. At the veggie aisle, it was cabbage, leeks, green onions, bell peppers, the mystery green vegetable, ginger, garlic, and lotus root. Then, finally, the sauces and condiment vendors: cooking oil, cooking wine, minced chili paste, sesame oil, chicken stock, and vinegar. Rob got a couple pounds of purple passion fruit. We had four bags full of food and, at that point, four confirmed guests.
Giddy with excitement, we moved on to the kitchen supply stores. Stainless steel glistened everywhere. Obviously we needed a good wok; next came a long cooking ladle, a large bowl for oil, a strainer, and a metal spatula. We eyed the solid wood Chinese cutting boards stacked in a corner– each literally a cylindrical cross section of a tree, waxed to prevent moisture from seeping in. How much would one of those cost?, we wondered. Oh, for that I’ll give you a good deal, assured the shopkeeper– and for once, it was. (50Y: about $9.) Rob dragged our grocery bags out the door while I hefted a forty pound tree slab, my knuckles white from the cold and the strain.
But we still needed a good knife– and that might be a problem, said Rob. Apparently, the Chinese Communist Party had outlawed the sale of kitchen knives that week in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. That… along with balloons, ping pong balls, street food, the internet, and anything else that someone might somehow use to ruin the Party’s perfect, perfect day. It reminded me a little of a “Bridezilla” on the day before her wedding: This is going to be the happiest – fucking – day – of – my – life, and nobody is going to fuck it up! But no problem, I assured Rob: this is China. Everything’s negotiable. But at the first two places we asked, the shopkeepers shook their heads and looked away, almost as if the question itself was subversive. “Shi Ba Da!” they whispered: the Party Congress!
Then we found a third place– and from the hesitation on the guy’s face, I knew we had scored. With all the conspiratorial tone of a backstreet drug deal, he leaned in and asked “What do you want?” A kitchen knife, I whispered, a good one. He nodded. With his partner keeping watch, he carried a ladder over to a shelf and accessed a box perched high above and sealed with tape. His first offering was a cheap western chef’s knife. I shook my head and said “No, Chinese-style. A big one.” It was almost like a test; and maybe we had passed? He got down another large box. Under the table (literally), he cut the tape and pulled out a collection of cleavers for my inspection. My eyes must have lit up, because he took one out of the packaging and showed me the clean, fine edge. It was a thing of beauty; obviously well made, strong, shiny, sharp, though thin. “Can it cut through bones?” I asked. No problem, he assured, then wrapped our seditious purchase in newspaper. We secured them in Rob’s bookbag and exchanged looks that showed we understood that we were never here.
The dinner turned out great. We broke in our new tools and I re-made several of the recipes I had learned, along with several new ones made-up ad-hoc. As a rule, I never make exactly the same thing twice– so I changed up the mushroom dumpling soup recipe by adding Chinese dried fungus and lotus root, rather than the dumplings and western mushrooms. The result was even better, I thought; the spiced sausage mixed with the earthy fungus base and the lotus root added a bit of crunch. (I don’t like mushrooms, but I find Chinese fungus OK.) The deep-fried hairy crabs were fried to a delicious crisp and coated with a spicier version of the tomato-based sauce I learned in Shanghai. The fish was steamed with garlic and ginger, though I added some minced chili to the finished product. The best dish by guest consensus was the chicken stir-fried with the small habanero-like peppers, which I doused in a sauce that included a little black vinegar marinated in star anise and mixed with brown sugar. The peppers soaked up the spicy sugar and the vinegar mellowed the taste. Our guests asked what this dish was called and, since I had more or less made it up on the spot, they designated it “kick-ass ji-ding” (kick-ass chicken cubes). Really, what better symbol of culinary triumph is there?