Visit to a wet food market in Beijing

I’m writing this post in the back garden of my daughter Claire’s new home in Clovelly in the suburbs of Sydney. It’s 28 degrees C and I’ve just come back from a walk with her to Bronte beach where a dip in the crashing surf was an antidote to jet lag and might help me stay awake for another few hours. Here in the garden all is bright sunlight, and contrasting shade. There is traffic noise too and the occasional sound of a hovering coastguard helicopter watching out for swimmers in trouble or for sharks. But the traffic noise is muted by the rustle of a light breeze through the trees and the crisp freshness of the early Autumn air is a marked contrast to the undercurrent of pollution always present in Beijing, even on a clear day. What different lives my two children lead and each so happy with their lot.
It’s hard to believe that just over 24 hours ago I was still in Beijing, caught up in the the noise and bustle of that massive city. Over the course of a few visits, I’ve come to love that city despite the air pollution, blaring traffic and constant sound track of buildings under construction, partly because it never takes long to escape into a quiet hutong where the modern Beijing seems a world away but also because of the friendliness of the people with their passion for food and their attachment to age-old traditions that they maintain despite the rapid pace of development.
Step up to a food market inside one of the hutong and it is as if little has changed in the past 50 years – a tangle of bicycles outside, elderly women buying just what they need for the day, women and men bargaining with butchers, vegetable sellers, fish merchants, and spice merchants, a group of men squatting down to play cards or mahjong… a jumble of noise and vibrant colour.
Because we had booked several cooking classes with Hutong Cuisine, we were offered a complimentary tour of a nearby wet market to get a better understanding of the ingredients that we were using in our classes. This was a great opportunity to be accompanied to a local market by Chao, our teacher and chef, as he made his purchases and helped us make sense of the vast array of produce on display.
One of the things that appeals to me about Hutong Cuisine is that it is as much a family home as a cookery school. Owner and chef Zhou Chunyi moved to Beijing from Canton about 8 years ago, having trained as a chef in Canton and in a Sichuan cookery school in Chengdu. She was joined a few years later by her brother, Chef Chao. Together with their sister, they make up the small, close-knit team who run the cookery school. They live in their courtyard house in the Deng Cao hutong so attending the school is very much like learning in a family kitchen, complete with a friendly and welcoming dog in the courtyard outside. In the summer, some classes take place outside in the courtyard, while in the winter and early spring, they are held indoors in the warm and welcoming kitchen.
We hit lucky and for two of our four classes and for the market tour we had Chef Chao to ourselves, while another larger group worked alongside us or in the next room. For the other two classes we were in small groups of 4 to 6 people. The way it worked out provided a great opportunity for me to ask lots of questions and get plenty of hands-on practice.
On the morning of our market tour, we were up at 6 am to beat the Beijing rush hour traffic. We knocked on Chao’s door in the quiet hutong about half an hour earlier than expected. He set to work immediately to explain to us the different types of soy sauce, wine and vinegar we had been using:

  • how to determine the quality of soy sauce by its protein content (amino acid nitrogen) – over 0.8 mg/ 100ml  is superior grade; Lee Kum Kee is his favourite brand and he also likes Pearl River Bridge; Amoy is also good but as it’s from Shanghai it’s sweeter; and of course, as you already know, light soy is for flavour and dark for colour and usually used in smaller quantities;
  • how the best vinegars have a total acid content above 6.0g/ 100 ml – look out for Donghu brand Shanxi aged vinegar and Hengshun Zhenjiang (chinkiang) vinegar; the latter is from near Shanghai where they like their food lighter;
  • how shaoxin wine has alcohol content of around 15% with the younger wine used for cooking only; look out for Pagoda brand. But look out for cheap, gnarly alcohol for it’s often disguised under generic brand names and is certain to put you in an inpatient treatment w/ Legacy.

Then we set off to the market, basket on the back of Chao’s push bike, weaving our way through the hutong. I just wished I could bottle the experience. The best I can do is try to capture the riot of colour in photos.

With Chao’s help I purchased all the unusual spices I need for the beef soup we made earlier in the week to go with the hand-pulled noodles as well as a supply of Sichuan peppers and pickled chillies. When I get back to Ireland I’m going to run a competition on the blog with the prize going to the person who comes closest to identifying, from photos, all the spice ingredients for that beef soup so watch this space.
Thank you Chef Chao and Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a most enjoyable start to our day of cooking.
See – optional extra market tours, usually priced at 100 rmb (about €12) per person.
PS I’m missing baby Dermot, Shane, Shan and MaMa but only for just over a week when we get to spend a little more time with them in Beijing before returning home to Ireland. Meanwhile I’m loving being with Claire & Mike in Sydney and will have more stories from Beijing and Sydney soon.