If you visit the hutongs in Beijing you will often smell the fragrance of Chinese food wafting in the air. Sophia Du works in the area as a chef and nutritionist at a cultural exchange centre set up by two Australians. Du, 33, comes from Inner Mongolia and she is passionate about Chinese food and the stories and culture that surround it.
How did you start teaching foreigners cooking at the centre?
I happened to meet Stacey and Mark, the Australian founders of The Hutong, in 2008 when I was working at a hostel as a consultant providing help for foreign tourists in Beijing. As I studied English as an undergraduate at university, a travel consultant was an ideal job for me, and it was stable. However, I thought I was still young and needed a breakthrough in my life. The Hutong was at an early stage of development at that time and Stacey and Mark were still exploring what they could do to share their favourite parts of Chinese cultures with foreigners. Stacey asked me what I could do when we met. I thought about cooking, as this is something every ordinary family does at home. I don't consider myself a great cook, as it was my parents' and grandparents' job at home in Inner Mongolia, but I watched them cooking and thought I had learned a lot. So I told Stacey I could try teaching cooking, and started with some simple dishes we used to have at home.
How was your first cooking class?
I worked part-time at The Hutong from June 2008 and became a full-time chef in 2009. It was Stacey who supported me in starting my first cooking class. I remember there was one day when she asked if I knew how to make Chinese dumplings. My immediate response was - of course! People from northern China should know, as dumplings are our main dish. I was hesitant at first as I thought making dumplings at home should be different from teaching how to make them, but I eventually found it rewarding teaching foreigners what I knew.
What have you learned from your cooking classes?
Even though I am Chinese, I have found I don't really know the culture of some places in China that well. People in my classes are mostly foreigners living in Beijing. Some are newcomers, while some have lived in Beijing for years. As for those who have just moved to Beijing, they ask not only about what we eat and how we cook, but also about the culture and stories behind the food. When I had to tell them these stories, I realised I knew very little about the culture of my home country, and I tried to learn more to share with people in my classes. I am so happy to know that foreign people are so interested in Chinese culture and the stories behind our food. Their eagerness to learn inspired me to think about how we should treasure our own culture.
What interesting food culture have you discovered and shared?
Foreigners find it interesting that dumplings are the main dish for northern people while rice is the main dish for people in the south. And the different shapes of dumplings have different meanings. I told them we used to have dumplings at home during the Lunar New Year festival and the gold-ingot shape meant treasure. We also arrange special classes for Chinese festivals. When teaching how to make sticky-rice dumplings before the Dragon Boat festival, I tell them the customs and history of eating the dumplings and why people from the south make savoury rice dumplings and northern people like sweet rice dumplings.
What are foreigners most interested in?
They want to know what Chinese people eat at home and their dining habits. They are also interested in how Chinese people cook, what ingredients they use and where to buy them. As some foreign families live in Beijing, they also want to know how to choose appropriate ingredients at local markets and also about special cooking methods. The real experience at Chinese people's dinner tables is what foreign people are really interested in. I am from Inner Mongolia, where the local food is relatively simple compared with Guangdong and Sichuan cuisines. When I teach foreigners my home cooking, I tell them not only the methods, but also my childhood memories, such as how I watched my mother cooking at home and what I most liked to eat. Cumin lamb is a traditional dish in my hometown and my uncle makes it every year for my grandparents at the reunion dinner on Lunar New Year's eve. I asked my uncle for our family recipe, and I teach it to my students while telling them the customs at home during the Lunar New Year.
Do Westerners have any taboos about food?
We avoid using offal as ingredients. It's not really taboo, but it's unhealthy eating something like intestines and liver. We also introduce some weird food to them at a basic class as this is also part of our food culture. Like preserved eggs, for instance. Foreign people may think they're disgusting, but they're actually rich in protein. When I introduce preserved eggs, I tell them it's just like their blue cheese. I also introduced ma tofu, a Beijing street snack that is made of fermented mung-bean juice. They were very doubtful at first about the taste, but were still willing to try it and know more about it.
What are foreigners' favourite dishes?
Kung Pao chicken, stir-fried green beans and sweet-and-sour pork are popular among Western people. They also like Sichuan cuisine such as spicy chicken, and also Yunnan cuisine. They are interested in steamed Guangdong dishes. They also want to know more about Chinese food therapy, as Chinese people take an interest in the therapeutic benefits offered by different kinds of food. For example, slow-cooked soup in Guangdong cuisine can improve some internal functions in the body.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Foreigners learn Chinese culture through cuisine