Foreigners cook up fun in China


Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 12:00 a.m.

HANGZHOU, China - The contestants stood on one side of the table, stirring shrimp, pork and vegetables in sizzling woks.

On the other side, an even larger crowd of reporters and TV crews jostled to catch every morsel of action.

Why all the excitement? The 20 or so amateur chefs competing in a cook-off in the eastern city of Hangzhou on Friday were foreigners, showing off their stir-frying skills in the birthplace of one of the country's ancient regional cuisines.

The contest, recorded for television with running commentary by food critics, underscores China's changing attitudes toward its own cultural past.

Once attacked in the tradition-bashing early decades of communist rule, China's millenia-old culinary culture is now celebrated as a point of rising national pride and seen as a way to lure tourists.

Aimed at promoting Hangzhou as a tourist spot, the event echoed the recipe of haute cuisine and competitive theatrics on "Iron Chef," the cult television program that began in Japan and has spread to the United States and elsewhere.

In contrast to "Iron Chef," whose high-intensity competitors include professional chefs, the Hangzhou contest was a playful meeting of amateurs united by their love of food.

"Usually I can figure out how to cook anything I see in restaurants," said competitor John Ingersoll, a retired high school teacher from Minnesota who teaches English in Hangzhou. "But in China, what gets me are the sauces. I didn't know what's in them."

Ingersoll, 60, created an original dish that he called "Three Pools Mirroring the Moon." He said it was named after a Hangzhou attraction, but was just a glorified version of the fried potatoes he used to eat for breakfast at a Minnesota diner.

The Chinese trace their cooking style - famous for its intricately flavored dishes prepared over searing heat - back thousands of years, to the first farming communities along the Yellow River.

China is so in love with eating that, in some areas, one way to say hello is "Have you eaten yet?"

The style grew in complexity and variety as succeeding imperial dynasties flourished. But many of the China's most popular dishes are attributed to lowly origins.

Fiery Sichuanese food, a popular regional cuisine, is said to have its roots in farm families hiding the poverty of their ingredients by tossing in fistfuls of red peppers.

Fine cooking was driven underground during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when fanatical Red Guards set out to eradicate China's past. Techniques survived in Hong Kong, Taiwan and chinatowns in the United States.

Hangzhou cuisine is said to have been invented 1,000 years ago, when the city southwest of Shanghai was China's imperial capital. It is famous for light, vinegary sauces that don't overwhelm the flavors of the ingredients.

"Eating is central to Chinese culture, and to our regional culture," said Ji Genli, director of the Zhejiang Province Travel Bureau, one of the organizers of the event. "You can't know Hangzhou only by traveling here, but only by eating here."

Chinese media flocked to Friday's competition, which involved 108 foreigners from 22 countries. All were students, teachers or white-collar workers living in Hangzhou or the nearby city of Nanjing.

Contestants were given 30 minutes to cook two dishes, which were graded by seven judges.

The winners were a Spanish highway engineer and a Nigerian studying at a Chinese university. Each received the equivalent of $375.

"What's different about Chinese food is the freshness of the ingredients," said the 33-year-old Spaniard, Jose Maria Arechederra, who won with lake fish cooked in vinegar. "In China, they are often still alive when you buy them at the market. That's different from Spain."

The judges said they were impressed at the foreigners' skill, though they said most of the sauces weren't quite right - not enough vinegar, or too much salt.

"Still, you can't tell by eating that this was cooked by a foreigner," said Dai Guibao, who heads the cooking department at the Tourism College of Zhejiang. "They did well, considering the short time they had to learn."

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