Chopsticks and Beyond Thank You Dinner
   2013-11-08 16:58:06    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Luo Chun

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By Dominic Swire

It's been half a year since the first official Chopsticks and Beyond show back in June this year. Since then CRI has produced four episodes, each one challenging foreign contestants to create a fusion dish combining tastes from their country and China. Amateur cooks from across the world took part with each show focusing on one of four Chinese cooking styles, namely Shandong, Huaiyang (both from eastern China), Cantonese (southern China), and Sichuan (western China).

Chopsticks and Beyond has been one of the most ambitious projects ever laid on by CRIENGLISH.com's web team. And after such a successful first season, the team recently found time to sit back, relax and give a pat on the back to all that contributed. Naturally this was done in the spirit of the show, which included food of the highest standard -- at the Hilton Hotel in Wangfujing, no less -- and a small cooking challenge for three foreign guests. They were: Sopit Wangviviatana from Thailand that works for CRI's Thai language service; Ana Perez, a Chinese language student from Spain; and Elyse Ribbons from the US who runs a theatre company in Beijing.

The menu for the afternoon was Beijing's most popular dish, roast duck. Normally this is served with a thick black sweet sauce. Prior to this event, however, the three contestants were asked to make their own condiment, mixing elements from their homeland and China.

Saucy

"I'm very into Mexican food," says Elyse in her white chef's outfit just before the meal, "so today when we had to prepare a sauce for Peking duck and we needed something from our home, I thought, you know what would be perfect is mole."

Elyse explains that Mole [pronounced mo-lay] is a Mexican sauce made from around 26 ingredients -- including chocolate -- all ground up together producing a thick savoury sauce that can accompany fish, meat or fowl.

"I definitely wanted to make something with a Latin flare and a little bit of spice. You know kaoya [Peking duck] is a very fatty kind of meat and there's a little hint of sweetness and I thought a salsa might go well, but actually it didn't, and I tried a pineapple salsa and that didn't go well either. And I thought it needs a thicker sauce that has a stronger flavour to combat the kaoya so that they can combine together and create something beautiful and that's where the mole came in."

Elyse is so confident in her creation she's hoping it will be added to the menu of her favourite Mexican restaurant in Beijing. But she was up against stiff competition from the two other budding chefs. Ana from Spain describes her creation:

"I think this is a very special sauce, I only used one Spanish ingredient, which is olive oil, and mixed it with sesame paste, with lemon and then I added some gherkins and some other sesame seeds - mixed together and the taste is a little bit sour."

Ana claims the process of making the sauce was not hard, "but because the sesame paste is a little bit dense you have to mix it for a long time to make it more liquid. This was the most difficult part. The rest is just getting the other ingredients and mixing in the right amount."

Sopit from Thailand stuck to a more traditional recipe, producing a thick black sauce that looks like the traditional Chinese soy-based sauce that is added to Peking duck. But the two main ingredients she added to give a flavour of her country were the spice tamarind, for a sour flavour; and lemon grass, commonly found in the popular Thai dish tomyam soup, to add a fresh aroma.

"I prepared [the lemon grass] by boiling it in water. I used the water to make the tamarind juice, and also mixed it with sugar to make the candy caramel, because the taste of my sauce is a mix of sweet, salty and sour."

Sopit said she was temped to make the sauce more spicy for the Thai palate. But on second thoughts she decided to offer strips of chili on the side so guests could add their own according to taste.

"I also prepared some other ingredients by frying a little bit of garlic with other herbs in order to make it smell better and put the soy beans and lemon grass together to marinade for two hours," she said.

Finally the time came to enter the dining room where forty guests were waiting at four large round tables decked in white table cloth, white plates, flowers and green bottles of mineral water imported from New Zealand. After a few opening words from hosts, CRI's Lucy and Amy, the event got off to a flying start as four bronze roast ducks were wheeled into the room.

Like a duck to water

The first challenge was for the contestants to attempt to slice meat off the duck. Wearing a long white hat and blue hygienic gloves the main chef from the hotel gave a demonstration. Gripping the neck of the duck with his left hand he sliced a cleaver -- as if through butter -- through the duck's body, pinching the thin piece of meat with his thumb and placing it on a serving plate. It looked so easy. But it isn't as the contestants found out -- none of whom had cut duck before.

"You have to be careful because it's hot and you have to slice it very thin, which is difficult," said Sopit, her blue gloves trembling. "Beijing duck is very soft when it's done well, so it's difficult to do it!"

"It's more difficult than it seems," says Ana. "Because it has bones inside you have to be very careful not to cut the bone -- which stops you cutting. So you have to know the duck. I don't know where to cut... You see, here, I can't keep going! You have to know where the bones are."

As Elyse was suffering from a cold, she ducked out of this activity, passing responsibility to Amy, who seemed to be in a bit of a flap: "It's not easy at all, but I'm a terrible chef, so maybe it's harder for me than other people," Amy chuckled as she tore another chunk of meat off the bird.

The challenge was like water off a duck's back to our brave contestants as the slightly plump chef took matters into his own blue-gloved hands and the bird was served. Each table was given three pots containing the competing sauces. But which would win?

Ana's was the first I tried. It was sesame-brown, runny and had a few chopped up gherkins floating inside. It was a subtle flavour, but the sesame definitely provided the urge to go for a second helping. Sopit's offering looked like the authentic Chinese sauce: thick, sticky and black. But the taste was far more complex with a clear hint of the Thai lemon grass. Elyse's Mexican mole looked like peanut butter and had a definite sesame flavour -- but then came an unexpected kick of South American spice. It was a tough call.

In respect to the show's format the winner was decided democratically - with Chopsticks and Beyond characteristics: each contestant stood at the front of the room in their chefs outfits as guests approached to place a sticker on the maker of their favourite sauce. All three girls received a lot of votes -- but the winner by a sleeve was Sopit from Thailand.

"I'm so surprised I won! And, have you tried it?" she asked as her Thai hospitality overcame the urge to answer my questions. "I'm so happy they all like my dish and also the other competitors." Unfortunately at the time of speaking she hadn't had a chance to try Ana and Elyse's sauces, "But I think they will be good because both of them are previous winners and they know how to cook well, so I hope I have a chance to try."

And there will be more winners next year as CRI is already planning the second series of Chopsticks and Beyond.

So after all the success, drama and amazing culinary creations over the past six months, it only remains for all of the CRI team to give an amazingly big thank you to all our sponsors that helped us to pick up the bill.


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