Hello, all ! If you are like me, you get tired of thinking of what you might want to eat for your meals every single day. Daal and sabzi is fine when I don’t want to think but every once in a while when I get the urge to eat Chinese food I end up cooking it myself with, among other ingredients, my stock of chilli bean paste, dried shitake mushrooms and black fungus and it ends up quite different from the fare offered in standard Chinese restaurants in India. So some time ago I promised my daughter’s friends or rather, my daughter promised her friends that I would cook them some of this Beijing-style food.
You see, way back in 1984, when my husband was posted in Beijing, although Indian embassy officials were among the worst paid of embassy personnel, our officers were kindly given the option of employing local cooks and maids. Most did opt for them. My husband and I got lucky. We were sent a cook, Wang Xue Bin, who, until his present position, had been a waiter. Wang was an ambitious soul. He had a good knowledge of Chinese cooking and he quickly got a grasp of Indian cooking from my own, then basic, knowledge of our cuisine. At home we cooked Indian food mainly when we invited non- Indians home. It was Chinese food that my husband and I were happy to eat almost every day. And Wang would plate up dishes that his family of three would eat at home or the spicier Hunan and Sichuan dishes that he had recently learnt and was eager to practice.
So Wang would happily go shopping , accepting even more happily the Foreign Exchange Certificates (currency)that foreigners in Beijing used. The locals used the Renmin B. Of course, there was a black market for the certificates as this was the currency that could be used in the sole ‘Friendship Store’ meant for foreigners which was stocked with food, drink and anything under the sun. The local markets were short of supplies so locals would give anything to get access to this store which allowed them entry , if I remember correctly, after 7 pm until closing time at 9.
Armed with our certificates, Wang would shop in the local markets for our food, bringing back whatever produce was available in the local markets, using his own Renmin B and pocketing our FECs. Whether he used them at the Friendship Store or sold them at a premium we never asked because we always got back the balance. Back in the house, Wang cooked and I observed and noted carefully in a diary.
Then when we got posted back to India we decided to buy some Chinese crockery because our own set was a small one and we needed to supplement it. Out of the four patterns then available at a local shop, we opted for the ‘rice pattern’ blue and white crockery. To me, it beautifully represented China-the colours of blue and white and the motif of the dragon- all used in China since ancient times. To me, the pretty,translucent little rice grain shaped elements scattered across the plate represented the staple food of China and that we ourselves ate almost every day. Most local restaurants, too,offered food on plates of this very pattern.
A hundred years later, back in Lucknow, in a spurt of energy, the day before I invited my daughter’s friends over,I had this carton brought down from a store upstairs and extracted these plates from the reams of now yellowing white paper they were wrapped in. If I had them, I better not be lazy and might as well use them ! So finally, here they were on our table and, from what I had available in our refrigerator and garden, this simple, easily done tablescape followed.
I did not really want to have red that is commonly associated with China. So I chose a clean, off -white for the central spread. These were my mats from ‘Anokhi.’ Apples in our fridge could be that ‘China’ red in the centre of the table. I added sprigs of pretty red berries that grow in a bush in our garden and some money plant. Simple white tea cups became the holders of this little arrangement and, to add another colour and height, wrought iron candle holders in different forms.
The blue and white plates with blue and green napkins surrounded the apple arrangement, and I was happy !
To tell you the truth, I was cooking some of Wang’s food after quite some time and when it turned out well I was thrilled. So took some pictures. Here are two –
And finally, I’ll leave you with one more picture of the table-
Wonder if you liked it as much as I liked putting this together.
Hope you have a wonderful Sunday ! See you next time !