Humbling – Living with blindness in China

If I grumble about coping with life without sight, beat me over the head and remind me of the two young blind women in China.    You can watch (or just listen to) our conversation in Chongqing https://youtu.be/tLJUNO5EnVU

Wan Lin and Lisa had spent a few hours cooking with me and the Head Chefs of the Intercontinental Hotel – together we’d explored using touch to cook steak, taste in a salad and sheer naughtiness with chocolate mousse.  They both had very little experience of cooking as, at the massage clinic where they live, an “auntie” prepares all their meals.

They were both in their early twenties and seemed tiny to me – I felt like a giant looming over them.  China was starting to develop when they were born but there were still difficulties for some people in getting all the food and medical care they needed – with the consequences upon their health.

But Chinese progress is very swift: they had been educated at the local school for blind children and progressed to training in medical massage – an intrinsic element of Chinese medicine and health therapies.  But for Lisa, her small stature added further difficulty to her work: she only has the strength to massage very young children.

What was so impressive was the determined independence and motivation of them both.  With very little sight, they were travelling across this huge city – and not a white cane or guide dog between them.  I tried to offer them a taxi home that evening  as dusk would reduce their vision even more but they refused :wary of becoming car-sick.  They were delighted to have new experiences, meet new people and learn cooking skills.

The chefs were fabulous: caring and kind, patient and empathetic.  They had probably never encountered someone with disabilities in their work place but were naturally generous and inclusive.  They put together a mini-hamper of the dishes we had all made together so that the girls could share their experiences and success with their colleagues at the clinic.

It was extraordinarily poignant to see how big hearty Head Chef Jack warmed to these young women – there was no need for me at all so I stepped back and let them enjoy their cooking together.

 

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Communicating through cooking

Sesame oil, fresh ginger, garlic and star anise are some of the key flavours of cooking in Chongqing in China.  Charlie combined them all with beef https://youtu.be/4YLf63Me6ME  to create a rich, succulent dish in his two-tier kitchen hanging over the Yangtze River gorge.

As the designated sous chef, my role was limited to chopping tomatoes and mushrooms but it meant I had time to chat with a local radio presenter and even do a short interview.  Her programme covers new cultures – introducing the citizens of Chongqing to different music and arts.

Charlie himself is active in the cultural scene:  his backpacker hostel decorated by different artists is the perfect alternative to anyone who has had enough of super-sophisticated high rise hotels.  It was a delight to catch another aspect of the creative side of China.

Charlie was the most generous of hosts: not only did he give us an extraordinary lunch but, as we left, he pressed a bracelet in to my hand.  It was a circle of simple wooden beads made special having been blessed by monks and given by him.  A precious moment of a very happy day.

I think that we showed how food transcends barriers of disability, culture, language and more: once we were working together, it was easy to communicate our shared enthusiasm and experiences.  A true meeting of minds and a language that goes beyond words.

 

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

You Tube

penny@bakingblind.com

Masterclass: Chinese breakfast dumplings.

Nothing like those floating-on-stew versions.  These are delicate morsels of pork and leek wrapped in thin dough “skins” and steamed for the people of Chongqing to eat on their way to another busy working day – and so much healthier than our traditional English fry-up.  You can see (https://youtu.be/rTcgbQwDLsw) my very poor efforts to make them despite the help of a dumpling professional.

Wang Yi, our hostess for the day, introduced her aunt, Yinyishu, who has worked in a baozi   shop for over 25 years.  It is tough work that starts at 3 in the morning as her customers want their breakfast at about 6.00 a.m.

The dough for the Jiaozi dumplings is just flour and water with a pinch of salt while yeast is added for the baozi version.  The fillings are very similar: finely minced pork, ginger and lotus root pieces plus leek in the jiaozi   and spring onion in the baozi.

The shaping of the dumplings was the difficult part.  The risen baozi   dough was the most straightforward: small circles of dough rolled thinner all around the edge and then simply folded in half over the filling and pinched closed.  But the jiaozi    confounded everyone: the same small circles with thinner edges that were somehow rolled and pinched over the middle of the filling while the whole dumpling was rotated in the other hand.  They were just too soft and delicate for my sense of touch to decipher.  Yinyishu couldn’t stand my ineptitude and finished the lot!  Even Julia, from the local Rotary Club who was helping with translation, had difficulty.

And further thanks to Hanying who allowed us all in to her kitchen for the dumpling class.  Her apartment is in one of a group of blocks surrounded by expansive lawns and gardens in Chongqing, the largest city in the world.  It was a privilege to be in her home and to hear the children playing outside, neighbours chatting on a bench in the sun and the soft buzz of traffic in the distance.  Her kitchen was completely familiar in layout and design – every feature I’d recognise from my own but just tiny to match the smaller stature of Chinese people.  I felt rather like a giant looming over her and could sit on the work surfaces as if they were high-stools.

The whole day was a perfect experience of life in developing China: the modern vibrant environment alongside cuisine that still has all the traditional skills and flavours.

Penny

Pleasing powerful Ladies who Lunch.

Imagine your very first cookery demonstration: not even in a kitchen; supported by a chef who barely speaks English; an audience of the most powerful women in the world’s largest city.  Daunting or what?  I desperately fell back on the tried-and-tested Victoria sponge but with a little twist to make it my own (https://youtu.be/0H0jPBwpD1M).

I was in Chongqing in China with one of the top chefs, Frank, at the prestigious InterContinental Hotel.  We were providing the entertainment for the regular lunch of the International Women’s Group.  This was a truly impressive gathering of the key female influencers in this vast city of 37 million people: Consuls general heading up the local representation of their national embassies; leaders in business and academia; my Rotary Club sponsors; movers and shakers in heels.  And this was my initiation audience so I chose something hopefully foolproof and quintessentially English.

Frank and super-Beverages and Food Manager, Sam, did all the hard work.  All I had to do was crack the eggs and turn on the mixer.  I just tossed raspberries in to the mix and let Frank carry it away to the oven.  Hardly testing or high cuisine!

My mini-sponges looked suitably simple alongside the accompaniment Frank had produced: a delectable chocolate stiletto shoe each garnished with fruit.  He was just showing off and definitely caught the attention of the whole group.  It was clearly the difference between a truly professional chef and yours truly – but did he have to rub it in so hard?

Frank and I had a great time working together – I just wish we had been able to do more.  But the lunch was another chance to spread the word that disability needn’t be the end of the world – just give us a chance to show what we can do.

Penny

Chocolate Masterclass.

Cooking alongside another young blind woman in China, together we learned a classic chocolate Mousse during a session with Intercontinental chef, frank (https://youtu.be/wwNtojsbuuU ).

Lisa was intrigued by the talking thermometer and I was too by the practical demonstration as to how altitude makes such a difference to the boiling temperature of liquids.  Once the milk had boiled, it was cooled by adding chocolate and then eggs until the whipped cream could be folded through when the mix was at 30 degrees centigrade.  Once cooled and set, the mousse can be served with our very easy strawberries steeped in orange juice, a little sugar and a splash of optional orange liqueur. 

We had been trying to use very simple processes with a few ingredients that weren’t too expensive or strange for these two young women with virtually no kitchen experience.  And the Intercontinental team put together a parcel of other western dishes for them to take home, share and learn more flavours.

Lisa was very tiny and, although trained as a medical masseuse, is just too small to practice her skill.  Instead, she is trying to generate income through her handicrafts.  She has some limited residual vision so doesn’t use a white cane and is wildly independent.

It was a time to treasure: the two blind women had been with us at the Intercontinental for lunch and then cooking in to the early evening.  They were enthusiastic and self-confident – great examples of how education and training could equip them for life.  Alongside the Intercontinental chefs were wonderful in their support, patience and empathy.  It seemed to me that both the chefs and young women were having a completely new experience cooking together: finding that food was a force for breaking down barriers.  I tried to stand back and give them time to learn about each other’s lives.

Penny

Pressing the flesh: rare, medium or well-done?

Two young blind masseuses spent an afternoon with the top Intercontinental chefs and me in Chongqing, China.  We were all trying to learn from each other: some basic cooking, Chinese medical massage and living with blindness.  Head chef Jack taught us to use our sense of touch to test how well a beef steak is cooked (https://youtu.be/BvIuYBQwehI).    This very simple professional tip is perfect for blind people anywhere – and anyone else too.

During our time in the city, I learned that other blind people weren’t very obvious.  Perhaps they don’t get out much or perhaps they tend not to use white canes.  Either way, my videographer Toby didn’t spot many during our stay in the world’s largest city with a population of about 37 million.  There would have been many citizens with different levels of visual impairment arising from all the conditions that are recognised world-wide: many would be age-related, others linked to past malnutrition in this country of massive economic growth.

Medical massage is a key work opportunity for young people who attend the local blind school to gain the necessary qualifications.  They then practice in a massage clinic that is also their home.  The patient couches become their beds at night and an “auntie” comes in to cook their meals.    Living and working in the same place obviously has lots of advantages but possibly less chance of learning how to cook.  My thanks to the Rotary Club of Chongqing for bringing us all together as part of their initiative to support local visually impaired people.

Like me, the blind girls probably hadn’t had much time in a professional kitchen in a prestigious hotel but we all managed to enjoy the opportunity together rather than being over-awed by the location.

The two girls quickly learned from Jack.  He’d probably also had very little experience of blind people in his kitchen but was wonderful with all three of us: patient and empathetic, caring and courteous.  I just stood back while the rapport developed between him and the blind girls: they were all completely immersed with their experience of each other.

For the beef dish, Jack showed Wan Lin a safer way of handling her knife and how to toss the pan of vegetables.  Alongside, we had Julia and food and Beverages Manager, Sam, both translating plus Toby shooting video and a small audience.  From this chaos Jack still managed to produce an excellent dish – what a professional!

And the trick with steak: the muscle at the base of your thumb becomes harder as you fold your thumb and fingers: thumb only – rare; two fingers folded- medium; three – well-done – but the video explanation is probably easier!

Next time, we use taste to refine a simple salad.

Penny

Tofu or not Tofu, that’s the question.

Vegan sausage rolls have been hitting the headlines and national news in the UK.  Not just very successful PR but an echo of my Christmas party discussions: a fellow guest had given up eating all animal products because of the environmental impact of methane, de-forestation to increase grazing land, the chemical inputs to factory farming and more.   The debate about eating less meat to save the planet is hotting up.    If you want to try a half-way house, see the tofu dish I learned in China (https://youtu.be/j4QuNQxxyi0) which cuts the amount of meat but keeps the flavour with a little beef.

Professional chef Tony showed me how to transform pale, rather tasteless chewy cubes of bean curd in to a typical Chongqing dish: Lao LAN Ma or Sichuan-Style Braised Spicy and Hot Tofu.  There was a little simmering and frying plus lots of the strong flavours so popular in the local cuisine.  The beef (so finely minced that it was nearly a paste), some “chicken powder” similar to a crumbled stock cube plus chilli and the famous local pepper made all the difference.  And Head chef Jack couldn’t resist taking charge of us both.

If we want to cut our meat consumption, there are lots to learn from the kitchens of China and other countries if we can be open-minded to alternatives that have already stood the test of time and satisfied millions of people.    And there are new ideas emerging all the time: already, scientists are trying to “grow their own meat” in the laboratory.

The key question remains: will those meat substitutes bring enough profit for the food industry?  There need to be alternatives that grab the taste buds of the mass market if whole areas of food production are going to change or even end.  We aren’t there yet but tofu has a part to play – even if you don’t have the special Chinese sauce made from fermented broad beans that added to this dish.

And all thanks to the Chongqing Rotary Club that made this visit possible – next time, we are cooking with two of the local blind women assisted by the Club.

Penny