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

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

China starts the New Year.

Chongqing is the largest city in the world – and the most exhilarating.  Rather than me trying to describe it without sight, my intrepid videographer and nephew, Toby, explored the excitement, dynamism and visual magic in his video (https://youtu.be/s8Y7PXLpmvM) cityscape.  This marks the start of the second leg of our Holman adventure: China, Australia and Malawi all coming over the next few months.

Helped by local architects Julia and Matthew, we learned to appreciate the delicate balance between past millennia of civilisation and the surge of current building.  The ancient mudstone conceals a labyrinth of caves and tunnels where the population sheltered from Japanese bombing in the 1940s while the city became the temporary capital of China during the hostilities.  Now, that bedrock also supports glittering glass and steel towers alongside more traditional homes and businesses.

With some 37 million inhabitants (more than half the total population of the UK), the city is a magnet for those who want to work and share in the benefits of modern growth.  Like any other city, there is tension between the demands for excellent work and living conditions and the preservation of authentic local character.   We managed to experience both:  singing to the echo of the mudstone caves; the dazzling night-time light displays; the traditional flower market with exotic plants and miniature gardens; the superb modern apartments and eclectic backpacker hostel.

Most importantly, of course, were all the wonderful people from the International Women’s Group, the Rotary Club that sponsored our visit and everyone who took part in our cooking videos – professional chefs and home-cooks.  Each and every one of them gave us hospitality, kindness and invaluable enthusiasm that we continue to treasure.

And Toby was inspired to add more fabulous drawings to his freelance architectural illustrator portfolio – images rich in detail and atmosphere (www.Tobymelvillebrown.com ).

Next time, see me cooking at the prestigious Intercontinental Hotel with one of their top chefs: an authentic Chinese chicken dish that you can try at home too.

Penny

Baking Blind: good, bad and ugly experiences.

Can you believe that just cooking brings so many new, good experiences, broadens the horizon and introduces new people?  Here’s a video (https://youtu.be/zdEIFJwLzjs) that will give you a sense of the second leg of my Baking Blind world tour: Chongqing in China, Kiama, Sydney and Melbourne in Australia; Lilongwe in Malawi.  It would be eye-opening if I could see!

Meanwhile, I’m still mulling over the huge contrasts of my week in San Francisco: staggering poverty   amongst huge affluence – bad and ugly.    It is supposed to be the most expensive place to live in America –paying $35 for a single plate of scallop risotto brought that home to me.  And don’t forget the tip: one server wouldn’t leave until she’d got her’s and our usual 10% wasn’t enough.  It was even worse because the £/$ exchange rate is so bad at the moment.  But local people are also being hit hard ($45 for two cups of coffee and one hot chocolate) and none hit so much as those who live on the street.  The number of homeless people was shocking: sleeping along the pavements of a main road through the city.  But, worse still, was the plight of disabled people: over less than a mile, we spotted at least half a dozen homeless people in wheelchairs.

The most striking was the man who shared our bus: he seemed to have cut a shopping trolley in two and attached one half to the back of his wheelchair to store his cooking equipment.  His sleeping mattress was folded behind his back like a great buffer to the world while the other trolley half, with his little dog and other belongings , was fastened to the front of his chair.  He had a begging box and carefully seeded it with dollar bills to clearly indicate that small change wasn’t welcome.  I would have been uncomfortable using his image except for his sign: his own political statement and he’s entitled to be heard.  It was all rather distressing after fussing about the price of a meal and, perhaps, even more so when other Americans seemed to accept his situation as normal – the consequences of limited health and social security safety nets.

It would have been easy to scoff at the tourist side of the city but it all really worked for me.  I literally rode the famous cable car by the seat of my pants: clanging up the steep inclines of Nob Hill on wooden benches so smooth with varnish that I was slipping from one end to the other (one way of amusing the other passengers).   The pontoons of sea lions next to Pier 39 were multi-sensory: the sounds of their barks and sea plunges plus their salty animal smell.  And, of course, I didn’t forget to try the famous clam chowder served in a sourdough loaf at the Boudin bakery – surprisingly satisfying. On the general food front, setting aside the cost, we learned that soups, salads and appetizers were more than enough – a starter of calamari turned out to be a huge plateful.

Two of the high spots were meeting up with people I’d met a year earlier.  Luis, the super chef of seagrass sponge (https://youtu.be/uqRx8cGznGs) is shortly to appear in the sort of TV cooking show that’s only possible in California: competing to create the best dessert using marijuana!  He didn’t win that time but I was able, at last, to give him a Baking Blind “medal”.

And it was a delight to share news with Ben and Blanche (saviours of our previous hotel hell) in a ferry trip to Sausalito.  We passed the Golden Gate Bridge (apparently looking rather red and rusty) and Alcatraz Island (reportedly quite small with a tiny block building).  This little town was a haven of tranquil Colonial style after the constant hustle and bustle of San Francisco where there are buildings so tall and thin that it seems a puff of wind would bring them down, let alone an earthquake.

A city of contrasts.  You can see how it compares with Chongqing in China in the New Year.

 

Penny

Blind baker turns pewter-smith

Alongside cooking, pewter is one of my passions.  Throughout the first leg of my Baking Blind world tour (https://youtu.be/peNM8VqWjgE), I gave special hand-made “medals” to everyone who cooked with me.  I tried to capture my trademark stripey apron with a pocketful of kitchen utensils in the original model.  Once I’d created the rubber mould, molten pewter was poured in.  It took hours of filing, trimming and finishing before each medal could be polished and struck with my personal mark.  There are just 41 in the whole world.

I’m lucky enough to be helped by outstanding pewter Master Craftswoman Fleur (http://www.fleurgrenier.co.uk/) in her workshop in Angmering.  Not only does she create amazing works of art but she shares her skills with beginners like me.

For this Christmas, I wanted to make a trio of seasonal little bowls for nibbles: each flat disc was repeatedly etched with images of snowflakes, holly or mistletoe before I beat them in to shape. And I managed to complete the second of my dragon bowls.

Fleur wisely doesn’t let me near the molten metal or the electrically charged etching tank but, otherwise, I can do nearly everything else myself.  It is all a matter of touch so not being able to see matters less.

This week’s video is a record of the key moments in San Francisco, Costa rica and Virginia Beach – my travels had taken me to both south and North America with China, Australia and Africa next.

Penny

Wrens re-united.

Inspection on paradeWhen I was asking for help with my Baking Blind tour (https://youtu.be/Fhqz-h0ESag), Jo popped up.  We had last had contact nearly 40 years ago when I waved goodbye to my first naval job in Naples, Italy, and to her too as she was taking over from me.  After all those years, we re-kindled our friendship when she hosted me in Virginia Beach, USA.

We first met at the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth in the UK back in 1978.  We were training to become Women’s Royal Naval Service officers.  There were about 12 of us on the course and we knew that not everyone would get through.

It was a typical “boot camp” atmosphere: lots of being up very early and working until midnight, spit and polishing shoes, cleaning anything that didn’t move and continually ironing all our uniforms.

It was freezing at times and we spent many frantic minutes putting on and peeling off thermal underwear, chattering with cold while getting lost on Dartmoor and wailing in the dark of tents pitched on the soggy moor.  Lots of the others went running, swimming and more while I discovered the delights of the shooting range: a soft mat to lie on and an electric heater.  No wonder I became an ardent shooter with both pistol and rifle.  Even more amazing, I ended up shooting for the college and was the only Wren to win “colours”.  But in those days, when Wrens had only been at the college for four terms, they still hadn’t adapted to having women amongst the men.  So I was the proud recipient of a “colours” tie – heaven only knows when they thought I’d wear it.

Jo and I didn’t meet again until three years later when she came to take over my job with the NATO naval intelligence section in Naples.  She settled in so quickly that she met and married US Navy Commander Nick while she was there – hence her move to Virginia Beach.  We had whole lives to catch up when we met again all those decades later.

She invited all her friends to meet me over brunch and, despite declaring herself to be an enthusiastic non-cook, produced an excellent pumpkin bread (http://www.bakingblind.com/pumpkin%20bread.htm) that would be perfect for anyone at Halloween.

Penny