A few days ago, my colleague introduced Jen Lin-Liu as a chef, writer, and owner of the a restaurant in Beijing, Black Sesame Kitchen. Tonight, I had the opportunity to go to BSK for dinner with a few friends…
The location is excellent- Just a few meters from the hip and trendy Nanluoguxiang, the restaurant is set in the home of a traditional hutong, which had been built in the early 13th century. Walking in, we used our cell phones as lights and had to be careful not to trip on the uneven pavement of the old courtyard. Inside, the restaurant consists of two relatively small but cozy rooms. One is a lounge of sorts (I imagine they use it for larger groups), and the other serves as a dining room and the kitchen.
I was with a party of about a dozen, and my friends and I sat literally a foot away from the kitchen. The chefs cooked facing us as we ate and could described their techniques as each dish was prepared.
Being at the far end of the table, I walked up to get a closer look.
The chef – Chairman Wang, or Wang Laoshi as I called her, was this incredibly friendly older lady: short, wispy white hair peaked out from her tall, white chef’s hat and the smile wrinkles etched onto her face seemed to show her years of passionate work.
I asked her about specific ingredients she used, how she started cooking, and whether or not travels around China have influenced her cooking…her answers surprised me.
“I started cooking at age 8. My parents and brother all worked, I was home, we had to eat, so I had to cook,” she said.
“Were you a good cook, even then?”
She laughs, “I had to be! If I cooked bad food, everyone would yell at me!”
Our conversation then drifted from food to her life growing up in Beijing…She recalls how tumultuous the country was – how hard her parents worked to support her and her brother, how hard she studied in school for better opportunities.
She describes, “I was a senior in high school, all ready to graduate at age 19, but my classmates and I were forced to the nongcun or the countryside of Shanxi during the Cultural Revolution.” She said that however confusing that period was, she didn’t really question it – she and her classmates just moved because they had to, moved to do farm work because everyone else did.
(At this point, I am in the kitchen, grabbing the plates, and helping to serve the food so that I can hear her whole story as she stirs.)
“We lived in two sets of housing – one for men and one for women. I shared a room with two others. I toiled every day: Woke up, labored in the fields, came home when it turned dark, cooked, slept and did it again the next day. After two years, I was lucky enough to be the only one selected from our group to a different job at an electricity company. I had to work there for another five years and finally came home to Beijing in 1969.”
Wide-eyed me: “What a story! You were so fortunate to be the only one chosen to leave!”
“No, just hard-working, I think,” she modestly replies.
Who knew that a casual dinner would come with such insight into Chinese history…
Nancy is a member of the marketing team in WildChina’s Beijing office. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo from Black Sesame Kitchen.