Here, cats sunbake in the street while people hang their washing on communal lines. Residents cycle home with groceries from the local wet market.
A couple has a discreet argument (she knees him with a high-angled kick in the derrière). A street peddler on a tricycle rings his bell, crying out for customers. Local senior citizens shuffle to the newly built public toilet-and-shower block (a legacy of the massive facelift undertaken for the 2008 Olympics) prominently signposted in English. This may be a model hutong, spruced up to meet the standards of Western eyes, but its domestic rituals are genuine.
The term hutong, derived from a word meaning 'water well' in a Mongolian dialect, is confusing to define and is used to describe both the homes and the laneways that make up a traditional residential district. Dating back to the 13th century, hutongs were the heart of old Beijing, but began to disappear under the rule of Mao, who considered them a reminder of a backward feudal era. Each hutong carried its own name, usually referring to a nearby landmark, temple, local resident or source of good fortune. Built around a courtyard surrounding a small walled garden, each hutong housed several families who would cook together at an open-air wok.
As progress sweeps everything that came before, authentic parts of old Beijing are becoming difficult to find. Many of the city’s original hutongs (anecdotally estimated by locals to have numbered more than 5000) have been bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings and shopping malls. However, as the government recognises the value of preserving its cultural heritage, a few hundred hutongs have been saved and renovated, giving residents a chance to maintain a traditional – and improved – lifestyle.
Visitors can get a glimpse of a sanitised version of the past (raw sewage, coal-fired stoves and slum conditions have been facilitated by plumbing and electricity).
Five years ago, two entrepreneurial Australian expats set up a unique business, creating a hub for visitors looking for a gentle introduction to the complexities of Chinese culture. They simply called it The Hutong.
Partners Stacey Shine and Mark Thirlwall met as China tour group leaders for a tour company – 'We stayed friends via email as our trekking and guiding itineraries rarely crossed" – and soon became frustrated by the formulaic programs on offer. Convinced they could create an alternative, they cycled through the maze of hutongs, looking for somewhere to turn into their base.
"When we found this place, it had eight families living here and was black with soot from the old coal heating system," says Mark, who, once the tenants had moved out, was granted a 10-year lease, adding a rooftop terrace where tai chi classes take place in good weather. 'The charm of the location is that we are in a residential district, where several generations live together, without the commercial bustle and pressure of other parts of the city. The older neighbours particularly appreciate that we are introducing foreigners to things they value, like calligraphy and tea."
Mark’s interest in China was sparked by health problems he suffered as a child. "I was very sick with an autoimmune disease for four years during high school, which led my parents to seek out Chinese herbalists. That led me to become interested in the food. In China, the local morning markets are seen by residents as enormous medicine cabinets – the greater the variety of natural foods you can consume, the healthier you are likely to be."
However, you need more than physical health to set up a business in China. Mark admits neither he nor Stacey were prepared for the difficulties involved. "I would not recommend it unless you have a guaranteed revenue flow coming in. Dealing with banks here is very different as they act as secondary auditors to your finances." Housed behind a pair of imperial-red wooden doors decorated with a traditional symbol of power, the dragon’s head, The Hutong offers gallery tours, cycling holidays in remote regions, market visits and demonstrations for an ever-increasing number of foreign corporate partners and tourists who are looking for something more than guidebook recommendations. Residents wanting to make a contribution can sign up for activities supporting The Hutong’s philanthropic program. There’s also a traditional medicine clinic on site. Stick around for long enough and the expanding tentacles of this dynamic venture could extend into every aspect of your social life.
"Food is the easiest portal through which to appreciate other aspects of Chinese culture," says Mark, a self-taught Mandarin speaker and tea connoisseur who makes his own blends. "We don’t just provide recipes, you can get those from cookbooks. We introduce you to concepts of regionalism and philosophy, and navigate you through the often baffling array of ingredients. With a condiment like vinegar, it takes a while to work out when to use white, yellow or black."
The Hutong’s hands-on cooking classes, held in a long, narrow, sunny kitchen off the central courtyard, cater to all levels and are necessarily small, making the experience intimate for a group of friends, or a great way to meet new people. There are basic introductory lessons, but you can also learn about making and using chilli paste, cooking with tea, creating dumplings and hand-pulled noodles or, for those who want to ramp up the heat, Sichuan cuisine.
The locals are sometimes baffled by the interest of foreigners in their cooking. 'Once, a woman popped her head round the door during a Sichuan class. We invited her to join in and she said, "What is there to learn? You just buy ingredients, cut them up and throw them in the wok. But can you teach me to make French pastry?" laughs Mark.
Our teacher, Sophia Du, is one of 26 teachers on The Hutong team (of which about a dozen are involved in the cooking classes). She comes from Inner Mongolia. A student of both traditional Chinese and Western medicine, she learned to cook from her parents. She tells us a little about the traditional way of using certain foods according to the seasons to achieve optimal health; for example, the warming properties of ginger make it suitable for winter dishes but not summer foods, and hot green tea has many benefits over cold water as a regular drink.
We’re going to be chopping ingredients for stir-frying, which sounds deceptively simple. However, any overconfidence is soon quashed as we discover this is a precise undertaking to be executed according to Sophia’s exacting instructions. First, we have to master holding a cleaver properly, so we practise angling the thumb and bent index finger to provide a strong, stable fulcrum. We talk about different Chinese and Western chopping techniques; Western cooks tend to rock knives back and forth, which does not suit the wider, heavier Chinese blades. Initially, the position feels awkward and unnatural, but gradually my hand gets used to it.
Sophia demonstrates her next tip. It’s a common mistake to pile up pieces of ginger and attempt to slice them all at once; this tower of slices has a tendency to collapse, making the process risky. It’s far better to lay each piece of ginger down flat, overlapping them like the scales of a fish, to achieve a stable and even result. Sophia scrutinises our matchsticks of red and green capsicums executed using the same technique and declares herself more or less satisfied, but hers are far neater.
Meanwhile, we discuss the subtleties of soy sauce and the common Western misconception that light soy is suitable for cooking, which Sophia disputes, but admits that seafood is the exception to the rule. And confusion about the Japanese and Chinese versions only adds to the muddle. We all fail a taste test, proving that our palates are not familiar enough with Chinese flavours to judge them accurately.
For a chicken and peanut stir-fry, Sophia shows us another trick: after cutting the meat into cubes, she stirs through bicarbonate of soda for several minutes to tenderise it. She then leaves it to marinate for about 15 minutes, after which she rinses off the soda and pats the meat dry with paper towel. When cooked, the meat is more succulent and has a velvety texture. It’s a technique that works just as well with pork and prawns, and requires no skills except patience. Sophia also mentions that cornflour, a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, not only enhances texture but also helps to retain moisture during the cooking process, "which means keeping in more vitamins".
Sophia fires up a large wok on a big gas burner with a percussive rumble. "This is where Westerners make the most common mistake," she explains. "They start cooking when the oil is not hot enough. It is the right temperature when you stand a wooden chopstick in the oil and bubbles form immediately around the chopstick, or when you are not able to hold your hand over the oil for more than a few seconds."
Demonstrating the Sichuan dry-fried snake beans, Sophia distinguishes between dry and wet stir-frying (the latter, obviously, requires more liquid). "In a dry stir-fry, the main ingredient is cooked to the point of dehydration and seasoning is added afterwards," Sophia says. "This intensifies the flavours."
She stirs the beans as she talks. "The oil should bubble vigorously as if it was boiling because of the water in the beans – you don’t want the oil temperature to drop too much. So if the bubbles subside immediately, take out some beans and cook them in batches instead."
As she adds chillies and a touch of Sichuan pepper, the air becomes chokingly sharp and eye-wateringly smoky, prompting a brief escape into the courtyard for some fresh air. Heat tolerance is, of course, a relative, very personal pain threshold. For those who prefer a less extreme experience at the wok, Sophia recommends roasting the peppercorns before grinding them to reduce their numbing properties.
We fall hungrily on the dishes we helped to prepare. The beans look almost desiccated but pack some heat; the chicken has a silky smoothness that contrasts with the crunch of the peanuts; and the steamed fish with ginger combines clean zing with meltingly soft flesh.
The magic of taking a cooking class in a foreign place is that the experience fast-tracks a connection through the shared ritual of preparing ingredients and comparing tools and techniques. Once you’ve cooked in a hutong and shared a meal with the locals, you feel much less like an outsider, having gained a new perspective on hutong life.
The hit list
This luxury hotel with colonial charm has plush, spacious rooms in its original wing at the front of the building. Its location on East Chang An Avenue also makes it ideal for visiting the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which are less than a 10-minute walk away. 33 East Chang An Ave, Beijing, +86 10 6526 3388, raffles.com.
Learn to cook authentic Chinese dishes under the tutelage of experienced teachers in Beijing’s traditional hutong surroundings.
1 Jiu Dao Wan Zhong Xiang Hutong, +86 159 0104 6127, thehutong.com.
In & Out
This rustic-style eatery specialises in Yunnan cuisine from the city of Lijiang. If you are not brave enough for bee pupae and fried bamboo worms, try the 56 varieties of mushroom or the delicious quince stewed with pork.
1 Bei Xiao Jie, Sanlitun Area, Chaoyang District, +86 10
Famous for its Peking duck, which is sliced at the table with surgical precision into more than 90 pieces, Da Dong is a flamboyant award-winner that’s big on extravagant presentation.
1–2/F Nanxincang International Plaza, Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District, +86 10 5169 0329.
Australian chef and restaurateur Michelle Garnaut has secured one of the premium locations in the city as the glamorous venue for Sunday brunch and buzzy dinners. Stylish decor and a luxurious menu of foie gras, beluga caviar and simpler favourites, such as the famous pavlova, make this a strong favourite with the expat community. The view from the deck as you sip your lychee martini is hard to beat.
3F/2 Qianmen Pedestrian St, Beijing, +86 10 6702 2727, capital-m-beijing.com.
Green T. House
In an unlikely outer suburb of the city, culinary fusion meets contemporary design at Green T. House, a restaurant/furniture showroom styled by an achingly hip Australian/Chinese couple with a background in fashion and design. At the helm is Zhang Jin Jie, better known as JinR. Items on the menu include a pear salad with Hangzhou pecans and goat’s cheese. Depending on your point of view, this is either a very stylish or a very pretentious place to
stop on your way to the Great Wall.
6 Gogntixilu, Chaoyang, +86 10 6552 8310, green-t-house.com.
Caroline Baum travelled to Beijing as a guest of V&A Travel (vandatravel.com.au)
Photography Paul Barbera
As seen in Feast magazine, November 2011, Issue 3. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.