Cooking With Ophelia
I first met Ophelia at English Corner where she caught my attention because she was outgoing, fun, bubbly, full of smiles and very eager to speak English with me. I noticed immediately that she was a natural leader of the group of shy Chinese students that huddled around me and was always helpful to her peers while moving the conversation along by asking questions, changing the topic or saying funny things to keep the group laughing and relaxed.
One of the things we talked about was cooking and Ophelia shared with me that she was a very good cook. She explained that since both of her parents had to work late in the fields, she was often in charge of preparing meals and taking care of her younger brother. Because of all the practice, she knew how to make a lot of the traditional Chinese dishes by memory. As soon as she could sense that I was interested, she suggested the idea of a cooking lesson and I readily accepted.
I have always been interested in cooking and food preparation. Before coming to China to teach English I worked in food service and catering. Getting the chance to learn about Chinese cooking from an actual Chinese person comfortable in the kitchen was an opportunity I knew I couldn't pass up. Ophelia asked me to think about a few dishes that I wanted to learn how to make and we scheduled a day the following week for my cooking lesson. I thought about some of the dishes that I have particularly enjoyed here and ones that I would like to try and make for my family and friends at home in America. I ended up choosing three dishes: dumplings, eggplant and peppers, and eggs with tomato.
On the day of the lesson, Ophelia called to ask if she could bring a few of her roommates and advised me to bring along some plastic bags when we met up. She explained that we had to go to the market first to pick out and buy fresh ingredients. I met up with Ophelia, Moss, Lisa and April after classes and we walked to the market together. It was an overwhelming and exciting learning experience just visiting the market and I felt so fortunate to have native Chinese speakers with me who knew the names of the countless unrecognizable fruits and vegetables and knew how to barter with the vendors as well. We bought fresh eggs, tomatoes, eggplant, greens, chives, scallions and pork along with flour to make the dumpling dough.
On our way back to my apartment, Ophelia reviewed the process for putting the meal together. First we would make the dumpling filling and roll out the dough that would eventually be shaped into dumplings. After the dumplings were cooking we would make the other two dishes since they didn't take as long and tasted better hot off the induction cooker.
Once in my kitchen, Ophelia was all business and I quickly moved from being English teacher to cooking student. It was fascinating to watch the way she moved around from counter to counter and bossily kept her roommates busy chopping, stirring and peeling. One of the most interesting things I noticed was that she used chopsticks for everything - tasting, stirring, transferring, mixing and testing. When I suggested a colander and measuring spoons and cups she didn't even know what they were! Ophelia measured everything – oil, salt, garlic and ginger purely by instinct and practice, which made it hard for me as I was scrambling trying to keep up and write down everything she was doing so I could repeat it on my own in the future.
When we were ready to make the dumpling dough she asked for a beer bottle. To my surprise she ripped the label off, washed it in warm, soapy water and began to use it as a rolling pin. I learned how to feel if the consistency of the dough was just right to begin cutting out circles to shape the dumplings. The most enjoyable aspect of my cooking lesson was that it was a collective effort. The girls were obviously having a blast and while we worked we chatted about school life, family and of course, American food. Making dumplings is a very time-consuming process and the many hands made the work go quickly.
Although I couldn't shape and pinch my dumpling dough well enough to meet the group's satisfaction, I assured them that it didn't matter to me since I was sure it would all taste the same. The way their careful fingers deftly shaped and squeezed the dough made it seem like they had done it hundreds of times before, and they probably had. When the dumplings were boiling (they are done when they float) we started working on the dishes with eggplant and peppers, and eggs and tomatoes. While Ophelia finished cooking, I set the table and put out dipping sauces for the dumplings.
As we sat around the steaming table ready to eat, I thanked Ophelia and her roommates for giving their time to help me cook. After trying each dish and proclaiming it to be incredibly delicious, Ophelia, in typical Chinese modest fashion said that it was not her best and that she shouldn't have added as much salt as she did. I protested and said that it was some of the best Chinese food I have ever tasted and indeed it was. I hope that by the end of the meal the huge dent in the pile of dumplings and my bulging stomach convinced her that the cooking lesson was a definite success.
I had so much fun connecting with a student and learning about something that I was interested in. It is moments like this when I am truly glad I made the choice to teach abroad in China. I came not only to teach English but also to chat about life, roll out dough with beer bottles, chop ginger into tiny pieces and wrestle with slippery dumplings while clumsily using chopsticks. I think next time I will invite Ophelia over and we can cook some American food. I hope she won't laugh at me too much when I pull out my measuring cups and spoons and use my knife and fork instead of chopsticks.