In May this year, we visited the Language and Cultural Centre in Beijing’s Chaoyang district. As the name implies, LCC was built six decades ago to offer courses for diplomats to learn languages and cultures of their host country. The centre also hosts musical performances of the different ethnic minorities, where the audience is introduced and immersed in the rich Chinese culture.
That evening, we were scheduled to attend two cultural events; a tea ceremony and the second Intangible Cultural Heritage concert featuring an ethnic minority music band from Inner Mongolia, a beautiful autonomous region of northern China.
Throughout our stay in China, we’ve been introduced to different Chinese cultures and traditions but one culture that has stood the test of five thousand years is tea. Forget whatever brand or flavour you have in your country; tea actually began in China. It’s the kingdom of tea. Legend has it that ancient Chinese emperor Shen Nong was sitting beneath a tree in the garden while his servant boiled his drinking water. He loved having his water boiled first before drinking it. That culture, too, survived in China till today. While the water was boiling, a leaf from a wild tree blew into the pot. The unsuspecting emperor drank the water and found the flavour tasteful. A powerful man or woman with a curious mind can solve mysteries. The emperor then set out to research the plant. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how this beautiful thing called tea was discovered and has since been an important part of Chinese culture. It’s everywhere in China. That evening at LCC witnessed such importance of tea to Chinese culture. Adorned in traditional attire, a lady arranged the materials and rhythmically sat in front of us with a variety of Chinese tea at her disposal. It was time to taste all of them.
Like I noticed when we visited the tea museum, the leaves are first delivered to you to sniff and touch. It gives you an idea of how it’s going to eventually taste or smell. It also makes you appreciate the process more. For over an hour, the lady patiently made each of the different flavours and served us, with one of our hosts, Chang Jing, beautifully playing guzheng between intervals. Green tea, white tea, yellow tea, wu long tea, black tea, dark tea, jasmine tea, and herbal tea. Each cup tasted different but equally delightful. It was a real tea ceremony.
As the cultural experience continued, the stage was set for a live musical performance by an ethnic minority from Inner Mongolia. It was the first time—in a long time—I attended a live band and it didn’t disappoint. The incredible voice and energy of the lead vocalist, the beauty of the songs and the chemistry of the band were all palpable. With the help of Hu Jiliang, who endeavoured to give us a brief intro of each song before the band took over, the team injected spirit and life into the audience who were inevitably engrossed throughout the entire show. The songs, themed on love, life and reminiscence, not only entertained the audience with breath-taking tunes but also carried experiences to which the audience could relate. In matching white, long hairs cutely tied at the back, the 6-member Mongolian ethnic minority band captivated the crowd with incredible voices and scintillating playing of the morin khuur—the horsehead fiddle. It was pure art! I sat for hours and when I got tired, I stood at the back and leaned on the wall. In any other musical show, I would have quietly found my way home but not this one. It was an unforgettable performance. The concert centred on the melodious Ten Thousand Horses Galloping.
Between the tea ceremony and the live band, we were treated to some delicious foods. Rich and aromatic, no one ran out of choices. As typical of me for decades, wherever there is chicken or meat, that’s where my grave is. We sat at the back facing a young man entertaining us with Tai Chi as we nibbled at the rich delicacies. There, I met a Chinese guy, whose English name is Eureka. I asked him about his favourite food and he didn’t even think: hotpot. I had heard a lot about hotpot and saw pictures online but hadn’t tasted it. Despite eating mushrooms, stinky tofu and skewers, I didn’t have the chance to eat hotpot. Eureka, having never met me before that event, promised to introduce me to hotpot. I agreed straightaway. It couldn’t happen immediately because we were almost ready to travel to Zhejiang Province. We decided to do it once I returned from eastern China.
Hotpot is arguably the most popular meal in China. There is a simmering metal pot with broth in the middle. The rest of the raw ingredients scatter around and you can drop whatever you like in the broth. The meal is over a thousand years old which was only popular in winter but it has now captured the Chinese people throughout the year. It is delicious yes, but it is an excellent opportunity to socialise as well. Groups of people; families, couples and friends gather around the pot, eat and also catch up on their lives.
Soon after our visit to Jinhua and Yiwu, another Chinese beat Eureka to the hotpot. We strolled around Gulou in Dongcheng district and settled atop a small restaurant. It was hot but we still ate hotpot. In a way, hotpot reminded me of the time I used to help my sisters in the kitchen. I would gladly slice onions or pound pepper or fan the fire without tiring but as soon as the meat was slightly cooked, I would start picking pieces from the pot while it boiled. Then I would be chased out of the kitchen. So, sitting around a pot in China and picking pieces while it boiled, was very reminiscent of my bad deeds in the kitchen.
It was time to honour Eureka’s invitation. That evening, we returned from Badaling Great Wall railway station. My colleague Choi and I went out to meet Eureka and his friend Joffre. The restaurant was not as classic as the Chongqing Loquat Garden but it was a nice place too, Xiaolongkan hotpot. It was a special evening, meeting and talking to ordinary Chinese people about life, career and marriage. I allowed myself to be re-introduced to hotpot, while Choi was eating it for the first time. I don’t know whether it was the Beijing mutton hotpot or the Sichuan hotpot but I loved it.
I had planned to include another hotpot in the article; a Haidilao self-heating hotpot. It uses exothermic chemical reaction to cook the meal. Don’t ask me, I don’t even know what that means. All I know is that it takes not more than 15 minutes to cook itself, with both the rice and the vegetables. For people like me who cannot cook or don’t have the time, that could be a brilliant idea to import into The Gambia. But I will leave that too for another day.