One of my colleagues and his wife invited me to join them last night at a private dinner at the Black Sesame Kitchen, a small cooking school/foodie haven in the Nanluoguxiang area of Beijing that was founded by Jen Lin-Liu, a writer for numerous US publications, who also wrote a memoir, "Serve the People", about her experience apprenticing with several local chefs around China as she tried to master the art of Chinese cuisine. The venue is a nicely restored courtyard home with a demonstration kitchen and a few small rooms for diners to sit and watch the action. The event was less of a cooking demo, though, than an occasion to meet Sandra Huang, a US-born Beijing resident who maintains a very useful website, SavourAsia, through which I have made several great restaurant discoveries.
As it turns out, the only guests for the evening were my colleague, his wife, a friend of theirs and a friend of the speaker, so there were just six of us eating. The meal, prepared by Chef Zhang, a Shaanxi noodle specialist who figures prominently in Jen's book, prepared a home-style menu of 7 courses (they promised ten, though, a fact that I ribbed the manager of the venue about mercilessly, prompting her to add one more course to shut me up), including fried stuffed lotus root, red cooked braised eggplant, Gong Bao chicken with cashews, a dry-cooked mushroom dish, smoked tofu with pork belly, and caramelized fried apples with homemade ice cream. The food was pretty good (though not really my favorite style, and the cashews were added to the Gong Bao chicken raw, rather than fried or roasted, so they were not crunchy at all), but the conversation was great, and we had a lot of fun.
Sandra was going to talk about Chinese food blogs, but a) there aren't all that many of them worth talking about and b) we kept digressing and veering off on tangents that turned out to be at least as interesting as her intended topic, so we just let the conversation take us where it would. Before we knew it it was past 10pm and time for us to head home and get ready for another day at work. But there was one topic that is worth mentioning, if only because of the hilarity that ensued. My colleagues and their friend are all Jewish, though only one of them makes a nod in the direction of keeping kosher by avoiding pork (except in cases where he chooses to ignore pork's presence), and one told us about a trip to the US to visit family who do keep kosher. They were in lobster country, though, and after a few days her kids begged her to sneak them out to grab a lobster meal. This they finally did, and she was rhapsodizing about how great the lobster was, and only $3.99 a pound. I pointed out that, according to the Talmud, lobster is kosher if it's on sale for less than $5/lb, leading to great hilarity around the table, followed by recriminations for the tinge of anti-Semitism that the joke entailed.
Photos to follow.