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Story & Photos by Margaret Deefholts

Behind a glass-screened counter a beaming vendor tosses skeins of noodles for the benefit of my camera. Further down the aisle the aroma of warm buns pervades the bakery section, and around another corner a customer haggles vociferously over a clutch of squirming black turtles. Along with a group of journalists, I'm in the noisy, chaotic Xin Min farmers' market in central Beijing.

Contrary to what I'd been led to expect there aren't any snakes, puppies or rats for sale. I am relieved at the absence of puppies, but a few exotic snakes or bucktoothed rats would have made a nice picture. But that's neither here nor there. The trip to the market is by way of an introduction to our cooking lesson at the Black Sesame Kitchen.


Black Sesame Kitchen is tucked away in a hutong (a cluster of tile-roofed brick homes linked by narrow, winding flagstone pathways), and owner, Jen Lin-Liu, introduces us to her staff. Our teacher Chairman Wang is a grey-haired be-spectacled matron with a wide smile, ("Chairman" is an honorific title that applies to all experts-sexist labelling is a non-issue in China!), and her assistant Chef Hu.

We are about to learn the intricacies of making dumplings from the white flour stage up. A deceptively easy procedure, until we try it. Knead the flour and water till the dough is as fat and firm as Sumo wrestler's tummy. Roll it out into ropes, then slice on the bias. Shape into balls, flatten by moving the dough around in circles and pressing down (yikes, I've produced a Rorschach blot!), add in a spoonful of the pre-made shrimp and bamboo shoots filling (scrumptious!), then fold into a crescent, and pucker the edges like a purse. Mine resemble little malformed kidneys! Thankfully nobody else does much better.

black sesame cooking class

We leave the rest of the meal to the experts. Chef Hu deftly shaves a loaf of dough into ribbon-like noodles aiming them directly into a sizzling wok, and Chairman Wang puts the finishing touches to a dim sum feast. Stuffed to satiety, I waddle out of the hutong to board our van that takes us back to the Financial District's luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Next up, another session of culinary over-indulgence, this time at the Yu Restaurant in the Ritz Carlton located in Central Beijing. Our nine-course dinner is themed to China's time-honoured beverage - tea. The menu includes several esoteric creations such as golden fried shrimps flavoured with Oolong tea leaves and poached seasonal vegetables flavoured with chrysanthemum tea. As an accompaniment to our meal, we watch a traditional Chinese tea ceremony demonstrating that the tea is infused not only with leaves but with poetic symbolism as well.

The Chinese regard the preparation and consumption of food with the same reverence and attention to detail as the most finicky of French chefs. The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Shenzhen boasts seven specialty dining rooms catering to the most discerning palates. We are treated to a seven course progressive chef's dinner starting with tapas at Leaves, their pool side bar and grill, a main course presented by their renowned Italian chef at the Paletto-and finish up hours later with deserts and cocktails at Curv (nightclub and bar) where a crooner with a voice as rich as dark chocolate sings well-loved jazz standards.

china catering

A few days later, and not to be outdone, the Hong Kong Marriott hotel also hosts us to a moveable feast which places a severe strain on the waistband of my silk evening pants. Prior to that, however, we are invited to try creating sesame seed covered dumplings in their kitchen, but none of us can match the speed and wizardry of their two chefs who plop the raw dough balls in a wok and hoist them out when they rise to the surface of the hot oil-an indication that they are fully cooked. Delicious!

It is fitting that our last day in China includes a visit to the Cathay Pacific Catering Services in Hong Kong where, capped, masked and gowned, we set off on a behind-the-scenes tour through one of the world's most sophisticated flight kitchens. This should rightfully be the subject of an entire article, but just to share a few stats: The three floor, 54,400 sq. metre facility caters to 30 airlines and their immaculate kitchens produce a staggering average of 60,000 meals for 152 flights per day! Other whopping daily numbers: 7,500 kg of fresh fruit processed, approximately 4,500 omelettes (flipped off their omelette-making machine), and 16,000 croissants that are as light as swansdown. Entire sections cater to kosher, halal, vegetarian and other specialized meals.

china marriott hong kong

We peer at a board that tracks meals and flights for all CPCS customers including the menu for my Cathay Pacific flight home to Vancouver this evening. It's as gourmet a meal as served in any upscale restaurant: smoked salmon and crab meat salad on marinated cucumber for starters, followed by (my choice) pan-fried beef tenderloin with portabella mushrooms and Cabernet sauce, red skin mash and roasted vegetables. I will sleep like an innocent in Cathay's plush business class seats, and make sure I wake up in time to have not just one, but two, flaky croissants for breakfast.


Getting There:

Cathay Pacific Airways - Airline of the Year 2009. Their attentive service, superb cuisine and wide comfortable business class seats (or cosy cubicles and flat bed luxury) makes the flight a relaxed and enjoyable experience in and of itself.

Dragonair-a member of the Cathay Pacific Group that serves 34 destinations in the Asia Pacific Region. Their service and cuisine is in keeping with the Cathay Pacific Group's standards of excellence.

Pamper yourself at the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotels (and spas) in Shenzhen, in Financial District Beijing, in Central Beijing and at the Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong. (Central)

The Black Sesame Kitchen is owned and managed by celebrity cook Jen Lin-Liu who was born and raised in the USA, but now makes her home in Beijing. She is the author of Serve the People - A stir-fried journey through China, an autobiographical account of her adventures in Chinese cooking.

PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise noted below

1. Oodles of Noodles at the Beijing Xin Min Farmers' Market
2. Chairman Wang presides over our cooking class at the Black Sesame Kitchen - Photo Finella Siambun
3.. Cathay Pacific Catering Service Centre: Preparing my salad for that night's Cathay Pacific flight to Vancouver
4. One of our group tries her hand at making sesame seed dumplings at the Hong Kong Marriott Hotel's kitchen. Photo: Finella Siambun.

For Web publication: Power point slide show - "Woking Around China" - CLICK HERE

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