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Kikujiro

Wok phobia

51 posts in this topic

The food diary thread (keep them coming) has got me thinking about my relationship to Asian (particularly Chinese) food. [i'm not going to start trying to make sushi at home except maybe as an entertainment.]

Although I think its incidence may have been exaggerated over the past couple of weeks, it's clear to me that Chinese and related cuisine is a very regular part of my diet, but that I almost never attempt to cook it at home. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, experience: I am confident I know more or less what I'm doing with European dishes generally. Meats and fish turn out fine, pasta and risotto probably better than the average decent restaurant over here (although some notches below the best). On the other hand, my occasional attempts at Chinese dishes are unarguably worse than the average decent restaurant. Of course, this is related to the relatively tiny amount of experience I have.

The main issue here is fear of the wok. This may be partly rational, viz. the widespread line that you can't cook well with a wok on a domestic gas hob. Related to this is the speed of cooking: I am used to tasting throughout the process and adjusting amounts, speed and heat accordingly. Wok-cooking seems more like Superman in the telephone kiosk: when do you get to respond to what's happening? Then there's the sheer number of ingredients that seem to be involved in many Chinese recipes, versus European ones. Concerns here include both managing the increased number of variables and simply managing to control a decent larder of useable ingredients.

Then there's the fact I don't have a rice cooker ...

Firstly, then, is this something I should be pursuing, or is it best left to the several good-to-very-good restaurants within comfortable walking distance of where I live? And if so, am I best just continuing to bash along until I improve, in which case can somebody recommend a good book to work through, or should I think about an evening course or something?


Edited by Kikujiro (log)

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Bash away. Look for an evening course.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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No.

But I'm sure Toby can recommend some.

I just read cookbooks like murder mysteries.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Wok cooking is very visual. It happens pretty fast and your hands are busy tossing things around, so I think the judging of when to add the next ingredient, when it's done, are visual decisions with maybe how it smells secondary. You just have to have everything prepped and close at hand. As for seasoning, if you're using salt at all, it usually goes in right at the beginning when you first fry the garlic or whatever; I usually follow the amount called for in the recipe for soy sauce, oyster sauce, the first time I cook a dish.

You really don't need that many extra pantry ingredients -- several types of soy sauce, maybe sesame oil, oyster sauce, some of the bean pastes, star anise, dried mushrooms. Also, Chinese-style rice is really easy to make and can be done in a pot without a rice cooker.

Chinese slow-cooked casserole dishes are great in the winter, as are steamed foods, and I think you can make these taste better at home than they do in most restaurants.

If you can find a copy of Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking, it's a great book to learn from.

(edit: right on cue, Jinmyo)


Edited by Toby (log)

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Kiku - I found Yan-Kit So's book on Chinese cooking published by Dorling Kindersley (and almost always in print) very useful years ago.

I gather from your post that you have a gas cooker, so that's a major hurdle already overcome. The next is to establish a relationship with your wok :wink:

P.S. you haven't heard the last of me on the diary thread yet... but I've got to learn how to transfer pictures from my new digital camera and upload them first.

Sorry I didn't see you at Borough.

v

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I gather from your post that you have a gas cooker

This was fairly high up on the list of criteria when looking at apartments to rent :biggrin:

Looking forward to the photos. Sorry I missed you at Borough too.

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I have a round bottomed wok, but I'm unsure how to use the wok ring. I have gas, and the ring can go either direction, with the big side up or down, which puts the wok closer to or further from the flame. I would think that having the wok closer to the flame would be better, but then the heat from the flames want to come out through the holes on the wok ring (not the flames themselves, just the heat). What should I do?

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If you can turn the grille thing on your stove that fits over the burners upside down so that the wok can actually sit in the round depression (concavity?), you can dispense with the wok ring. The flames will be directly under the wok and the heat shouldn't escape as much. (Sorry, I'm hopelessly retarded when it comes to names of things.)

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OK, I just tried turning the grille upside down, and it is sitting directly on the burner. Then I removed the grille, and put the ring directly around the burner (small side down), but it's not quite centered, and the wok sits on the burner instead of the ring. Then I flipped the ring, but it's too wide for the space around the burner, and sits on the ledge on 3 sides, and isn't very stable. If I put the grille back, and put the wok directly on it, it's kind of stable, but I like the stability of the ring better. The problem is that the heat comes out the holes and burns up my potholders. I've been looking for a wok with a long handle, but have had a hard time finding with a round bottom.

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Both my long-handled woks are pretty much round-bottomed, perfectly round on the inside and with a slight flattening at the outside base, so it balances okay. One is a Chinese iron one, and the other is a weird Joyce Chen-like one made out of a strange black metal that I don't like as well.

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Where did you get the iron one? Is it cast iron? It seems like it would be too heavy to lift! The Joyce Chen woks available now have flat bottoms.

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Barbara Tropp's first cookbook (Modern Art of Chinese Cooking) is fairly good. I use the Wei Chuan books a lot, but you need some basics before you use those books -- they don't have a lot of instruction, just the ingredients and the bare minimum of cooking/technique instruction.


Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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I'm watching this thread closely and hoping to learn. I, too, have a great fear of woks and further, with an electric range, they seem ill-fitted for the job they are supposed to do. I read recently and I wish I could remember where, that a large cast iron pan was more practical on an electric range and I did experiment. My resulting stir-fry was much better than any I had done before (mind you, I have never owned a wok!). I let the pan get very, very hot before I added any ingredients and I keep a flame tamer handy to slip under when things seem to be getting out of hand. However, it still takes a very long time for a cast iron pan to lose heat.

My bigger problem with stir fries is that they seem bland and have a sameness about them. Now, I also have to admit that I have a fear of chinese ingredients simply because they are so unfamiliar to me and even sound scary: blackbean sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce.

Yet Chinese is one of my favourite cuisines ever since a friend introduced to me to a little-known restaurant in Toronto that was highly regarded by the Chinese community but little used by the general public. This was many, many years ago and I'm sorry but I can't remember the name. There was zero ambience - just long, bare wooden tables and benches. But the food - oh the food! I can't even remember what I ate only that I thought it was marvellous. Since then I've had a few meals in Chinese restaurants but only in one run by a friend have I found the food to be good. Still I persist in believing that one can make good Chinese food at home.

So I'll be watching and hoping as this thread develops.


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.” William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Where did you get the iron one?  Is it cast iron?  It seems like it would be too heavy to lift!  The Joyce Chen woks available now have flat bottoms.

It can't be cast iron, it's not that heavy. I've looked it up now -- it's made out of a "thin, tempered iron," whatever that means. I got it in a kitchen supply place in Chinatown in San Francisco a long time ago. The Joyce Chen one is, I guess, more flat bottomed than round; it's easier to deal with on the stove, but I don't like cooking in it as much.

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Years ago, I used Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking, and produced very successful Chinese food. Eventually, I stopped cooking Chinese dishes at home because there was no way I could pretend that the sodium content was within reasonable bounds for me and decreasing the salt resulted in a distinct loss of "Chinese-ness." I still eat in Chinese restaurants, of course, because as long as I don't see what goes into the work, I'm able indulge in my self-delusion.

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I read recently and I wish I could remember where, that a large cast iron pan was more practical on an electric range and I did experiment.  My resulting stir-fry was much better than any I had done before (mind you, I have never owned a wok!).  I let the pan get very, very hot before I added any ingredients and I keep a flame tamer handy to slip under when things seem to be getting out of hand.

I have electric, and use an all-clad pan, not cast iron, so I have better heat control. Don't forget the "two burner method" -- one on highest, one on medium.

As to flavors, check out a mess of chinese cookbooks -- there have been some good ones recommended here -- from the library, do some reading, cooking, and then you can purchase only the cookbooks you know you'll use and like.


Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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Once I accepted the fact that even with an extra-hot burner, I would never be able to duplicate Chinese restaurant food at home, I lost my fear of trying to cook "Chinese-ische." In other words, I can't get that almost-instant caramelization of vegetables, seafood, meat, etc, that seems to be the hallmark of a good stir-fry. But I can still get the flavors of the sauces and spices, so I can live with that.

As for the seemingly vast number of ingredients: many of them are in small amounts, so prep time is not all that great. And this is one instance where "salad bars" are actually a good thing -- pre-cut pepper strips, celery, etc. (just wash it well before using). Do you have them there?

Kiku -- you're not afraid of the flipping-and-tossing thing, are you? If so, just practice with something like cherry tomatoes or small potatoes in a cold wok, until you are comfortable with the push-it-away-from-you-then-lift-and-jerk-it-back-toward-you motion. Just like flipping something in a sauté pan.

Just keep bashing away. Ask questions about dishes you like, when you eat out. Try to figure out what goes into a dish, and how it is made, and then try it at home. Of course it won't be exactly the same, but you'll have fun learning.

Yes, Barbara Tropp's books are very, very good.

And Nolonger -- a lot of those "unusual" ingredients keep forever, and you can always try adding a little of them to Western dishes to give a subtle change.

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I don't know if you had a chance to look at my Q & A from 2 weeks ago but I wrote a post talking about many of your concerns. I have copied it here and hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to respond or ask any further questions. By the way, I too like Irene Kuo's book and mentioned so during the Q & A.

ES

AN APPROACH TO COOKING AND FLAVORING CHINESE STIR FRYS

To my mind learning to cook proper Chinese is food is akin to learning a craft. Once you have mastered the techniques you can move ahead and apply your knowledge to create a series of basic preparations and their variations. Unfortunately I don’t think there are just two or three supreme tips. I have a philosophy about how to approach and think about this way of cooking and hope that it will be helpful in guiding you as well as others.

1) Learn how to select the correct cuts of meat and vegetables and how to prepare, cut, and flavor (marinate) them for cooking.

2) Learn how to cook these meats and vegetables so that they are properly cooked through and exactly the right texture.

3) Learn how to season the food you’re preparing.

Time after time my cooking seems to reinforce this approach.

For example when you’re making beef and broccoli, you start by purchasing the right cut of meat and learning to slice it to the desired shape. Different cuts lend themselves to different shapes. Of course you’ll need some really fresh broccoli. Make sure it isn’t too old and tough. When we start to cook this dish we fry the meat so that it is just cooked through and quite tender, and cook the vegetables so that they aren’t raw, but bright green and crisp/tender. Finally we create a sauce and then toss the whole thing together, for just 20-30 seconds, so that the meat and vegetables are properly seasoned. We quickly dribble in a touch of sesame oil, to create a great smell, and then remove the food from the wok and plate it. Should you toss the meat in the sauce for more than a few seconds it will toughen and your dish will lose some quality.

***This 3-step technique of preparing the food, then cooking it to the right texture, and then flavoring it, recurs in recipe after recipe. Most importantly, when you start to think about stir-frying this way, it provides an approach for dealing with all sorts of Chinese and Asian recipes.***

Beyond this here are some other basic pieces of advice:

For home cooking I suggest cooking in a 14” flat-bottomed wok.

Get a wok strainer

Use a Chinese spatula and a Chinese stir-fry spoon

Get good recipes

Use really fresh food

Use good homemade chicken stock

As a practical example I have included a fairly detailed recipe for your perusal.

Ed

Sliced Beef with Broccoli

Ingredients:

1 lb. flank steak, trimmed and partially frozen

NOTE:you could also use other cuts among them boneless sirloin or filet mignon or my favorite poor man's cut: chicken steak (also know as beef blade chuck steak - it first needs to be trimmed of exterior silver skin and interior gristle)

for the beef marinade:

1 egg white

1 T dry sherry or Shaoshing wine

1/4 t salt

2 T cornstarch

1/2 head broccoli, washed and cut into 2”pieces

2 scallions, cleaned and cut in 1/3” pieces

1 t minced garlic

1 t thin sliced ginger, cut in 1/2” pieces

for the seasoning sauce:

1 1/2 T Kikkoman soy sauce

2 t oyster sauce

1 t dark soy

1 T dry sherry or Shaoshing rice wine

1/2 t sugar

1/4 t MSG (opt)

dash white pepper

1 T cornstarch dissolved with 1 1/2 T water

3 cups vegetable oil

add at the last moment:

1/2 t sesame oil

Prepare Ahead:

1. To slice the beef: Holding your cleaver at a 45-degree angle to the cutting surface and cutting across the grain, slice the partially frozen flank steak into 1/3” thick pieces, each 2”- 3” long and 1/2” wide.

2. To marinate the beef: Put the beef slices in a mixing bowl and add the egg white, wine and salt. Using your fingers briskly mix for about 30 seconds until the beef is evenly coated. Next add the cornstarch and continue mixing until it is just dissolved. Transfer the beef to a clean mixing bowl, discarding any extra marinade clinging to the first bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook. The beef may be cooked immediately though its texture is best after 12 hours. If well refrigerated it will stay fresh for at least 48 hours.

To Cook:

3. To cook the beef: Heat 3 cups of oil in a wok until it is moderately hot: 280-300 degrees F. With the heat turned to it’s highest level, add the sliced beef to the hot oil, and using a pair of chopsticks or a slotted spoon, gently swirl the beef in the oil so that the slices separate from one another. Cook, stirring gently, until no trace of pink remains and the beef starts to bubble vigorously in the oil: about 60 seconds. Using a slotted spoon transfer the beef slices to a strainer suspended over a pot to catch the dripping oil. After removing the beef from the oil continue to leave your wok full of oil over high heat.

4. Cook the broccoli: With the flame still at its highest level, reheat the oil for about 2 minutes: until it is 325-350 degrees. Now add the broccoli to the oil and cook stirring gently for 30 seconds. Immediately stop the cooking by draining the contents of the wok over the beef and into the same strainer that’s suspended over a pot to catch the oil. If any of the beef marinade has stock to the wok scrape it out and discard it. Wipe out your wok and return it top the heat. Note: If a great deal of marinade has stuck to the pan you may have to wash out the wok and reheat it.

5. To sauce the food: With the heat turned to its highest level add 1 T vegetable oil to the wok followed by the garlic,

ginger, and scallion. Cook, stirring for 10 seconds, then add the seasoning sauce that has first been briefly mixed to redistribute the cornstarch. Stir constantly until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens. Working quickly add the beef and broccoli to the wok and continue stirring until the food until it is completely coated with the sauce, about 30 seconds. Don’t stir the meat in the sauce any longer than necessary: boiling it in the liquid will toughen it. Immediately sprinkle with the 1/2 t of sesame oil and serve.

--------------------

Ed Schoenfeld

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Thanks for all the advice, and Ed, thanks for your detailed post, which sounds like an excellent way to get stuck in. That will be my next project. I'm encouraged that I have all the pantry items already (does Shiaoxing wine keep, or is it like, um, wine?). I think I need to buy a bigger wok. All this will happen very soon after Christmas :smile:

Suzanne -- it's not the flipping technique per se that concerns me. I'm usually a bit gung ho with imitating techniques I've seen. It's more the issues I described before (number of ingredients, how and when do you make adjustments, and so on). Ed's and other's posts have been very helpful in this respect. (Edit note: having said which, I think using a too-small wok did make the technique harder, as well as reducing the heat's effectiveness by overfilling.)


Edited by Kikujiro (log)

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The major difference between's Ed's post and almost every Chinese recipe I've seen for stir-fry, is that the recipes call for 3-4 tablespoons of oil, and Ed calls for 3 cups. Ed's, of course, is more like what I've seen in restaurant kitchens -- they basically deep fry the meat in oil, remove the meat, pour off all but a little oil, and finish the dish (the veggies are usually blanched in a big tub of boiling water).

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The major difference between's Ed's post and almost every Chinese recipe I've seen for stir-fry, is that the recipes call for 3-4 tablespoons of oil, and Ed calls for 3 cups.  Ed's, of course, is more like what I've seen in restaurant kitchens -- they basically deep fry the meat in oil, remove the meat, pour off all but a little oil, and finish the dish (the veggies are usually blanched in a big tub of boiling water).

You're correct in talking about the use of oil. But I think a little more explanation would be helpful

In home stir frying the food is cooked by being tossed in the pan, and the pan transmits the heat to the food. When you 'velvet' (marinate protein in egg white, cornstarch, salt and wine) and then pass it through the oil, the oil rather than the pan transmits the heat. Since the food is surrounded by the oil, it cooks much more evenly, and quickly. You end up with a better and more uniform result and ultimately a less oily one. At first this may sound contradictory. But follow me for a second. When you stir fry you have 2-3 T of oil in the wok. This will typically end up being part of the sauce. When you 'pass' food through oil, the food is well drained and the wok is wiped cleaned before the food is returned to the wok for saucing. Using this method you can usually end up with less oil in your finished product.

Keep in mind the following:

In Chinese cooking when we do a stir fry dish we first cook the meat and vegetables until they are 96% done, remove them from the wok and then create a sauce. When we make a sauce we almost always start with the herbal ingredients first, garlic, ginger, scallion, hot peppers, and then any pastes, hoisin, sweet or hot bean paste, and then afterwards add the liquids and dry spices: stock, soy, oyster sauce, wine, salt, sugar.

By the way in a Cantonese kitchen vegetables are usually blanched in water, however in a northern or Szechuan kitchen they may often be cooked in oil. They cook very differently in oil because is is at least 100 degrees hotter than boiling water - 10 second string beans - crispy and beautifully bright green.

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The major difference between's Ed's post and almost every Chinese recipe I've seen for stir-fry, is that the recipes call for 3-4 tablespoons of oil, and Ed calls for 3 cups.  Ed's, of course, is more like what I've seen in restaurant kitchens -- they basically deep fry the meat in oil, remove the meat, pour off all but a little oil, and finish the dish (the veggies are usually blanched in a big tub of boiling water).

You're correct in talking about the use of oil. But I think a little more explanation would be helpful

In home stir frying the food is cooked by being tossed in the pan, and the pan transmits the heat to the food. When you 'velvet' (marinate protein in egg white, cornstarch, salt and wine) and then pass it through the oil, the oil rather than the pan transmits the heat. Since the food is surrounded by the oil, it cooks much more evenly, and quickly. You end up with a better and more uniform result and ultimately a less oily one. At first this may sound contradictory. But follow me for a second. When you stir fry you have 2-3 T of oil in the wok. This will typically end up being part of the sauce. When you 'pass' food through oil, the food is well drained and the wok is wiped cleaned before the food is returned to the wok for saucing. Using this method you can usually end up with less oil in your finished product.

Keep in mind the following:

In Chinese cooking when we do a stir fry dish we first cook the meat and vegetables until they are 96% done, remove them from the wok and then create a sauce. When we make a sauce we almost always start with the herbal ingredients first, garlic, ginger, scallion, hot peppers, and then any pastes, hoisin, sweet or hot bean paste, and then afterwards add the liquids and dry spices: stock, soy, oyster sauce, wine, salt, sugar.

By the way in a Cantonese kitchen vegetables are usually blanched in water, however in a northern or Szechuan kitchen they may often be cooked in oil. They cook very differently in oil because is is at least 100 degrees hotter than boiling water - 10 second string beans - crispy and beautifully bright green.

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I've often noticed that the chicken I get in dishes such as Hunan Chicken has a great golden color without being browned. When I stir fry at home, mine goes from white to browned. Is this from the type of oil or the amount?

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      Back in 2008, the Chinese government issued a list of official dish translations for the Beijing Olympics. It is full of weird translations and total errors, too. Interestingly, few of the dishes in the book are on that list.
       
      Anyway, for what it is worth, the book's content list is here (Word document) or here (PDF file). If anyone is interested in more information on a dish, please ask. For copyright reasons, I can't reproduce the dishes here exactly, but can certainly describe them.
       
      Another problem is that many Chinese recipes are vague in the extreme. I'm not one to slavishly follow instructions, but saying "enough meat" in a recipe is not very helpful. This book gives details (by weight) for the main ingredients, but goes vague on most  condiments.
       
      For example, the first dish (Dezhou Braised Chicken), calls for precisely 1500g of chicken, 50g dried mushroom, 20g sliced ginger and 10g of scallion. It then lists cassia bark, caoguo, unspecified herbs, Chinese cardamom, fennel seed, star anise, salt, sodium bicarbonate and cooking wine without suggesting any quantities. It then goes back to ask for 35g of maltose syrup, a soupçon of cloves, and "the correct quantity" of soy sauce.
       
      Cooking instructions can be equally vague. "Cook until cooked".
       
      A Bite of China - 舌尖上的中国- ISBN 978-7-5113-3940-9 
    • By liuzhou
      Introduction
       
      I spent the weekend in western Hunan reuniting with 36 people I worked with for two years starting 20 years ago. All but one, 龙丽花 lóng lì huā, I hadn’t seen for 17 years.  I last saw her ten years ago. One other, 舒晶 shū jīng, with whom I have kept constant contact but not actually seen, helped me organise the visit in secret. No one else knew I was coming. In fact, I had told Long Lihua that I couldn’t come. Most didn’t even know I am still in China.
       
      I arrived at my local station around 00:20 in order to catch the 1:00 train northwards travelling overnight to Hunan, with an advertised arrival time of 9:15 am. Shu Jing was to meet me.
       
      When I arrived at the station, armed with my sleeper ticket, I found that the train was running 5 hours late! Station staff advised that I change my ticket for a different train, which I did. The problem was that there were no sleeper tickets available on the new train. All I could get was a seat. I had no choice, really. They refunded the difference and gave me my new ticket.
       
       

       

       
      The second train was only 1½ hours late, then I had a miserable night, unable to sleep and very uncomfortable. Somehow the train managed to make up for the late start and we arrived on time. I was met as planned and we hopped into a taxi to the hotel where I was to stay and where the reunion was to take place.
       
      They had set up a reception desk in the hotel lobby and around half of the people I had come to see were there. When I walked in there was this moment of confusion, stunned silence, then the friend I had lied to about not coming ran towards me and threw herself into my arms with tears running down her face and across her smile. It was the best welcome I’ve ever had. Then the others also welcomed me less physically, but no less warmly. They were around 20 years old when I met them; now they are verging on, or already are, 40, though few of them look it. Long Lihua is the one on the far right.
       

       
      Throughout the morning people arrived in trickles as their trains or buses got in from all over China. One woman had come all the way from the USA. We sat around chatting, reminiscing and eating water melon until finally it was time for lunch.
       

       
      Lunch we had in the hotel dining room. By that time, the group had swelled to enough to require three banqueting tables.
       
      Western Hunan, known as 湘西 xiāng xī, where I was and where I lived for two years - twenty years ago, is a wild mountainous area full of rivers. It was one of the last areas “liberated” by Mao’s communists and was largely lawless until relatively recently. It has spectacular scenery.
       
      Hunan is known for its spicy food, but Xiangxi is the hottest. I always know when I am back in Hunan. I just look out the train window and see every flat surface covered in chilis drying in the sun. Station platforms, school playgrounds, the main road from the village to the nearest town are all strewn with chillis.
       

       

       
      The people there consider Sichuan to be full of chilli wimps. I love it. When I left Hunan I missed the food so much. So I was looking forward to this. It did not disappoint.
       
      So Saturday lunch in next post.
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