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Huaiyang cuisine and a happy ending

Updated: 2013-10-05 11:20
Huaiyang cuisine and a happy ending

Rachel Wamoto, Dodd Newtown, Maria Mantler and Elyse Ribbons pose with their culinary creations. [Photo/CRIENGLISH.com]

CRI's Chopsticks & Beyond kicked off way back in May, at the Beijing Exhibition Center. It has now hosted five competitions featuring 25 participants from all corners of the world. Along the way, the show sampled the wares of some of Beijing's finest new restaurants, and even entered the homes of Beijing expat foodies.

Sunday was the conclusion of the show, a quintessentially C&B show, this time looking at fish through a Huaiyang cuisine lens.

The four contestants had done their research and each came prepared with their own homegrown ideas about how they could put a unique spin on this regional cuisine from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

Maria Mantler, from Austria, chose to prepare a fairly traditional Huaiyang fish, served with traditional Austrian potatoes and yogurt dill dip.

Rachel Wamoto, a student and DJ from Kenya, would bake her sea bass, accompanying it with potatoes and soybeans.

American Dodd Newtown was feeling particularly ambitious with his striped sea bass with cinnamon ginger marmalade in black beer and American brown wild rice.

And fellow American, Elyse Ribbons, would be working on her playfully named Detroit Rock Fish, paying homage to her hometown. A veritable aficionado in the field of Chinese culture, she speaks Chinese fluently, and even performs Peking Opera. But would her cultural prowess apply to her cooking skills as well?

World Association of Chinese Cuisine chef Zhu Changjiang and host Zhong Qiu started the 45 minute timer, setting the cooks off to work.

Mantler and Ribbons were surprisingly relaxed as the minutes ticked by, amicably chitchatting, leisurely rinsing off the cilantro. Ribbons was particularly unstressed, noting that the 45 minute time limit was unnecessarily generous. "All of my recipes are 20 minutes or less," she stated, matter-of-factly.

Wamoto also seemed unhurried, but admitted that she wasn't sure how things would turn out. When asked if she felt well-prepared, she replied, "No, never!" with a laugh, "but I'm pretty good at working off the cuff." Her fish was inserted into the oven and her soybeans and potatoes were soon simmering in coconut milk. Perhaps working off the cuff would win her the prize.

Newtown wasted no time to start grating down cinnamon sticks into a glass of orange juice. He never studied cooking formally, but it was clear that he took cooking seriously. After all, he admitted that cooking was one of the key reasons that brought him over the Pacific. "I love traveling in China and eating everything I can get my hands on," he boasted. In addition to his unconventional featured ingredients scattered before him were items such as sesame oil, brown sugar and orange juice; piquing the curiosity of many in attendance.

At the 20 minute announcement, surprised gasps could be heard above the sizzling pans. Contestants were trying to stay optimistic. "I think it'll be okay," said Wamoto, frowning over her slowly stewing soybeans.

At the 5 minute mark, only Ribbons was in good shape. Her steamed fish had been drizzled with brown sauce and now she was simply arranging the spring onion garnish.

Wamoto conceded that her soybeans were far from ready, and the dish would have to be scrapped. Most contestants still had a lot of work to do, appreciative of how the last five minutes somehow seemed to stretch on and on. Ribbons, however, was irked that as every extra second passed, her fish was getting colder and colder.

Eventually all the dishes were compiled on the counter, and host Zhong and chef Zhu pulled out their chopsticks. Their reactions to the food were hard to read as the contestants cast nervous glances at one another. Chef Zhu remained silent, withholding his comments and judgment for the end.

Next, about 25 spectators piled in, impatient to taste the chefs' wares for the popular vote. They mm'd and hmm'd at four very different versions of Huaiyang cuisine before publicly making their choice. "I'm getting sympathy votes," joked Wamoto after a slow start of receiving a couple of votes.

Of all the Chopsticks & Beyond competitions, this last episode's voting was the most tense. In the end, a mere four votes separated the top dish from the bottom. But after a quick count, Elyse Ribbons came out on top, seizing both the popular vote as well as Chef Zhu's commendation.

"If I was judging, I would have chosen that dish too," said a disappointed Newtown, who tied for second place." And she won the presentation award, so she swept all the categories," he commented, while chugging the rest of his Boddingtons beer for consolation.

As the winner, Ribbons was as gracious as they come. Just after it was announced that the prize was hers, she blurted out that Mantler's potatoes were the best.

But she alone would enjoy the main prize of a set of professional ceramic knives and a special dinner valued at 2000 yuan at the China World Hotel restaurant. For taking the popular vote, DiningCity provided Ribbons with a 1000 yuan voucher for Wang Jia Sha restaurant.

But Ribbons was still focused on the food that she and her competitors had produced. "I think we should have combined our dishes to make one massive beautiful meal," she gushed. "We have salad from Rachel. We have the rice magnificence with the orange sauce and cinnamon from Dodd. And then we have the potato from our Austrian beauty there, and then we had my fish. And that would be the best of everything. I'm drooling at the thought!"

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