Chief judge Mr Liu in the Chopsticks and Beyond kitchen. (Photo: CRIENGLISH.com)
BEIJING, Sept. 2 (Xinhuanet) -- Smashing a packet of cashew nuts with a bottle of white vinegar may not be the best way to crush them - but time was short and Bobby Brill from the USA had just minutes left to produce his Chinese-style prawn taco sauce.
The small kitchen was crowded with cameramen, journalists, and three other contestants all dressed in white chef aprons and hats and all competing in the latest Chopsticks and Beyond competition. The idea is to prepare a dish combining elements from Chinese cooking and your home country's cuisine. For this show contestants were encouraged to make Shandong-style dishes, a province famous for its seafood. So all of them were given a plate of long grey raw prawns. And as the show is going out close to China's Mid Autumn Festival, there were also extra points for slipping in some seasonal ingredients used by the Chinese around this time of year, such as cashew nuts and red bean paste.
Angela Grananiello from Italy was busy on the other side of the kitchen preparing her piece de resistance: Blooming Flower Prawns. This included mini farfalle pasta mixed with pesto sauce made on the spot with a pot of basil leaves and Italian pine nuts. There was also a bottle of Giacondi white wine on the table - from Italy, of course.
Across from her was Max Wengawenga from Malawi in Africa. He was busy making his self styled "Autumn Fillings." This was a rice dish with pumpkin, representing the autumn season, a pile of vegetables and the obligatory prawns. Max was attempting to create a sweet and sour taste with a combination of sugar and honey mixed with vinegar and lemon. His 'secret weapon' was a packet of Mr Spices Piri Piri powder displaying a cartoon picture of a man making an A-ok symbol with his fingers. The small print said it came from South Africa, but Max insisted the company was from Malawi.
Next to Max was Jannatul Ferdaous from Bangladesh - a country known for its curry. And, sure enough there was a packet of curry powder on the table. This was made from a mixture of spices including turmeric, cumin and coriander. There was also a pot of what looked like baby food but was in actual fact a bean paste used to fry the pumpkin. Jannatul, wearing a headscarf and smiling every time she talked, explained that she was studying for a Phd in economics and finance. She said she learned to cook from trial and error - but that was difficult to believe judging by the expert way she was preparing her dish.
As the four chefs focused on preparing their master pieces, the most important man in the room sauntered around evaluating the ingredients, cooking methods and even chipping in to help the contestants when necessary. This was Mr Liu, a clean shaven young man, nationally recognised by the Chinese government as an official food judge.
After correctly answering a bonus question, the contestants were able to ask Mr Liu for help. Jannatul correctly guessed that Mooncakes were eaten during the Mid Autumn festival. So she asked Mr Liu to help boil her pumpkin. Why, was that a difficult procedure? "No," she answered, "but it will save me time!"
Max said the most difficult challenge for him was peeling prawns - and lifted his hands to show a set of tightly bitten fingernails. But he was no fool, and after correctly guessing that Jinan was the capital of Shandong province, requested Mr Liu to do the hard work. "That's unfair!" Bobby protested in jest but seconds later there was a bowl of prawn shells waiting to be thrown from Max's table.
As time ticked down the atmosphere grew tense. Max's hands were shaking as he measured a teaspoon of honey to add to his pumpkin rice. Bobby Brill, dressed in shorts revealing a large cobra tattoo on his right calf, splashed some sesame oil on the floor as he stretched across the table to dress his salad, then used the wrong end of a pair of chopsticks to force some packaged sugar into his dish. Angela's prawns sizzled with basil in the frying pan and Jannatul was making very good progress with her fried pumpkin.
14 minutes left...
"Do we get time to make it pretty, or just cook it?" Bobby shouted as he tipped a mixture of nuts, garlic, salt and chili onto a paper towel that turned orange as the oil drained. "It's meant to be served dry," he explained, "otherwise it's gross."
"Can I get another frying pan?" He shouted, as Max was cleaning his.
Jannatul finished already! She'd even had time to neatly arrange her dish, titled 'Lovey Dovey' with several pieces of orange coloured fried pumpkin and prawn spread around the plate. "I was able to clean the prawns earlier, that's why I was so quick," she explained as the three other chefs were starting to feel the heat.
Max now had three pans heating oil at once. The idea was to deep fry the prawns in the first one hot enough. He popped a few prawns in one. Nothing. Then tried another, and they started sizzling. Next he flipped a pan frying four tacos. One jumped out. But it was ok: "I jut need three to live," he said.
Max's rice was still in the pan. But he was calm: "I'll be serving with one minute to go." Angela had produced a beautiful plate of pasta speckled with basil and a small bowl of soup featuring jasmine tea. Mr Liu had rushed to Bobby's aid as the seconds were ticking down: 4... 3... 2... "Finished!" shouted Bobby as he pulled out a professionally displayed plate as if from nowhere featuring three tacos divided by three small bowls of dips.
Finally the tasting. The four chefs lined up with their masterpieces in front of them: Bobby with his US / Mexican taco dish; Angela with her pasta, pesto, prawns and cashew nuts; Jannatul with her fried pumpkin and roses made from tomato skin; and Max with his mix of rice, pumpkin and peppers fusing of African and Chinese cuisine.
Within minutes 31 people entered the kitchen queueing up to sample the delicacies. But before they had a chance there was silence as Mr Liu tasted for himself. The contestants looked on, all wearing their chef outfits. And then the rest of the room came to have a try. "I prefer the dish made by the guy from Malawi," said one visitor in a white t-shirt, "because it's the best fusion cuisine." Two girls both holding large mobile phones said they preferred Jannat's offering because "it's the most Chinese. The others all taste foreign."
Finally the prizes are awarded. There are two: the chef's choice and the popular choice. Bobby wins both in a culinary grand slam. It was a close decision but ultimately his prawn tacos and cashew nut garlic dip got the vote.
"It was a little scary from the beginning, all the way to the end because it went so fast," Bobby said after receiving his award. "With 10 minutes left I had to clean the shrimp, heat up the oil, batter the shrimp and cook them... I am very very surprised and excited to win the grand prize because I didn't think what I made was so acceptable to Chinese tastes. But I'm really happy."