His wildly eclectic back-packers hostel in Chongqing, China, is perched on the very lip of the Yangtze River gorge. The building extends down the side of the gorge so, while we could walk in to his dining room, there were steep steps down the outside of the house to his kitchen. And even the kitchen is at different heights with another steep step between the work surface and the cooking area.
Earlier that day, local architects Matthew and Julia had showed me one of the caverns under the city. It is built on mudstone – a relatively soft rock created by millions of years of sediment from the river. There is a web of tunnels and caverns beneath the city which the residents used as shelters during the Second World War when Chongqing became the alternate Chinese capital. For me, the best element of the cavern was a sonorous echo which managed to make even my be-bopping voice sonorous.
Charlie’s hostel is lower down the gorge side than the main city so we approached through narrow alleyways cut through the mudstone. I could feel the rock walls laced with the roots of the trees growing many feet above our heads.
Charlie presented us with his own version of sweet and sour pork – in all, we tasted three different versions during our time in China – and his was embellished with his own vanilla sauce. With the speed of his cooking and the difficulties in translation, it was a challenge to catch the recipe but, in reality, it is very simple. Poached pork is cooked in vinegar (with other seasoning) until the liquid has reduced and then sugar is tossed in to caramelise. The best tip is to take enough time to let the liquid evaporate – an easy dish but it takes patience.
Do have a look at his kitchen too – it gives a perspective on Chinese home-life that is full of history, tradition, charm and originality. It was very special to learn from his generosity of spirit and get a real sense of the joy and exuberance of Chinese life.
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