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Chopsticks & Beyond: On Track in Tianjin
   2015-01-12 17:02:18    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Shen Siling

A contestant at the Chopsticks & Beyond Tianjin Snack Attack event  twists mahua into shape. Photo taken January 9, 2015. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/Shen Siling]

W. Wang

Tianjin and Beijing may be separated by a mere 30 minutes of rail, but the two cities have definitely maintained their own unique flavors of culture, dialect, and cuisine. Chopsticks & Beyond took to Tianjin last Friday, where the cooking show invited a number of food industry professionals to take part in the Tianjin Snack Attack contest.

The contestants were all foreign expats, most of whom make their living in Tianjin's food or hospitality industries. The competitors were dealt the tall order of creating three Tianjin specialties: goubuli baozi (steamed buns stuffed with vegetables), guifaxiang mahua (fried dough twists) or jianbing guozi (fried crepe topped with egg and garnishes).

The Chopsticks & Beyond crew teamed up with Tianjin Television City Channel and gathered in a large open hall set up in the Westin Tianjin. The master chefs began by showing how to create the three dishes, and the seven contestants clamored for a view. Anybody who's been in China for a few weeks has surely seen jianbing crepes being whipped up on the corner, though contestants broke a sweat as the chefs demonstrated the minute details required to prepare the baozi and mahua. Is it really necessary for the pinched tops of the goubuli baozi to include exactly 18 wrinkles? That would be for the judges to ascertain.

The chefs had barely finished showing what to do before host Lucy Luan (from EZ Cafe) yelled Go, setting off the 45 minute timer. Luan reiterated again and again the Chopsticks & Beyond theme that calls on chefs not to just duplicate Chinese food, but to be creative in their interpretation of the dishes. However, some contestants claimed to ignorance about this aspect of the competition. "I found that out about like 20 minutes ago!" grumbled American Austin Guidry. "Yeah, I didn't prepare anything," moaned Canadian Alex Custeau. "It's my fault." In contrast, Cat Nelson from Time Out Beijing came well-prepped with her own African piri piri spice mix, smoked Vietnamese chili powder and ginger bread spice.

The contestants busied themselves rolling the dough and stuffing the baozi, which wasn't as difficult as some had imagined. The mahua, however, turned out to be far from simple, despite the ease with which master chef Liu spun it out. The dough has to be rolled into a thin strand, before being doubled up, twisted, and rolled out again several times over.

The jianbing was tricky too. Batter was poured onto a spinning circular hotplate, carefully spread out with a spatula tool; an egg was cracked on top, a crispy cracker snapped into pieces and placed atop with a sprinkling of green onions or whatever each contestant had in mind; all folded up into a (hopefully, but not always) tidy pocket.

Sometimes, the master chefs (who also served as judges) were so displeased with what contestants were doing that they seized the tools from their hands in order to prevent them from committing culinary blasphemy.

Impressively (and surprisingly), by the time the 45 minute  timer had sounded, all contestants had three dishes waiting to be sampled. Admittedly though, a few were a tad undercooked.

The professional and public judges proceeded to line up, grab tidbits of foods, and chewed thoughtfully. They noted contestants' efforts to separate themselves from the crowd. Some added special ingredients, whereas others focused on presentation to stand out.

After sampling the 21 separate dishes, the judges had a brief discussion before deciding that Alex Custeau's three dishes were enough to claim top prize. Interestingly enough, though he hadn't prepared in advance, he managed to get ahold of some wasabi which gave his food just enough zing to take it to the top.

The public judges, however, chose van Haastrecht as their man. "I learned something today," he said graciously, accepting his prize. However, as other contestants and audience members could attest, he wasn't the only one.

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