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The Chinese Kitchen

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The Hong Kong Housing Authority has a museum that charts the history of Hong Kong’s high-rise residential typologies, and of how people’s living in them has changed.

The time may come when we have to think of these towers as a resource that needs to be reused and repurposed as often as possible to get as much payback for the environmental cost the concrete they contain.

You can tell a lot about a culture from its kitchens. The Chinese kitchen has changed very little over the decades. It remains a source of water and a source of heat.

Even the cookware haven’t changed. Sure people have microwave ovens but they’re not the main event. The following pages I’ve scanned from Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Every Grain of Rice” book of Chinese household recipes. It shows you everything you need to equip a Chinese kitchen. You don’t even need several different sizes of wok. [This blog doesn’t always have to be about architecture.]

Wherever your Chinese kitchen is and whatever its size, it’s probably going to have one cleaver, a chopping block, a few things to stir, steam and drain food, and one or two woks. Even the material and shape of the wok has evolved for the maximum transfer of the minimum of heat,.

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The other week when I was thinking about kitchens, my short term outlook was to see them continuing to shrink in size, and the more speculative outlook was that they might even disappear completely to be perhaps replaced by a hatch through which food and drinks are served. When people are using their phones to order coffees delivered to their homes, the future for the kitchen doesn’t look good. But if we think of the fundamental elements of a kitchen, then all a kitchen is is:

a source of heat
a source of water
a source of coolth

But even the source of coolth is a new thing. Designed almost 100 years ago in 1926, that primitive icon of modernist thought, the Frankfurt kitchen, had no refrigerator, dishwasher or garbage disposal. It probably passed unnoticed by everyone at the time as they bought ingredients fresh and often as they did in most other places and that’s no bad thing. In the historic Hong Kong kitchens above, the Chinese kitchen consisted of only a source of heat and a source of water. It’s only the means of supplying them that has changed over time. The source of heat has changed from a charcoal or wood brazier to gas, in addition to various supplementary electrical appliances. Using a river as a source of water involved no technology at all but there was still a progression from wells to standpipes in the street and to hot and cold running water. The fact remains that, in China, if you have a source of water and a source of heat, then you have a kitchen and you can cook.

Amazingly, the food will turn out much the same no matter what your kitchen. The basic processes of preparing and cooking food haven’t changed.

Chinese cuisine has many standard dishes albeit with regional variations, personal variations and restaurant variations. For example, Zhejiang Province where I am, is famous for its vinegars and cooks here tend to be a bit heavy-handed with them. Generally though, there’s a shared repertoire of things to eat and how to cook them. In some of the less expensive restaurants, you simply say what you want to eat (usually while pointing at the ingredients) and say how you want them cooked or what you want made from them. Many dishes will involve cooking in a wok over short bursts of intense heat. The Chinese people don’t insist their food be served hot and this is one thing that enables all the food you see on the tables in the photos above to be cooked in the one wok. Chinese people do however prefer cooked food as opposed to cold and uncooked food such as salads. Even for breakfast.

Many of us have heard that it takes more energy to eat and digest celery than the energy the body gains from it. I learned (probably from James C. Scott’s book, Against the Grain – I’m not sure) that eating cooked food means the body has to expend less energy digesting it and therefore is able to gain more energy from it. Of course cooking that food requires energy in the form of short bursts of heat for stir frying, less intense heat over a slightly longer period for boiling noodles, and even less intense heat over a still longer period for the cooking of rice. It’s probably possible to run some experiment and verify energy in vs. energy out at the level of the body but, if the Chinese preference for cooked food derives from this, then it shows an awareness of not wasting the energy component in food. The not wasting of food in general, is ingrained.

The several dishes that constitute a Chinese meal are now all cooked and in serving dishes placed on the table where they’ll be ashared. You’ll have seen this in action at the large circular tables in Chinese restaurants where all food is placed on things we know as lazy susans. There’s no plating of individual portions. All these recipes, processes, utensils as well as the serving and eating customs have evolved together.

Before moving on to serving, I need to mention that the Chinese kitchen is nearly always separated from the eating area by sliding glass doors. My first thought was that it must be because of food odors. Another reason someone floated was that the aroma of food is something meant to be savored at the table and not as a kind of spoiler from the kitchen. I’m inclined to believe the doors were originally intended to contain air heavy with cooking oil or smoke from the wood or charcoal fires of not all that long ago.

In this photo you can see a shaft intruding into the kitchen in the space between the sink and the hob. The kitchen hood exhaust fan links to this shaft that discharges air to above the uppermost floor. This external ducting is standard practice and I don’t expect to ever see a recirculating exhaust fan in China. So although they’re no longer necessary for air quality control, the sliding glass doors still remain.

I moved apartments last week and suddenly had a new kitchen to deal with. This is the image the listing showed. Nice enough. The cupboards beneath the sink are the same the world over. The only other cupboards are the two low ones either side of the drawers and the two high ones either side of the exhaust fan (as it’s high powered and occupies say 60% of the width of the those middle cupboards.

  • The indicator on the left of the splashback wall is for controlling the hot water.
  • There are only three electrical sockets, all grouped in the corner. One will probably be used for a rice cooker and the other for an electric kettle. A microwave will have to go somewhere else such as on top of the refrigerator as there’s no more space this side of the hob.
  • There’s a double sink you can’t see from this angle. The sink has no draining board. Pots and bowls get washed, but it’s secondary to cooking.
  • There are no drawers as we know them but the two deep ones beneath the hob can be used for the drainage and storage of woks, large saucepans and serving dishes.
  • To the left out of frame is space for the refrigerator. Refrigerators aren’t built-in and considered part of the cabinetry. Conceptually, the refrigerator remains outside the Chinese kitchen. You can even choose not to have one if you wish. (In my previous apartment, I had the refrigerator in the living room.)
  • There is no dishwasher. Because there is no oven and no roasting, food doesn’t get “baked on” and food doesn’t even stay on the plates for that long. There’s nothing that can’t be given a scrub and rinsed off. Ceramic bowls are quickly and easily dried.
  • Intruding into the room between the sink and the hob is a structural column in my new kitchen but intruding into the room to the left is the cooker and kitchen exhaust shaft that will discharge to above the uppermost floor. Here.

Still on the subject of kitchen exhaust, another reason I’m inclined to think the double doors remain for the better exhausting of air heavy with oil is the exhaust fan filter. It’s an inverted pyramid that drips filtered oil into the small reservoir that can be periodically emptied. This must help maintain exhaust efficiency.

  • The hob has two large gas burners widely spaced so two woks can be used at once. Turning the knobs activates one or both rings of flame.
  • There are no special drawers for the storage of tableware such as plates, cups, glasses, cutlery etc. This makes sense because if the entire meal is already in serving dishes and on the table prior to eating, these things don’t need to be stored in the kitchen. (Family-style meals involve very little washing up as food is taken directly from the shared bowls with only small individual bowls used for, say, when you’d like to spoon some sauce over rice.) All tableware can be kept in some kind of sideboard between kitchen and table in something like this, the third one being the one I chose.

There are of course various sizes and configurations. The larger ones revert back to the kitchen dresser except now it’s placed where the food is eaten while the kitchen remains the source of heat and water it always was. Family-style eating involves even less crockery as food is taken directly from the shared bowls with only small individual bowls used for, say, when you’d like to spoon some sauce over rice.

So here is my Chinese kitchen, complete with sliding doors, powerful exhaust, two additional sources of heat (or three if you count the hot water to the sink) and my absurdly large source of coolth which comes into its own in the hot and humid summers here. I like ice, cold drinks, cold beer, cold beer glasses. I want the whole watermelon.

The refrigerator is 66cm deep and the door opening is 67cm wide but by accident or design I don’t know.

My sideboard should be delivered any minute. …

I love the Chinese kitchen. Despite more efficient ways of supplying heat and water, and of extracting air, the Chinese kitchen remains the same as it ever was. It had no need to evolve as it was already perfect. It never lost sight of its purpose to get friends together around a table and eat.

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