WALKING THE WOK
When my friend Daniel Chan confided in me that Jennifer was leaving him because he was washing his Wok with soap, I laughed till I started to wheeze.
And when I came up for air it was to use the little psychology I knew to assure him he was obviously displacing. Jennifer could have left him for any number of reasons – He was too short, had a missing front tooth, and even though only in his mid twenties, was already balding. To his credit he was an excellent chef, but he was considered a bit eccentric because he exercised, which is to say he ran a mile every other day. To all this Chan promptly responded, “Fuck you” the only two English words that I knew him to deliver with conviction.
It was not just Jennifer, he explained, his fellow Chinese students were no longer talking to him, and African students were eyeing him with suspicion, sometimes jeeringly and sometimes sucking air between the teeth to voice the jeer.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed improbable – that in a culinary school in a small town in Kenya called Limuru, a soap-washed but clean-rinsed wok could come between two lovers from China, and leave the man ostracized from both his community and his adopted society.
But a few days after Chan’s half-confession, half lament, the culinary students, chanting a few choice slogans like “Fry Chan” and “Walk the Wok” went on strike. The riot police, never having been called to this part of town to quell a strike by culinary students, got lost giving the students enough time to raze Chan’s dormitory to the ground. We were all sent home for two weeks.
Mpishi Msanii College (aptly translating into The Artist Chef) rested in the outskirts of Limuru, on land donated to the colonial government in the 1940’s by Lord Baring, and inherited by the African government in the 1960’s. Lord Baring carved the 10 acres from his 2000 acre ranch, declaring that Africa needed Africans with practical minds and practical skills, like cooking.
So started the Lord Baring Native Cooking School, where graduating from the three month course in British etiquette and cuisine assured students of work in country clubs and the homes of various wealthy colonials.
With the wave of nationalization and renaming that came with independence, or still-in-dependence as the witty amongst the natives called it, Mpishi Msanii College was born. The three month course in cooking pancakes, fried sausages, eggs and chips and broiled rabbit grew wings, becoming an intensive two year program that produced not cooks, but cosmopolitan chefs well-versed in local and global cuisines.
But the one thing that remained unchanged was a survival course where each student was escorted blindfolded to the middle of Ngong Forest and left there with a box of matches, a machete and a Polaroid camera. The idea was to eat well and efficiently no matter the circumstances. Some had returned with Polaroids of wild boar, snake, hare and other small game, served on plates made out of twigs and leaves. I, for one, had quickly pounced on a baby deer which I roasted to a perfect tenderness over dry fig wood fire. Mercifully, and for no good reason beyond luck, no one had ever died in this rite of passage.
With that kind of dedication to student learning, Mpishi Msanii College soon became one of the top culinary schools in Kenya. Through tourists who ate in the five-star, big-city restaurants that graduates worked in, the school’s fame grew, attracting dedicated teacher-chefs and eager students from all over the world. The student population was comprised of daughters and sons of wealthy Africans who had failed to make the grades necessary to get into their national universities and had scaled down their dreams to become cynical and reluctant chefs; Africans who really wanted to become chefs – I would like to believe that I fell into this group even though I had failed my university entrance exams - and foreign students from all over the world.
We assumed this last group to be rich, because they seemed to have the best of everything – personalized spatulas, graters with fancy monograms, and silicon mixing bowls. But it could be that one dollar when converted into a Kenyan shilling was enough to buy you a Tusker beer, three loaves of bread, a pack of cigarettes and some Big G bubble gum.
Students of each nationality naturally coalesced into gangs, and Mpishi Msanii College was home to drunken midnight cooking competitions that often ended in violence, with singed hair and burns from boiling water and hot oil. In this underground world, sabotage attempts ranging from unscrewing salt-shakers to mixing in a rotten egg in the other group’s flour mix were constant. But during the day, dressed in our white coats, bandaged arms carefully out sight, singed hair tucked under our brimming white chef hats, administrators and teacher-chefs would not have sensed any discord.
Chan was a much better chef than I – he had an imagination that allowed him to combine disparate spices or foods, as if he could mix and taste them in his head before adding them to his pan. It was he who suggested adding a light touch of curry, crushed garlic and black pepper to an onion, mushroom, green and red pepper omelet. But even more innovative, he added eggplant. Biting into it while still hot and juicy was like biting into different textures of spicy tastes - milky and crunchy all at once.
His advanced skills as a chef, combined with gang loyalty -- he belonged to the Chinese gang and I to the Kenyan gang (which further sub-divided along ethnic lines unless facing the foreigners) -- made our friendship improbable. But after we ran into each other a few times at a den where the potent, illicit brew Changaa was sold, we became fast friends.
In the den, no one spoke English, so often the laborers from nearby coffee plantations communicated with Chan through hand-gestures and drunken nods. The end result was that mutual curiosities, most of them pertaining to culture and sexual prowess, went unanswered until I came along to translate, earning myself an occasional free glass of Changaa, as well as Chan’s trust and friendship.
Chan liked to unbutton his shirt and lie down on the bench when there were only a few customers visiting, light a cigarette and start asking questions, sometime regaling us with stories of his own like how his parents were former school teachers who lost their jobs when during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Western tailored suits and dresses where found in their attic. So he grew up poor, surviving mostly on rice. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he did not have to eat plain rice, he could add spices to it, spices gathered from leaves and tree barks.
“Always remember, necessity is the mother spice”, he declared as he waved a finger at his spell bound audience. And so his rice became a gourmet meal until one day he added poisonous bark and he had diarrhea for days. It was then that he resolved to become a chef and turn his love into a more forgiving science.
One memorable night Chan pulled a bottle of Coke from his pocket and added a few drops to his glass of changaa, getting rid of the brew’s bitter aftertaste. From then on, if you wanted a touch of rum at an extra cost of one shilling, you asked for the Chan Cham Rum. The proprietor of the den, Madame, even started a running special, 10 shillings for a glass of the Chan Cham Rum, as we grew to call the drink, and a small packet of githeri – our popular local dish of boiled maize and beans spiced with a bit of salt rolled in a newspaper so that it tasted vaguely of black ink.
One day Chan drunkenly observed, and I drunkenly translated, that githeri was the most boring and unimaginative meal he had ever had the misfortune of eating. As the clientele worked themselves into a rage over the perceived insult, Madame challenged Chan to improve the githeri, or the curse of our ancestors, who had survived sieges, famines and droughts on this dish would fall on him.
Chan asked for a flashlight, and ten minutes later, he was back with an assortment of barks, leaves and grasses. He ground everything into a thick paste, and tossed a pan onto the cooking fire. He added a healthy helping of Kimbo cooking fat and let the onions brown, adding the paste and eventually the githeri.
Chan earned everyone’s respect that night. I suppose the survival course did come in handy.
Our Master Chef, an old Kenyan man who it was rumored had been Lord Baring’s chef, instructed us through a mixture of invectives and wise sayings like “Do not play God”, “Humility comes before the knife and fork,” and his favorite, “To cook is to travel through cultures.” So in our cooking lab and white aprons we had traveled to France, Turkey, Japan and Western Africa.
We had stopped by India where Master Chef started the journey by saying “Indian Food is like Jazz, Coconut milk is the drumbeat, turmeric the bass, cloves the trumpet – But curry”, he paused looking up in the air in search of the right words “Curry is fool’s gold.”
But it was while in mainland China that the troubles started. There were three commandments that had to be followed at all costs, Master Chef declared. “Love your Wok. Never wash your wok with soap. And oil your wok after each use.”
We learned how to season the Wok by roasting it over open flames for an hour, sponging it with oil, then letting it cool. We rubbed salt and black pepper over the surface, and then fried sesame seeds. Soon, the smoke, sweet and light with hints of stir-fry, filled the room. I watched my wok transform from a glossy, buy-me-I-am-new shine to a black, leathery, sand paper gloss. After several hours of seasoning our woks we left them sitting on the counter to cool overnight.
The following afternoon, after a morning spent with Master Chef lamenting how nobody takes Chinese breakfast food seriously because of the invention of white bread, we made our first stir-fry dish. Nothing heavy, a little bit of sesame oil, two tablespoons of oyster sauce, soy sauce, minced garlic, onion, bok choy, carrots and broccoli poured over short-grain white rice. It tasted good, but not unusually good – seasoning the wok didn’t seem to make a difference. We rinsed the Woks with cold water, dried them with paper towels, oiled them again and started the seasoning process all over.
Then at the end of the week it happened – and I understood what Master Chef meant when he said that the Wok, like language is also a keeper of culture. We prepared a simple broccoli-based meal, yet it contained hints of past meals, rich enough to be noticed, but calm so as not to overwhelm the present taste. It was the old giving way to the new, or rather the new recognizing its past, the original sauce still present like an active ghost in the new sauce I had just made. Later that evening while at Madame’s, it occurred to me that that if we could cook history, it would have to be with a wok.
I remember seeing Chan’s Wok in class – oil sizzling in a bottom so discolored that it was metallic, the edges a thin light blue that got darker closer to the top, the dark brown wooden handle split from overuse. It was utterly unlike my wok, which had a spongy, even sooty inner surface. Chan was clearly washing his wok in soapy water and, what’s more, scrubbing it clean with steel wool. Master Chef was pacing up and down, agitated, shouting “The Past is Prologue,” “To love your wok is to let culture grow,” “It must have history” as he tried to correct Chan by reprimanding the whole class.
Still, I didn’t foresee Chan’s actions would later tear the whole school apart.
When school reopened after the fire and we returned to a brand new dormitory courtesy of the Chinese Consulate in Nairobi, the first person I sought out was Chan’s ex-girlfriend. Jennifer, though Chinese, spoke English with a British accent. She was beautiful and clearly rich, but she had some bohemian tendencies – she liked to wear torn jeans with beat up white tennis shoes that during the rainy season kept slipping of her feet and getting stuck in the mud, and she liked to wear her long hair in a bun held in place with two chopsticks. I had an inactive crush on her.
“The wok changed Chan,” she said when I asked her why they had broken up.
“The wok changed Chan?” I repeated in surprise.
“When he started cleaning it, he started forgetting his culture. And I loved him because he was home for me,” she answered in a tone that suggested I understood what she meant. I did not.
“You really left him because of a wok?” I thought I might as well get to the bottom of it.
“How can a Chinese woman be with a man who washes his wok?” She asked with a self-conscious smile.
I started to say something else but she stopped me.
“I still love him,” she said in a whisper. “But he has to stop. You are either Chinese or you are not,” she added as she stretched a long thin arm out of an oversized rainbow colored sweater to squeeze my hand. I felt my heart flutter. It was time to go before I started misreading things.
I was starting to understand. A wok in Kenya was no longer just a wok; it was about finding mojo in a place where you were different. Chan was just not being reflexive and defensive enough. In his ability to synthesize and create, in his fluidity, he was unbalancing everyone else.
After I left Jennifer, I walked through the famous Limuru fog to come across a group of Chinese students smoking up a storm of Marlboros behind the cooking lab. I had quit smoking a few years before but I had to find a subtle way in.
“Sco?” I asked. Kenyan lingua franca demanded that I ask for a sco, short for a score.
Inevitably I followed this up with “Can I have some fire too? Damn to be out of smoke…and fire.” The laughter that followed, at once a chorus of different pitched coughs, some low some high let me know I was in. Besides, this was an opportunity for them to disabuse me of my friendship with Chan.
“The strike…” I started saying.
“It’s all about our culture, man – We are in the belly of the beast - Babylon never let dread-man grow,” a joke because everyone laughed, at me I assumed but nevertheless, it was funny and I too joined in.
“Culture…” I prompted when our laughter died down.
“We are Chinese in Africa – we are the ambassadors,” a woman masked by the smoke and fog said.
“But Chan, he is one of you,” I responded, sucking on the cigarette and thinking of the impending re-addiction, might as well make it count.
“He want to fuck the wok, instead of walking the wok,” an anonymous voice, said to more laughter.
“Look,” a more serious voice said “We are here, we eat your food, we drink your beer, we are here. But how can we really know we are here?”
“But look people, the wok, it’s not even Chinese…everyone in Asia uses a wok…”
Someone slapped the sco from my hand and slowly ground it to its death.
“In Africa, the wok is Chinese,” a voice said sounding dangerous. It was time to wade some more in the fog. I had one more stop.
At Mpishi College, there was only once place to find a concentration of Kenyans and Africans. In spite of everything we had learned about cooking, nutrients, dishes from far lands, Africans culinary students could always be found at Wakari Nyama choma where, the owner claimed, roast meat was an art. Take the African sausage, goat tripe filled with all sorts of goodies– he had a point.
So as soon as I walked in I knew what I had to do – order one kilo of the sausage and two kilos of nyama choma– rubbed with curry but just enough so that it was a hint to be overpowered with fresh garlic and minced cilantro. The African students would sing - the only question I really had to answer was this – how the hell was I going to give up this delicacy for information?
“Look man, Chan thinks he can come to Africa and do whatever the fuck he wants. He is messing with our culture. He drinks changaa and messes with githeri. Look, you don’t see me adding boiled maize and beans to broccoli” someone summarized between mouthfuls of the nyama choma.
This is what it boils down to I reasoned to myself: Jennifer wanted Chan because he keeps her authentically Chinese, the Chinese students want Chinese cuisine and traditions protected and Africans do not want foreigners to mess with their cuisine and traditions. In this collusion of interests, a strike was inevitable. But what did Chan want?
When I told Chan that Jennifer would take him back if he stopped washing his wok, his reply was to suggest we celebrate our return to school by visiting Madame.
After we were nicely drunk and he lay peacefully on a wooden bench, I asked him why he washed his wok, and with soap, when all his troubles could end simply by wiping it clean. He did not say anything; he just lay on that bench rubbing his belly like it was a genie bottle. Then he abruptly ordered me to follow him to the cooking lab.
“This, this will be something nobody has ever tasted before, not even I” he said as he threw fat salmon skin into his wok which he let fry until there was a nice ring of oil at the bottom. I knew that was going to be in place of oyster sauce. He skimmed off the now dry skin and scales and added some garlic powder, paprika, crushed red chilies and diced white onions to the oil. He turned up the flame and once the sizzle started, he turned it down to sweeten the onion until the sauce produced that musky sweet smell. He added some fresh basil and dashed some soy sauce into the wok. The sweet smell soon became a furious storm of clashing tastes, bubbling dangerously like hot molten lava.
Chan’s movements were deliberate and steady like he was keeping rhythm to something his hands and the fire were doing. He took some old rice and precooked lentils from the fridge and started heating them in a pan. He added some raisins before turning his attention back to the wok and the sauce to which he added peanuts and broccoli. When the peanuts started to brown, he took them out and threw in shitake mushrooms. Three minutes more and dinner was ready.
The food was a symphony of tastes, at once impossible yet possible. The lentils fought the rice and raisins, and the sweet onions tried to rise above the hotness of the crushed red chilies, the oil from the salmon swarmed against the current of the peanut oil. The shitake mushrooms, cooked on the outside, but steamed in the inside, had a taste that did not exist in my world until then – a slippery crunch that gave way to the softest of bites, and the broccoli, soft on the outside was still juicy and crunchy on the inside.
On my animated tongue the food was a galaxy of tastes, each distinct and without the heaviness of the past that infused the food we had been cooking. Put simply, it was as god, or perhaps the devil, intended food to taste, naked and in the present.
As we ate, or rather as I listened to what I was eating and Chan the artist observed his audience of one, he tried explaining. “The soil in which things grow, that is the real wok.” I didn’t understand and chalked it to still drunken talk.
“You know they will ask you to stop” I said as I washed his wok with soap and hot water. He did not have to answer. I knew why he would never stop. And he would never give this up for Jennifer.
I understood. My eyes were open and I was feeling lighter already. I too wanted to make dishes that were not prisoners of the past. Right was on Chan’s side – and like in a revolution, we would win more and more people to our side – one liberated mouth at a time. And if we failed and were kicked out of the school, so be it.
We had tasted the future.
“Time to go back to Madame’s” Chan said as soon as I had dried his wok on an open flame and oiled it with more of the salmon skin.