Virtual Chinese Cooking Class Forges Real Sense of Community

Nalei Chen
Nalei Chen, chef for the cooking series and Ph.D. student, holds braised tofu.

For fourteen spring and summer Thursday afternoons, students, staff, alumni, faculty, and community members gathered with the U’s Confucius Institute to bond over food–over Zoom.

Equipped with a shopping list, recipe and instruction from Nalei Chen–a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at the U–participants learned how to parlay ingredients such as Sichuan peppercorns, tofu, zucchini, and red bean paste into traditional Chinese cuisine from the comfort of their own kitchens.

Together, they’ve made Braised Meatballs, Tong Sui, and Beef Chow Fun. Students have learned how to get the most flavor out of green onions, satisfyingly smash a block of tofu, and modify recipes to use what they have on hand or to accommodate dietary preferences.

The series began soon after coronavirus precautions closed campus closed this Spring, as a way to continue the Institute’s Chinese Corner programming.

During a conventional school year, Chinese Corner meets weekly and in-person as a casual, friendly space for U students to practice Chinese. “[When campus closed], we saw a chance to do something more hands-on,” said outreach specialist Mengqi Wang.

Wang knew people were spending so much time at home and they would have the challenge of figuring out what to cook. “We thought ‘hopefully this meets a need that many people have right now, lightens life a little bit, and also gives people a chance to practice Chinese.'”

“People at the Confucius Institute know that I love cooking and having dinner parties,” said Chen. When Wang proposed the idea that Chen could host as chef, “I immediately agreed,” said Chen, who inherited his parents’ love of cooking as a child. “I’m Cantonese, so basically my cooking is Cantonese, but I have lived in different places in China, so my style is very fusion sometimes. I have been in the U.S. for more than four years, and my cooking has also been influenced by many local cooking styles.”

The transition to online programming also offered an unexpected opportunity to attract a broader audience. “We’ve had incoming students and alumni participate. We even had a family who lived in China for a few years–they have come to join us several times,” said Wang. One particularly dedicated student even joined from a parking lot while on vacation just for the camaraderie.

Despite the difficulties and isolation that have become hallmarks of this year, the cooking class has built community, language skills, and self-reliance. Vivian Bentley, who graduated from the U in 2019 with a major in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism and a minor in Chinese, said “being with everyone cooking the same things made cooking way more fun than trying to cook alone. I’ve definitely gained confidence in both my cooking and Chinese skills.”

“It’s been really fun. There’s always lots to laugh about,” said Wang. “We come together and create a shared memory. You’re learning something new, challenging, and everyone’s product is always a little different.” Plus, Wang noted, you get to taste what you created.

“My main take-away is that I can cook delicious food. For the first time, my roommate had seconds of something I made, and the dish I made was learned during the cooking events,” said Bentley.

Chinese Corner will continue to meet in creative ways online, including via cooking classes. Visit the Institute’s website and follow on Instagram (@uofuci) to learn more.