In search of the ideal Tianjin kitchen

I’m super excited to have Stuart Beaton back as a guest blogger, this time sharing the story of how he found a fabulous kitchen in Tianjin, China. I was not only amazed, but also very impressed by how kitchens have evolved in China in the last decade. (Stuart’s amazing author interviews can be found on this site.) Without further ado, Here’s Stu:

The kitchen in China has long been the heart of a home – especially in Northern China, where the Kang served not only as an oven and cooker, but also as a bed.

My kitchen, here in my apartment at Tianjin Medical University, hasn’t quite got the space in which I could stretch out and sleep. Luckily central heating also means I don’t have to huddle up to my oven at night, either.

When I first came to China, the school I worked for gave me a tiny apartment, across the road from the main gates. The “kitchen” was one grease and food debris encrusted gas ring on a tiny balcony, which appeared to have been grafted onto the building as an absolute afterthought. After about a week’s worth of trying to scrub the area into something approaching a hygienic food preparation area, I gave up, and abandoned it in favour of eating out on a daily basis.

Later, I wangled a job at a private school in Tianjin, which came with a much more civilized apartment. This time the kitchen was inside the building, and was quite clean. The previous occupant had made sure it was spotless, mostly by never having used it – and I wasn’t surprised.

There was nothing to cook on. The kitchen consisted of a fridge, sink, preparation area and exactly zero gas burners, electric rings or even spots to stick a can of Sterno!

After some wrangling with the building supervisor, I bought and installed a portable two burner gas stove, and had it plumbed up to a giant bottle of gas. Unfortunately, the gas bottle took up about a third of the remaining floor area, and made using the fridge tricky. However, I plodded on for a couple of months, until Winter highlighted a badly caulked window, the breeze from which tended to play hell with any cooking efforts.

Broken, I returned to eating out a majority of the time.

A change of job, and apartment, and finally I managed to get myself an oven. I was extremely excited by this, took it home, set it up, and went through my collection of recipes, trying to pick something to make. It took me two months to find ordinary yeast to bake bread with – no one I knew used it, let alone where to find it. I eventually found it by accident in a large supermarket, hidden away on a shelf next to the rice, and four aisles removed from the flour.

Luckily, not long after I found the yeast, I found myself teaching here at the Uni – I said yes to the job on the strength of the apartment alone.

This time, the kitchen’s big enough to house my oven indoors, and not on some terribly drafty balcony. There’s a couple of mains gas burners, and a sink with running hot water (as long as you’re quick – it runs out after two minutes!), as well as just enough preparation area to let me do most of my donkey work. For bigger tasks, such as rolling out dough, I have to work on the end of the dining table.

I’ve managed, with Ellen’s help, to stock it with all the gadgets that make jobs easier (laser thermometer, anyone?), and even managed to acquire a marvelous multi-mixer to bang out batches of pizza dough. Cooking in this kitchen is a dream come true – it’s the heart of my home, the place that I automatically come to when I return from work.

Which is all well and good, but Ellen’s job means we still eat out a lot!



  1. says

    I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to read this post and see these pictures. I actually was researching Tianjin kitchens the other day- trying to find pics on the internet! Can you believe it? I have a scene in my book that takes place in a kitchen, but our kitchen when we lived in China was very western. I was trying to remember what my friends’ kitchens looked like, but I was having a hard time visualizing. SO THANK YOU!!! You have given me a HUGE gift with this post.

  2. says

    Laser thermometers are great – you can check the temperature of something instantly, and from across the room. No more dipping glass tubes into things!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

  3. Chandrika says

    I enjoyed reading this…..didn’t even know something called a laser thermometer exists! And the images made it so interesting.

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