Migrant workers in China cook their hometown comfort foods in communal kitchen

File photo showing a migrant worker from Baoding, Hebei province, laying a cable at a construction site in Beijing, China.
File photo showing a migrant worker from Baoding, Hebei province, laying a cable at a construction site in Beijing, China.PHOTO: REUTERS

XIAMEN (XINHUA) - Eating her favourite dishes from home was once a luxury for Ms Wang Xiuqiong, a migrant worker at a construction site in Xiamen, east China's Fujian Province, because she had no private kitchen and workers are not allowed to cook in their dormitories due to fire risks.

Last August, the project contractor on Ms Wang's construction site set up a communal kitchen, where workers can cook their own meals and satisfy their cravings for comfort foods from home.

Ms Wang booked the kitchen in advance via messaging app WeChat and invited some of her fellow workers to dinner. The group have arranged monthly gatherings to cook and eat their hometown favourites.

Her guests all migrated to Xiamen from southwest China's Sichuan Province for better pay and work as security guards, sanitation workers or construction workers. Most of them live in dorms and lack a private space to cook or gather.

One year ago, they might eat, drink and gossip in a nearby restaurant. With the communal kitchen, however, it was a different story.

The 18 sq m room contains a gas stove, two kitchen sinks with running water, vegetable oil and four bottles of common condiments: salt, chicken stock, soy sauce, and vinegar, all of which are provided free of charge.

Ms Wang bought meat and vegetables at the supermarket at noon. Like the gathering in the previous month, Sichuan cuisine was her first choice to treat her hometown friends.

"Sichuan bean paste is a necessity to make twice cooked pork. I brought two bottles to the construction site when I returned after Spring Festival, together with Sichuan spicy sausage," said Ms Wang, 43.

After two hours of cooking, six dishes sat on the table. The dishes flavoured with red peppers looked delicious to the Sichuan natives. Ms Wang's husband also bought some beer for the gathering.

The couple have been working at construction sites for more than 20 years. They moved to Xiamen four years ago. Her husband is an electrician, while she works as a chef at the construction site canteen which provides discounted meals for workers.

Ms Wang loves the communal kitchen idea. "It saves us a lot of money and provides migrant workers with a place to cook dishes from their hometown and eat then together," she said.

The dinner cost the couple around 60 yuan (S$13), less than one-third of the cost of eating at a restaurant.

Ms Wang remembers an unforgettable meal in the communal kitchen on Qixi, the Chinese Valentine's Day, which fell on Aug 28 last year. After a day's work, her husband secretly booked the kitchen and cooked several dishes for her. They had a candlelight dinner in the kitchen.

"He bought me a rose," Ms Wang recalled with a smile. "The dinner was simple, but he cooked it with heart. I felt like the happiest woman in the world."

According to Mr Lin Binbin, who is in charge of logistics at the construction site, they have more than 300 migrant workers from more than 10 provinces across China.

"They have varied tastes. It can be boring for them to always eat the same meals in the canteen. Sometimes, they have relatives and friends to call on. It costs them too much to eat in restaurants. Also, it is not safe to cook in the dorms," Mr Lin said.

Inspired by booming shared economy, the company had the idea to open a communal kitchen to solve the problem.

Mr Lin calculated the cost of the kitchen: 199 yuan for the induction cooker, 200 yuan for the wok, and 100 yuan for 10 bowls. All the equipment and seasonings cost less than 1,000 yuan.

"The kitchen might be simple, but it means a lot to our workers," Mr Lin said. "They are away from their hometowns for years, and most can only go home once a year. We want them to be able to cook their comfort foods from home."

The kitchen has been used 112 times since it opened.

"We plan to establish more communal kitchens in our company's other construction sites." Mr Lin said. "East or west, hometown taste is the best."