Many years ago I used to be involved in leadership training and we talked about the four stages of learning a new skill and how you progress from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence” – think of it like learning to drive a car where you reach a point where it becomes second nature.
I thought about that today when I attended my last cookery class in Beijing this time around – back to Black Sesame Kitchen for a lesson in preparing Imperial Chinese dishes. Imperial cooking is not a regional style of cooking but more a technique – the more complex style of preparation used for the royal family. It was the 8th cookery lesson I have taken in the last 3 weeks, not to mention the few impromptu ones I have had from my Quin Jia, Shan’s MaMa which are ongoing – tomorrow we go shopping together to the market and supermarket, armed with my pinyin shopping list, for ingredients and utensils to take home to Ireland.
When I used to teach leadership skills, the tacit assumption was that you moved seamlessly up the skills ladder. What you tend to forget is that sometimes you have to go backwards before you go forwards and over the last few days there were times when I felt right back at the “conscious incompetence” stage when it came to Chinese cooking.
I came out on this trip to China thinking that I was almost getting the hang of it. I’ve certainly developed a feel for the culture, an understanding of the food and ingredients, the importance of balance in the Chinese diet, the relationship between food, health and medicine and the regional variations. I recognise the importance of careful preparation and was even beginning to think I could cook quite well.
But over the past few days it came home to me just how much more I have to learn about technique, whether it’s to improve my cutting skills with a cleaver, get precision into shapes and sizes, judge the temperature of oil in the wok, get the correct consistency when “velveting” meat, balance the seasoning of a dish or simple wok skills to move and flip the ingredients correctly around the wok.
Now Imperial Chinese dishes would not be top of my list of sought after Chinese cuisine – they lack the fiery punch of Sichuan, Hunan and Shanxi provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan and Cantonese food. But I was interested in the techniques involved in their preparation and what I could learn that would translate to other dishes I prepare so I was delighted when a last minute cancellation meant there was a space for me at today’s class.
Once again it was Chef Zhang who did the cooking, as on my first visit to the school two weeks ago to learn about cooking with colour , and we were led though the class by Candice Lee. We diced and sliced and prepared three dishes fit for emperors of old.
Fried Shitake and Coriander Stir-Fry – suchao shansi
I loved the meaty texture of this dish made with rehydrated dried shitake mushrooms. I noted the attention Chef Zhang paid to squeezing all the excess moisture out of the mushrooms and how he judged the temperature of the oil to be just right at 140 degrees C and not too hot.
The addition of shredded carrot and bamboo shoots, minced leek, ginger and garlic, a little chicken bouillon, black vinegar and coriander made this a tasty dish whose simple ingredients belied the effort involved in putting it together.
I felt the urge to add a dash of homemade chilli oil and black vinegar to the final dish. Pine Nut and Beef Stir-Fry – songren niurou mi
The trick in this dish involved cutting the beef into cubes of less than 1 cm and “velveting it”, adding salt and then water a little at a time, up to half the weight of the beef, beating it in with your hands and then cornflour and eggwhite.
This time the beef was cooked in the oil at 120 degrees C – judging the temperature of the oil is more an art than a science but if you add a few drops of water in with the oil at the beginning at least you will know when it has reached 100 degrees C as the oil will have stopped spitting. In this case the reason for the lower temperature was to have the beef soft and tender rather than crispy and to lock the flavour and the moisture in.
Finely diced red and green peppers were added in for just a few seconds before the beef was strained off.
The usual trio of leek, garlic and ginger were added as well as shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, oyster sauce and roasted pine nuts.
This was a tender and delicately flavoured dish which helped me understand the impact of velveting the meat and how deep-frying does not necessarily lead to a crispy result. Traditional Sweet and Sour Pork – tangcu liji
The last dish of the day was one I will certainly be making when I get home. It had none of the gloopy texture of the cloying, ketchup based sweet and sour dishes with added pineapple chunks that I’ve sometimes had from Chinese takeaways. The sweet-sour flavour derived simply from sugar and black vinegar.
I was interested in this dish too because it was an approach to deep frying to create a crispy result that is similar to the one I use for crispy chilli beef which is based on recipes I had read in cookbooks but had never seen demonstrated in practice.
The first thing that I noticed was that the wet, chalky cornflour batter used was thick enough to stand on its own for at least 3 seconds before collapsing. Next was the way Chef Zhang used his fingers to add the pork pieces little by little to the wok. There is a specific Chinese term for this particular type of stir-frying. The oil was heated to 140 degrees C for this phase of cooking.
Chef used a ladle to separate the pieces after about 30 seconds when the batter had hardened.
Once the pork pieces were golden brown he strained them from the oil.
Then he made a simple sauce with the usual minced leek and garlic (no ginger in this recipe), vinegar, sugar, cornflour and water mix and a little soy sauce and the pork was added in to coat.
You can balance up the sweet and sour by adjusting the ratio of sugar to vinegar to taste and with a hint of soy.
I am contemplating how I will adapt this recipe to beef although Candice says it is traditionally used with pork, chicken or camel hump. I will also be tempted to play around with the addition of chilli. Definitely not the stuff of emperors but it could be fun.
I picked up a couple of copies of Serve the People – A stir-fried journey through China at Black Sesame Kitchen today. It is the memoir written by Jen Lin-Liu who founded the school and tells of her own journey of discovery of food in China as a young writer and journalist who had grown up in America to Chinese parents. I’ve started into it and it makes me wonder once again how baby Dermot will make sense of the complexities in his mulit-racial, mixed identity world. I love the scope it will give him to explore his world.
Chef Zhang, who features in the book, autographed both copies of the book for me and I will have one as a prize when I come back next week. Meanwhile I will return to Ireland at the weekend determined to put into practice at least some of what I have learnt about Chinese cooking over the last few weeks and with lots of recipes to blog and adapt. I just wish there was a Chinese cookery school in Dublin where I could keep on learning.
Thank you Candice and Chef Zhang of Black Sesame Kitchen.
See www.blacksesamekitchen.com – Imperial Dishes
Morning classes 10.00 – 1.00 pm, price 300 rmb (about €37) per person
I don’t often write restaurant reviews. I’m happier writing about cooking and how the experience of food helps maintain the connection with my family scattered across three continents. But I’m writing this post on an Air China flight back to Beijing after a memorable week in which Claire and Mike pulled out the stops to create a unique taste of Sydney which would give us some sense of the range of cuisine this fantastic city has to offer and how it has been influenced by Asian and European immigrants over the years.
Writing about food is also a distraction from the inevitable sense of loss that comes with rising into the skies above Sydney and leaving behind our warm, bubbly daughter once again, content in the knowledge that she is happy in her world and has a lifestyle with Mike we could all envy but missing her, missing her, missing her.
Over the past week we have eaten in 6 very different restaurants in and around Sydney as well as having some lovely meals at home with Claire and Mike and drinking many excellent cups of coffee in the cafes of Clovelly and Bronte. The Aussies do coffee well. Making a great cup of coffee at home has plenty to do with buying excellent beans, but after that, it’s crucial to consider how you store them, that’s why coffee canister amazon can definitely extend your coffee’s shelf life and keep all of those delicate flavors and aromas ripe and fresh for another week. We shopped for groceries in the food markets at Westfield in Bondi Junction and the Asian supermarkets in Blacktown. We attended a Cookery Class at Sydney Fish Market and we got to the Taste of Sydney festival in Centennial Park. We had Asian, Italian and Modern Australian cuisine, some of it with distinct French influences.
We only scratched the surface of the food culture of the city but at least we tasted enough to appreciate the rich diversity of food styles and the quality of the fresh ingredients – seafood in varieties unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, herbs and vegetables grown easily in this sub-tropical climate and oozing freshness, including the tallest lemon grass, coriander and spring onions I have ever encountered and lamb, beef and other meats rich in texture and flavour such as wagyu beef that pops up frequently on menus.
A word of caution – eating out in Sydney is expensive, eye-wateringly expensive – a combination of the strength of the Australian dollar, inflation which has continued while Ireland and Europe has wallowed in recession and the excellent value now on offer in Irish restaurants, meant that we noted a dramatic increase in prices for our euro compared to previous visits. Even coffees and brunches in neighbourhood cafes are now pricey. If you can get over the idea of wine at $15 a glass, starters upwards of $15 and mains well into the $30 and $40 range, you can eat very well in Sydney and in our case it helped that Claire and Mike had a spare room for us to stay in this time so high accommodation costs were not an issue.
“Food is our common ground – a universal experience” – James Beard – thus begins the menu at Universal.
I had wanted to visit Christine Manfield’s restaurant since Claire sent me her cookbook Fire – a World of Flavour for Christmas. This is a woman who understands how to play with spices and seasonings to create unique combinations and tastes. Once Christine announced that she was hanging up her chefs apron and closing Universal at the end of this coming April to concentrate on writing, travelling and the occasional pop up restaurant, it quickly became booked out and Claire did well to get us in for an early bird sitting on the evening we arrived jet-lagged from Beijing.
The restaurant is funky and fun, the staff are friendly and unfussy – our lovely waiter told us that for his next job he wants to work in a restaurant that has walls and a ceiling as this one opens onto an outdoor courtyard and, in occasional Sydney downpours, the waiters double as “mopper-uppers”.
There are no starters or main courses. Instead the menu takes the form of “tastes” – savoury, vegetarian and dessert – which you can combine to create your own mini tasting menu. Our waiter recommended that we have 3 savoury “tastes”, choosing from lighter and heavier options, and one dessert. Matching wines are also available for each dish as well as some wicked cocktails which can do serious damage to the final bill.
The food is intriguing and different, showing a variety of Asian and other world influences – Christine dislikes the label “fusion”. Perhaps it was jet-lag but some of the dishes worked better for me than others. Sichuan spiced duck with seared scallops, asparagus, lychee and smoked eggplant sambal was a well executed dish. Lamb rump with roasted pumpkin, spiced apple chutney, saffron rice, spiced chickpeas and smoked almonds chosen by Claire gave me a bout of food envy. On the other hand I found the roasted snapper, spanner crab, mint salsa and spiced coconut slightly overpowered by the coconut.
Christine’s signature dessert, “Gaytime goes nuts” is a tongue-in-cheek, deconstructed take on an Australian kids’ ice-cream. I’ve never had the original but I loved this version with its complex layers of honeycomb ice-cream, carmel parfait, chocolate crunch and salted hazelnut carmel.
Claire and Mike had met Christine at a class at Sydney Seafood School a few weeks earlier and so she came out to chat to us both before and after the service, a warm, engaging person who is not into celebrity or status but is passionate about her food and is very hands on in her kitchen.
She autographed copies of her most recent book for us – a Penguin Lantern Classic collection of her better known recipes – and I will have a copy as a prize on the blog when I get home. She also came back at the end of the night with a signed copy of the menu, a lovely souvenir of our first night in Sydney. Despite our early-bird booking we were allowed linger well into the evening. I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to dine at Universal before it closes and hope I encounter Christine in my travels again. Watch out for her. She has a habit of popping up in unexpected places.
It was Kevin Hui of China Sichuan in Sandyford, Dublin who introduced me to the cookery books of Luc Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant to Australia. We went to the original Red Lantern on Crown and had the Delicious Dalat tasting menu with matching wines. This meal was definitely the food highlight of the week for me and if you are interested in Vietnamese cuisine I strongly recommend a visit if you ever get the chance. The meal is worthy of a separate post that follows.
A passing reference to writing a blog on Chinese food led me to this Neil Perry restaurant at Rockpool which was recommended by a colleague of Claire’s friend Leigh as a “must visit” for anyone serious about Chinese food. I was slightly dubious about a “Chinese” restaurant which was the brainchild of an Australian celebrity chef but it did not disappoint.
To start with it has the most interesting entrance to a restaurant that I’ve encountered in a long time – a door that looks like a constantly swirling curtain changing colours like a kaleidoscope. Steps lead you deep down into a basement restaurant where you lose all sense of time and a Friday lunchtime with lots of business diners could easily pass for a late weekend night. Read about Jimmy John Founder as well and know more regarding the successful sandwich joint. Tables are dark, lights are muted and the atmosphere is distinctly oriental with wonderful place settings of rice bowls and spoons in delicate colours and dark wooden chopsticks.
What singles this restaurant out from other Chinese restaurants in Sydney is an emphasis on regions that are less well known outside China and very dear to me – Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Xinjiang – with Guangxi and Jianxi thrown in for good measure. How could I resist.
On a short, lunch time visit we only had time to sample a few dishes but they were enough to convince me that this is exciting food with truly authentic flavours from those regions, presented in innovative ways.
An entree of Hot and numbing dry Wagyu beef delivered a genuine Sichuan punch and the wonderful texture of the beef had me longing to get hold of the recipe to attempt to recreate it. Stir fried cumin lamb with steamed bread pockets evoked the flavours of Xinjiang and Jiangxi and I made a mental note to ask MaMa for a recipe for these buns.
The highlight was Three shot chicken – a Hunan style dish slow-cooked in a clay pot and finished off by our waitress over a gas burner by dousing it in Tsingtao beer, home made chilli-oil and soy sauce and sizzling it for a few minutes. This recipe had me lusting after clay pots and gas burners and trying to understand what subtle spicing had produced such a delicate combination of fiery heat and flavour.
We had sides of steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish of baby peas stir fried with soy beans, mustard greens and twice cooked pork belly.
Our lovely waitress was passionate and proud about the food at the restaurant which is always a good sign. This is a place I will want to return to for a longer meal. Neil Perry’s Balance & Harmony is now on my Amazon wish list.
One evening we went with Claire and Mike to a play in a wonderful, intimate little theatre in Darlinghurst called The Griffin. Afterwards they took us for supper to A Tavola a buzzing neighbourhood Italian which is a favourite with locals.
Here Chef owner Eugenio Maiale turns out simple and authentic Italian food with excellent home made pasta. We didn’t take photos that evening but we had a number of the “consiglii”, daily specials – Paparadelle con Ragu di Manzo and Mezzelune – half-moon shaped ravioli filled with fish, washed down with some good local red wine.
This lovely, relaxed spot has a cheerful and airy atmosphere and food that would not seem out of place in the heart of Tuscany, a great place to eat in Darlinghurst.
2 Anderson Pl, Cottage Point NSW 2084, Ph: +61 2 9456 1011
Our meal here formed part of our Sydney Seaplanes tour of Sydney and its environs which I blogged last week but it is accessible by road and ferry if you are exploring the national park on the Hawkesbury river north of Sydney’s Northern beaches. It serves excellent local cuisine with mediterranean and asian influences in a gorgeous setting. you can read about our meal here.
We finished our week of culinary adventures with a long, lingering lunch at Catalina on Rose Bay overlooking a corner of Sydney Harbour and watching the seaplanes come and go.
This classy place is a long-time Sydney favourite – there has been a restaurant here since it was a terminal for flying boats – and has become Claire and Mike’s spot for special occasions such as their Christmas lunch with friends. This is Sydney food served at its freshest with the light from the bay glinting off the sparkling white table cloths and silver cultery.
Head chef Mark Axisa trained here and has been at the helm for many years. Mediterranean influences and touches of classic french cuisine are evident in a menu which features lots of delicious seafood dishes but also some excellent meat dishes. Provenance is clearly stated. Master Sushi Chef Yoshi Fuchigami produces Sushi and Sashimi for a few days each weekend and, judging by Claire’s excellent sashimi, he is on to a winner.
After a bellini as an aperitif, I had freshly shucked Sydney Rock Oysters Tempura with seaweed and sesame salad and ponzu to start. My main course of Cone Bay saltwater barramundi with spanner crab parcel, sage and eschalot cream was a superbly executed dish.
Starters of pork belly and mains of pan fried snapper fillet with potato and garlic mash and lemon caper butter were also given the seal of approval. But it was Claire’s turn to suffer food envy as her pan fried john dory with tarragon aioli and crushed kipfler potatoes, roast truss tomatoes and asparagus didn’t taste as exciting as it sounded.
With a side order of chips and plenty of Western Australian riesling, this was a delicious lunch and we weren’t rushed through our three hour sitting despite the fact that there was going to be a wedding party in the restaurant at 5 pm. We spotted a strawberry soufflé which wasn’t on the menu being carried past us to another table and our kind waitress made our day by rustling up a few for us to finish off the meal.
Catalina’s was a great way to round off our too-short visit to Australia.
We had a few other food-related experiences in our week in Sydney which are worth mentioning.
Claire and Mike discovered how good this cookery school is when they attended a masterclass with Christine Manfield a few weeks ago. We got the benefit of what they learned when they served us a delicious seafood meal at home during the week based on Christine’s recipes.
The school is attached to the Sydney Fish Market which is the hub of the seafood industry in NSW and a visitor attraction in its own right.
They brought us along to a Friday night class which, rather randomly, was on Mexican Seafood Cookery. The set up is very slick and polished – a theatre style demo area with 3 large overhead screens and each seat equipped with a side table for taking notes on your recipes for the evening, a large “hands-on” kitchen where stainless steel work stations for groups of 4 to 6 people are lavishly kitted out with everything you could possibly need for your preparations (I found myself smiling at the memory of the much less sophisticated but equally enjoyable experience of learning to cook in Chun Yi and Chao’s kitchen in Hutong Cuisine).
On the night in question we learned to make Tacos de Camarones with various salsas and Ceviche. These were not complicated dishes but they were fun to prepare and eat and the four of us had a work station to ourselves. After you have cooked and cleaned up, you take your finished dish into the separate dining room, grabbing a bottle of wine on the way and eating at your leisure at bench tables under a gorgeous mural of Sydney bridge.
I was struck by the number of tourists taking part. What a clever idea of the fish market to use the school to showcase their produce and encourage visitors to visit and learn. It is also a good value way of having a pleasant meal out, cooked by yourself for around $80 per person. I could happily wander the world attending cookery courses in different cuisines as a way of getting under the skin of the local food scene.
We also got to the Taste of Sydney Festival in Centennial Park the day after we arrived. This follows the same model as Taste of Dublin and is a fun way of getting a feel for the food scene in the city as it showcases restaurants, chefs and food producers with demonstrations and tasting plates It helped that we attended on a glorious Sunday afternoon and we were glad of the shade of the Pimms tent by the end of the evening.
While there, we got to sample bites from a few of the restaurants we were not going to have time to visit including:
Duck with snow pea sprouts, green mango and chilli jam from Three Blue Ducks in Bronte:
We couldnt get near Popolo because the queues were out the door for this popular Sydney italian. We had a nice chilled afternoon in the sunshine and a great cure for jet lag.
And finally, no trip to Sydney would be complete without at least one weekend brunch near the sea. We finished off our lovely week with Sunday morning scrambled eggs in various guises and mugs of skinny flat white coffee at Claire and Mike’s local Green Mango cafe before having a final swim in Clovelly Bay. Ah yes, there are harder ways to live a life… what’s not to like? Distance…
Thank you Claire and Mike for a lovely and very special week. We miss you guys xxx
When we were in Beijing last week we attended two stir-fry/ wok classes at Hutong Cuisine, apart from the noodle and dumpling classes I wrote about recently. While the format of these standard morning classes is broadly similar, the content varies daily. You learn 3 to 4 dishes, in each session – say 3 Canton and 1 Sichuan or 3 Sichuan and 1 Canton. We were really lucky and had the classes to ourselves on both occasions because other groups had booked in for separate private sessions which is also an option.
You start by prepping all the ingredients while Chun Yi or Chao explain the dishes and ingredients and teach you knife skills. After a few classes, I could feel myself getting more proficient and comfortable with the cleaver and marveling at its precision. Once all the preparation is out of the way, your chef demonstrates, cooking each dish in turn, and you follow by cooking it yourself under his or her watchful eye. And then you get to eat the results for lunch. In the process you learn about balancing dishes in a Chinese meal and practical ways of preparing and serving several dishes at one meal – hot and cold, slower and faster cooked.
When your chef lines up the results, you quickly discover what a difference the heat of your wok, the fineness of your cutting or the pounding of your chilli paste can make to the finished result.
For the Sichuan class we learned from Chao:
How to make home-made chilli oil – la jiao – I will be making a batch of this as soon as I get home and never again will I be using shop-bought stuff;
Sichuan spicy chicken salad – la wei ji si – reminiscent of bang bang chicken, a cold dish, perfect to accompany other hot dishes, drizzled with the chilli oil;
Braised tofu with broadbean chilli paste – jia chang doufu – a simpler, home-style version of the more famous mapo doufu. I’ve become a big fan of tofu on this trip and now I also know how to tell when it’s fresh;
Steamed prawn with minced garlic – suan rhong zheng xia – a Cantonese dish this and one of Chao’s favourites, delicious to look at and eat;
Stir-fried seasonal vegetables, made with spinach in our case, so simple Chao refused to write down the recipe, forcing us to learn to cook with our instincts and eyes.
In the Cantonese lesson we learned:
Braised pork rib with soy sauce and sugar – hong shao rou– simple to make and as delicious as more complex twice-cooked pork dishes;
Black pepper beef – hei jiao niu liu – less spicy than my Sichuan and Hunan versions;
Stir fried lettuce with garlic and soy sauce – suan rong sheng cai – we used a type of iceberg lettuce for this and also made a version with oyster sauce; I preferred the garlic version;
And finally for the day my old favourite, fish-fragrant aubergine – yu xiang qie zi – made with a paste of pickled chillies that gives the dish a gorgeous red coloured oil if you get it right.
I learned so much about Chinese cooking in just 5 days and the biggest lesson was about the importance of patience and gentleness in the approach – take your time with your dough, wait that little bit extra for it to rise, be precise in cutting your ingredients, don’t fling your ingredients into or around your wok (or, er up the wall of the kitchen), observe, take note, use all your senses to judge when the oil is hot enough, the paste smooth enough, the underside of the tofu cooked, go lightly when adding seasonings, taste and adjust.
Oh and never waste – food is precious and every ingredients and left-over scrap has its use. Treat food with respect.
For 270 rmb (or about €33) these morning classes are fantastic value and a great introduction to Chinese cooking whether you are a novice or a wannabe expert. It’s also a wonderful way to spend a chilly spring morning absorbed in the atmosphere of a hutong in Beijing.
Here in Sydney this week, it was time to attempt to put what I had learnt into practice. Claire and Mike and their friends have been teasing me about my new found blogger and Chinese food “expert” status so they put it up to me to cook up a Chinese feast in their new home in Clovelly. Tongue firmly in cheek, I put together the menu below.
I set to work, shopping for Chinese ingredients and utensils in the well-stocked Asian market near where Claire works in Blacktown and availed of the fabulous fish, meat and vegetables easily found in this semi-tropical climate. I’ve never seen longer spring onions in my life!
A long evening of dicing, slicing and cooking followed and, over the course of many hours, seven hungry and adventurous diners became increasingly less hungry until they were almost groaning at the sight of another dish.
This was my first time to attempt to produce a Chinese meal on this scale and as a result I can add to the list of lessons I’ve learned (the hard way): Rule 1: Don’t over-cater – limit the total number of dishes and the portion size. A dish for each diner, plus one is sufficient and each portion size should be roughly one decent sized single serving – I fell into the trap of preparing each dish as if it was to serve four or five people – much too much food.
Rule 2: Pay attention to the order in which you serve dishes. I made the very obvious mistake of cooking in the order that was convenient for me, the chef, rather than what made sense for the diners. So I served the gorgeous, expensive fish dish last when my diners were too stuffed to fully appreciate it. The order in the menu above is how I should have sequenced the dishes but I could have omitted the tofu and “earth three fresh” dishes and substituted, at most, a simple stir-fried vegetable.
Rule 3: Think carefully about the nature of the dishes you are serving – I made the error of having three that involved deep-frying in the wok and, in the case of “earth, three, fresh”, separately cooking potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers. That, coupled with large portion sizes which meant I had to do 2 separate batches of beef for instance, really slowed me down. And the braised tofu required an extra 10 minutes cooking time which I had forgotten about. There was far too much work involved and it eliminated any prospect of me sitting down with the rest of the guests. On the other hand the cold chicken dish, steamed prawns and braised pork (which required an hour and a half slow cooking) could be prepared well in advance and were really delicious. Those dishes, combined with a few simpler stir-fries would have given me a lot more time with our guests.
Rule 4: Remember all the other rules I learned in cookery classes in Beijing – patience, precision, careful preparation – when a recipe says “plunge the mushrooms into boiling water for 10 seconds”, it means that and not 60 seconds while you flaff around the kitchen looking for the strainer which you’ve put down… somewhere… that’s a recipe for soggy mushrooms 🙂 Rule 5: Get to know your cooker and wok so that you can control the heat accurately. This comes with practice and the cheap wok from the Asian supermarket conducts heat much better with Claire’s gas hob than the heavier one I’m used to using on an induction hob at home. Rule 6: Remember cooking Chinese food should always be fun so keep your sense of humour and don’t lose your cool, even when you tip the contents of a wok over the kitchen floor mid-service… I didn’t (lose my cool that is…)
All that being said, our diners were gracious enough to say they enjoyed the meal but then they might just have been extra nice to someone who is now a dab hand with a cleaver! It was great fun, lots learnt and I will do an even better job for them the next time I’m in Sydney. And I will post the most successful of the recipes, including the fantastic home made chilli oil when I get back. PS Nai Nai moment coming up…
I will find it very hard to leave Claire and Mike and Sydney and the glorious weather behind on Sunday but there is the small matter of getting back to this little man in Beijing…
There’s something very evocative about flying boats and sea planes. I have been fascinated by them since I visited the Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Co. Limerick which recalls the nostalgic era from 1937 to 1945 where Foynes, on the Shannon estuary on the western coast of Ireland, briefly became the centre of the aviation world. That delightful museum is housed in the original terminal building of Foynes airport and features a full size replica of the B314 flying boat which transported the first adventurous transatlantic passengers. If you get a chance pay it a visit.
Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour was also pivotal in the aviation world in that era when a first class mail service was delivered to the “colonies” by flying boat. It still holds its airport licence and is now the home of Sydney Seaplanes.
As we have too little time for side-trips outside Sydney on this short visit to Australia, it was Claire who suggested we take a once-in-a lifetime trip and fly to lunch at Cottage Point Inn on the Hawkesbury River in the heart of the National Park north of Sydney.
Our plane for the day was a “Cambria” VH-NOO DHC-2 Beaver named after a classic Empire Flying Boat. de Havilland in Canada started producing these single-engine monoplanes after World War II and their construction was placed in the top 10 most influential Canadian developments in history.
Our pilot Andy, who was born in Alaska and lived in Oregon most of his life, explained that the one we were travelling in was built in 1961 and has been used in the Bolivian airforce and as a crop-duster among other things before becoming part of the Sydney Seaplanes fleet. These hard-working planes go on and on and are completely manual in operation.
At 11.30 am six of us passengers set off with Andy, sweeping over the glorious beaches and pristine seas north of Sydney and in over the bush to land at Cottage Point Inn.
There we had a relaxed lunch of delicious fresh food made with local ingredients. Subtle Asian influences were obvious in the menu which included Rangers Valley Beef Tartare with Quail Egg Yolk and Pan Seared Scallops with Fluid Almond Gel as starters and Steamed Barramundi Fillet and Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon as mains. Denmark Riesling from Western Australia was a good choice to accompany the meal – bone dry but with lots of floral notes – at least that’s how the owner described it. 🙂
A highlight of a meal of highlights was the plum soufflé served at the end of the long and leisurely meal.
At 3 pm we left the peaceful river side and flew back to Rose Bay in a long sweeping arc over Sydney Harbour. This truly must be one of the most beautiful harbours in the world and the most special way to see it. You begin to appreciate the expanse of water, the beaches stretching away north and south, the bush lands never far away from the modern city centre and the way in which the plain on which the city sits nestles in the arms of the Blue Mountains. And then of course there is the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, both beautiful from any perspective but especially from a low-flying aircraft.
Verdict: This was a special trip and definitely a once-in-a lifetime experience, both because it is very expensive and because the memories of that unique perspective on Sydney and its environs are powerful enough to last a life time. Lunch is included in the price but drinks are not and they are pricey at $15 for a glass of wine. It would be nice to have a little time to explore the immediate area around the Inn but the leisurely lunch service did not allow for that.
All, in all a great day out and worth saving up for if you are ever planning a holiday Sydney.
I’m not surprised that Sydney Seaplanes won the 2009 Australian Tourism Award for best Tour/ Transport Operator.
For a much larger selections of photos from the day see the gallery below.
Thank you Andy and Sydney Seaplanes.
I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do another dumpling and noodle class. After all I’d seen a demo by Chef Ricky of China Sichuan at our Taste of China event in Cooks Academy. And then I’d spent Wednesday afternoon making what seemed like hundreds of dumplings with my quin jia (Shan’s MaMa) in the tiny kitchen of Shane and Shan’s apartment. I had watched in awe as she flew through rolling out perfect rounds from a simple flour and water dough, using what resembles a short length of broom handle as a rolling pin, and deftly wrapping them into perfect parcels for boiling or frying.
And then there was the small matter of the hand-pulled noodles. That experience, which reminded me of rolling balls of wool for my Mum when she used to knit aran sweaters when I was a child, had left me feeling that I should stick to the knitting, or in my case stir-fries. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to become a Chinese pastry chef, too old to learn new tricks etc. And there are always frozen dumpling wrappers in the Asia market.
I had watched and tried to learn from Ma Ma, getting comfortable at kneading and proving the pastry and reasonably competent at mixing the filling with just two chopsticks, stirring in one direction only, but rolling out of the pastry to make attractive parcels eluded me.
We were tired after our early morning market tour and a full morning of Sichuan cooking and I was tempted to give the dumpling and stir-fried noodle class a miss and sneak back to cuddle baby Dermot. Confession: I even fell asleep sitting upright over a Starbucks coffee mocha on our lunch break, (coffee being my only concession to a western way of life when in China). But we had signed up for the class a week earlier so we stuck to the original plan.
We were joined for the afternoon by the two lovely young Chinese and French girls who had been at our Tuesday noodle class and a fantastic young couple from Montreal – she French Canadian, he Lebanese. Elisa is now a political TV journalist who once ran her own restaurant where she had cooked for Leonard Cohen a number of times, definitely enough to hook me in. I would have loved to have had longer to get to know them.
So buoyed by the cheerful and enthusiastic company and Chun Yi’s good-humoured tuition, I gritted my teeth and decided to crack this dumpling-making lark for once and for all.
We learned about why you use salt or high gluten flour in some doughs and not in others and the effect of using more or less water on the consistency of the dough and then we got down to work, preparing the dough, leaving it to rest while making up our fillings
I was well pleased with my length of dough, ready to cut into individual wrappers.
And suddenly it just happened, the trick of rolling the dough 90 degrees each time you cut a length and then squeezing each one slightly at the sides to get regular shapes; the pleasure of flattening each piece with the palm of your hand; the knack of rolling out the pastry, turning it 15 degrees each time as you stretch the dough away from you until you get that (almost) perfect round; using two chop sticks to place the right amount of filling on the disc and flatten it down; and the five (yes 5!) different ways I now know how to fold them depending on whether I want to boil or fry them or both.
And I now know up to 6 more fillings to go with the pork and Chinese chive version that MaMa makes and the China Sichuan version. They are: pork and fennel (or chinese chives); beef (or lamb) with leek (or red onion); and a vegetarian one of baby chinese cabbage and dried mushrooms.
Of course I was so excited at what felt like the first time I learned how to ride a bicycle that I forgot to take photos of the finished products. Elisa and her partner took lots though, with a VERY serious looking camera so I will update this post when she sends them to me on her return to Montreal.
Meanwhile you will have to believe me that they looked almost (well almost) like these made by Chef Ricky and photographed by my friend Solange Daini. 😉
Now learning how to make dumplings from scratch may not be the most important life skill I will acquire in the rest of my days but the pleasure of the achievement still brings a smile to my face and we couldn’t have Dermot having a nai nai who couldn’t make jiaozi could we?
To finish off the afternoon, Chun Yi showed us how to make chaomian – stir-fried noodles. Within minutes she had made up a basic flour, salt and water dough, slightly drier than the dumpling dough, rolled it thinly and cut it into thin strips. She boiled it for 2 to 3 minutes and then stir-fried it in a simple vegetarian dish of onion, green and red pepper. None of your pulling and dragging this time! No excuse for me the next time I run out of noodles so and quin jia has also promised to show me how to make her wide flat noodles next week.
Thank you Chun Yi and Hutong Cuisine for a fun afternoon that defeated jet-lag and for the great company and teaching. See www.hutongcuisine.com – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.
PS Nai Nai moment coming up. I’m writing up this post in Clovelly, NSW, Australia where we are having a lovely time with our daughter Claire and her husband Mike. Missing our little grandson though so it was lovely to wake up to this e-card today, our wedding anniversary.
Wouldn’t that bring a smile to anyone’s face. Thank you Dermot, Shane & Shan for making our day. 🙂
I’m writing this post in the back garden of my daughter Claire’s new home in Clovelly in the suburbs of Sydney. It’s 28 degrees C and I’ve just come back from a walk with her to Bronte beach where a dip in the crashing surf was an antidote to jet lag and might help me stay awake for another few hours. Here in the garden all is bright sunlight, and contrasting shade. There is traffic noise too and the occasional sound of a hovering coastguard helicopter watching out for swimmers in trouble or for sharks. But the traffic noise is muted by the rustle of a light breeze through the trees and the crisp freshness of the early Autumn air is a marked contrast to the undercurrent of pollution always present in Beijing, even on a clear day. What different lives my two children lead and each so happy with their lot.
It’s hard to believe that just over 24 hours ago I was still in Beijing, caught up in the the noise and bustle of that massive city. Over the course of a few visits, I’ve come to love that city despite the air pollution, blaring traffic and constant sound track of buildings under construction, partly because it never takes long to escape into a quiet hutong where the modern Beijing seems a world away but also because of the friendliness of the people with their passion for food and their attachment to age-old traditions that they maintain despite the rapid pace of development.
Step up to a food market inside one of the hutong and it is as if little has changed in the past 50 years – a tangle of bicycles outside, elderly women buying just what they need for the day, women and men bargaining with butchers, vegetable sellers, fish merchants, and spice merchants, a group of men squatting down to play cards or mahjong… a jumble of noise and vibrant colour.
Because we had booked several cooking classes with Hutong Cuisine, we were offered a complimentary tour of a nearby wet market to get a better understanding of the ingredients that we were using in our classes. This was a great opportunity to be accompanied to a local market by Chao, our teacher and chef, as he made his purchases and helped us make sense of the vast array of produce on display.
One of the things that appeals to me about Hutong Cuisine is that it is as much a family home as a cookery school. Owner and chef Zhou Chunyi moved to Beijing from Canton about 8 years ago, having trained as a chef in Canton and in a Sichuan cookery school in Chengdu. She was joined a few years later by her brother, Chef Chao. Together with their sister, they make up the small, close-knit team who run the cookery school. They live in their courtyard house in the Deng Cao hutong so attending the school is very much like learning in a family kitchen, complete with a friendly and welcoming dog in the courtyard outside. In the summer, some classes take place outside in the courtyard, while in the winter and early spring, they are held indoors in the warm and welcoming kitchen.
We hit lucky and for two of our four classes and for the market tour we had Chef Chao to ourselves, while another larger group worked alongside us or in the next room. For the other two classes we were in small groups of 4 to 6 people. The way it worked out provided a great opportunity for me to ask lots of questions and get plenty of hands-on practice.
On the morning of our market tour, we were up at 6 am to beat the Beijing rush hour traffic. We knocked on Chao’s door in the quiet hutong about half an hour earlier than expected. He set to work immediately to explain to us the different types of soy sauce, wine and vinegar we had been using:
how to determine the quality of soy sauce by its protein content (amino acid nitrogen) – over 0.8 mg/ 100ml is superior grade; Lee Kum Kee is his favourite brand and he also likes Pearl River Bridge; Amoy is also good but as it’s from Shanghai it’s sweeter; and of course, as you already know, light soy is for flavour and dark for colour and usually used in smaller quantities;
how the best vinegars have a total acid content above 6.0g/ 100 ml – look out for Donghu brand Shanxi aged vinegar and Hengshun Zhenjiang (chinkiang) vinegar; the latter is from near Shanghai where they like their food lighter;
how shaoxin wine has alcohol content of around 15% with the younger wine used for cooking only; look out for Pagoda brand. But look out for cheap, gnarly alcohol for it’s often disguised under generic brand names and is certain to put you in an inpatient treatment w/ Legacy.
Then we set off to the market, basket on the back of Chao’s push bike, weaving our way through the hutong. I just wished I could bottle the experience. The best I can do is try to capture the riot of colour in photos.
With Chao’s help I purchased all the unusual spices I need for the beef soup we made earlier in the week to go with the hand-pulled noodles as well as a supply of Sichuan peppers and pickled chillies. When I get back to Ireland I’m going to run a competition on the blog with the prize going to the person who comes closest to identifying, from photos, all the spice ingredients for that beef soup so watch this space. Thank you Chef Chao and Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a most enjoyable start to our day of cooking. See www.hutongcuisine.com – optional extra market tours, usually priced at 100 rmb (about €12) per person.
PS I’m missing baby Dermot, Shane, Shan and MaMa but only for just over a week when we get to spend a little more time with them in Beijing before returning home to Ireland. Meanwhile I’m loving being with Claire & Mike in Sydney and will have more stories from Beijing and Sydney soon.
The Tuesday morning class we attended was called Cooking with Colour and it caught my eye because one of the dishes to be cooked was one of the very first recipes Shan taught me long-distance – Di San Xian or “Earth Three Fresh”. I also wanted to learn more about the Chinese approach to “eating with your eyes” because when I did my homework before giving the talk on Chinese food at Taste of China in Dublin recently, I became even more conscious of the extent to which Chinese chefs believe that cooking should indulge all the senses – taste, smell and sight.
They do this through:
Colour – one for the main ingredient, with secondary ingredients of different colours – green, red, yellow, white, black or brown.
Aroma – using the right spices and seasonings to stimulate the appetite with the aroma from the cooked food.
Seasonings – adding soy, sugar, vinegars, spices, chilliies, peppercorns, preserved vegetables – to get the right balance in the dish of salty, sweet, sour and hot and using the correct cooking technique to preserve the natural taste and juices of the food.
Shape – to engage the eyes and the palate.
The setting in Black Sesame Kitchen is an ideal way of learning to cook in a small group as it takes a maximum of 8 participants for any one class. We gathered around the high table, apron, cleaver and chopping board at the ready with our teachers Michelle Tang and Chef Zhang. Michelle is the general manager of the school and Chef Zhang, who comes from Shanxi province, once ran his own noodle shop. He’s the noodle master who taught Ching-he Huang when she was in Beijing.
Over cups of jasmine tea, Michelle introduced us to the basic seasonings of Chinese food, categorising them into:
The Basics – salt, white pepper and chicken bouillon; white sugar; and the holy trinity of leek, ginger and garlic (yes leek, not spring onion) so commonly used that cooks call them out like a rhyme cong, jiang, suan.
Sichuan Spices – I was right at home here with Sichuan peppercorns, dried whole chilli peppers and broad bean paste – douban jiang – and Michelle confirmed that the best paste comes from Pixian.
Seasoning and Sauces – all my favourites – oil, cooking wine, soy sauce and Chinese black vinegar were here but I also learned about sweet flour paste for use in Peking duck sauce and high gluten flour, and I discovered the magic flavour of freshly, pressed sesame oil.
Meanwhile, as Chef Zhang and his assistant prepped in the background, making a flavoured oil out of the vegetable trimmings, I soaked up every impression I could – the shape of the ladles, the kind of sieves and strainers he used, the simple plastic paddle for serving rice, his technique at the wok.
Three dishes were on the menu:
3 colour chicken stir-fry
3 mushroom stir-fry, and
Di san xian – potato, aubergine and green pepper
all simple, light and tasty, home-style stir-fries.
So next we prepped the vegetables and at last I realised my ambition of learning how to use a cleaver. I’m still painfully slow but at least now I know what I’m trying to do when a recipe calls for roll-knife pieces or very thin slivers and I’m beginning to get that promised feel for the versatility of the cleaver to do everything from paring an aubergine, julienning a carrot, smashing garlic to scooping up your ingredients.
Chef Zhang demonstrated the three dishes and again it was the little things I learned that should help make the crucial difference to balance and flavour when I cook – adding your sauces to the ladle first so that you can correct mistakes, tasting your dish with wooden chopsticks for balance of flavour, always holding the wok with one hand while adding ingredients, using a wooden chopstick to judge the temperature of the oil, “velveting” the chicken with cornflour.
I even got brave and tried out one of the dishes under the watchful eye of Chairman Zhang – the di san xian, so that I could discover for myself how to ensure that the aubergine doesn’t go soggy.
I almost lose my nerve when I’m cooking in front of an audience, especially when it is a professional chef, but I managed to plate up the dish and the results were gobbled up appreciatively by the rest of the class with cold Chinese beer.
We left with our aprons and a little pouch of Sichuan peppercorns. What a great way to spend a damp March morning in Beijing. Thank you Michelle and Chef Zhang of Black Sesame Kitchen. See www.blacksesamekitchen.com – Cooking with Colour Morning classes 10.00 – 1.00 pm, price 300 rmb (about €37) per person
PS I give in – I just can’t resist including one baby photo today – this time a double nai nai for double happiness – the lovely MaMa and myself with Dermot yesterday.
Two days in Beijing and my clothes already smell of a heady concoction of unusual spices. That’s what comes of spending a good chunk of those two days in the kitchen.
Yesterday it was the turn of Hutong Cuisine and a class aimed at teaching us how to make Shaanxi hand pulled noodles, described on their website as “a difficult class where you roll up your sleeves to knead, drag, pull…” This was not an understatement.
But first there was time for breakfast in Feast the swish restaurant of our hotel East which serves possibly the best breakfast buffet in Beijing not to mention excellent coffee.
I couldn’t help thinking that if there were several million more of the electric cars like the one parked outside our door, Beijing pollution might not be quite so bad.
Of course a little quality NaiNai time had to be had before I headed for the kitchen. Oh how I love that newly minted baby smell.
Then fortified by an early lunch from MaMa, or Quin Jia Mu as I must learn to call her as my female in-law, we set off by taxi to find Hutong Cuisine. (I had discovered in Urumqi last summer that it is impossible to get past a half an hour with Shan’s Mum without being fed but it is always delicious and interesting – this time it was simple stir fried bai cai – baby pak choi to us – with mushrooms.)
We found the entrance to Hutong Cuisine in Deng Cao Hutong off Dongsi South St and were welcomed by a friendly dog who wriggled his way under the door to meet us. The lovely Chun Yi who runs the school led us in through the Quing Dynasty courtyard to the cosy kitchen where we were joined by the other participants in the class and her brother who would teach us how to make the noodles. Making noodles of this type is usually regarded as a man’s job because of the physical exertion involved.
First for the easy bit – the making of the beef soup stock in which the noodles would subsequently be cooked. I will post the recipe for this soon because it is a lovely versatile stock and I can see myself adapting it for stockpot and other uses. Essentially it was made with a large beef leg bone, some added neck or belly beef, spring onion, garlic and ginger and lots of added spices, all simmered for several hours.
There were a few spices included in it that were new to me and may be hard to get in Ireland. Chun Yi explained that some are used because they are believed to have medicinal properties rather than for flavour. See if you can spot the mountain yam, long pepper, shan nai, bai zhi, sha ren or dou kou below – even MaMa and Shan couldn’t identify all of them!
Then came the fun bit, the making of the hand-pulled noodles. Tai ma fan – too much hassle, said MaMa when she heard how we had spent our afternoon. These are normally only made in restaurants by masters of the craft and rarely, if ever, at home. They are made with high gluten wheat flour and water, salt to give stiffness and the magic ingredient peng hui, the ash of a type of grass which grows in north west China which the people of that area discovered makes the dough supple and elastic. The main ingredient in the ash is Potassium Carbonate K2CO3 and it’s hard to get even here in Beijing.
As I’ve always loved making yeast bread, kneading the dough until smooth and leaving it to rest was easy peasy and I was beginning to feel quietly confident as Chef used the breathing space to teach us the hand movements we would need to roll, stretch and twist the dough. Now I mean to say, I’ve done aerobics and pilates, I even lift weights from time to time, this couldn’t be too difficult could it…? Well at least now I understand why Chun Yi asked Shane how old his parents were and whether we would be able for the class…
Let’s just say making hand-pulled noodles could be the ultimate cure for granny bingo wings. It’s all in the wrist movement and once or twice I nearly got it but not quite. Chef had to rescue my efforts several times and re-roll the dough, adding water when it got too dry. When you do get a rhythm going it is strangely soothing and satisfying, bringing me back to using hula hoops or skipping ropes as a child. There is also a gorgeous sensation when you feel the gluten stretching in your hands (and not breaking!).
Once your thin dough strips become even, you use only the middle part of the roll and pull them into very long thin strips. This bit is great fun and easy compared to all that rolling, stretching and twisting. Then you rush with them to your pot of strained stock, cook them for about one minute and serve them as below. Phew. Take a bow if you get that far!
Once cooked, for as many hours as you have to play around with, the beef stock is strained into a saucepan and simmered. Beef left over from the stock is shredded and placed in a bowl along with some daikon radish which has been thinly sliced and blanched for a minute, shredded leek, chopped coriander and home-made chilli oil to taste.
The noodles are cooked briefly in the simmering, strained stock, drained and added to the individual serving bowls and then some of the soup is poured over. To meet the exacting standards for balance in Chinese cooking, the soup should be clear, the radish adds white colour, the leek and coriander green and the chilli oil a dash of red.
Eat and enjoy, that’s if you have the energy after all that hand-pulling of noodles!! (or you could cheat and add a packet of your favourite quick-cook noodles to the soup but shhh… don’t tell Chun Yi I said that!) Thank you Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a great afternoon. See www.hutongcuisine.com – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.
Hello lovely readers and a big thank you for the warmth of your response to me finally getting to meet my lovely grandson Dermot.
I’m going to try and keep you up to date on #Shananigansontour with brief posts most days to capture impressions of this trip while they are fresh in my mind.
We finally got here late Sunday afternoon after a few hours delay at Heathrow as a result of sandstorms and heavy winds in Beijing the previous day which had delayed our incoming Air China flight. The upside was that the air had cleared and for once I got to see the city on a stunningly beautiful spring day.
We are staying at East Hotel Beijing which opened just a few months ago down the road from where Shane and Shan live. This part of Beijing, in the north east of the city just outside the 4th ring road and close to the airport, is developing rapidly. When Shane moved in a few years ago it was a relatively sleepy outer suburb (well as sleepy as Beijing ever gets), with a neighbourhood feel and local shopkeepers who greet him warmly to this day.
Now, new developments are springing up all over the place and the city is once more extending its reach. East Hotel is all clean lines and modern high tech fittings – an Apple lover’s paradise of USB sockets, excellent wifi and even an integrated iPod touch with an app on which you can order room service. The staff are warm and friendly, young and casually dressed in teeshirts and hoodies. It’s a far cry from the rundown, older Chinese hotel we stayed in last summer and only slightly more expensive. Young Beijingers are embracing the service ethos with enthusiasm.
Below the hotel sits a modern shopping mall which I haven’t explored yet and behind it a new park is being built which will be covered in winter to allow for seasonal entertainment. The skyscrapers crawl ever further out of the city but the old markets (in the bottom right of the picture below) survive and that’s where MaMa heads every day to buy her supplies of meat, vegetables and spices at a fraction of supermarket cost.
Of course yesterday was all about meeting Dermot for the first time and those are special memories that will always be with me.
And what’s more I get to see him all over again today.
As always food played an important part in the celebration of our arrival. Shan’s MaMa was on hands to welcome me with a huge hug and within moments, dinner was served – a steaming dish of her version of Big Plate Chicken to which she added home made wide-flat noodles.
This was followed by bowls of noodle soup with lamb and tofu, fulfilling the tradition of serving noodles when visitors arrive for the first time to represent the bonds of family and friendship. But these were also “longevity noodles” which are usually served on the day a child is one month old and on subsequent birthdays. MaMa had saved the ritual for our arrival. We ate the noodles with chopsticks from the bowls first and then drank the light, nourishing broth.
Dessert was a platter of fresh fruit including slices of dragon fruit which MaMa tells me is good for the digestion. I think I will teach her the recipe for Saba’sDragon’s Tail cocktail!
Of course MaMa served dragon fruit in honour of Dermot’s pet name of Teng Teng or flying dragon which he was given because he was born on the tail of the Year of the Dragon. In China food always has meaning.
Time to face the day now and a lesson in making noodles for which the requirement appears to be strong arms!
This is what smog looks like on a sunny Monday morning in Beijing.
You feel it in your lungs as soon as you step outside the door. With my new found paranoia, I’ve taken to tracking air quality using the CN Air Quality App. This is how it looks just now, depending on who you believe…
This is very inconvenient. Our flight from Heathrow is delayed by over 2 hours so I am stranded in Terminal 3 full of repressed excitement about the prospect of meeting you. This delay is eating into quality “nainai” time. I’m already counting the hours I will have in which to get to know you and I’m not best pleased with this reduction in my allotted quota.
Of course I’ve anticipated the moment of meeting you for over 4 weeks now and can visualise my emotional reaction as if it’s a memory of something that’s already happened rather than a foretelling of how the reality of your physical presence will impact on me, your new baby smell, the feel of your jet black hair and the softness of your skin. At your early age I will just be another strange combination of sounds and smells, another curious intrusion into your gradually expanding world, whereas to me you are already so important that I can barely recall a world of which you were not a part.
If you could comprehend, what would I say to you? It would be about the small stuff mainly – that you are already loved and precious to your Mum and Dad and your extended family; that you are lucky to be born into such love and to be so wanted; that just for this short while you can grow up to be anybody, any thing – the constraints haven’t kicked in yet, the limitations and narrowing of options that increase with every year. Enjoy that freedom and innate optimism of childhood.
I would tell you that, being of mixed race, Irish and Chinese, you are already destined to be special and to feel a little bit different wherever you are in the world, perhaps not quite as Chinese as some of your first friends at kindergarten or school but not quite Irish either. And here’s the first bit of advice I will give you, from a young friend of mine who is herself of mixed race – you are whoever you choose to be and how you choose to define yourself.
Yes you are likely to carry a little touch of the exotic wherever you go – a hint of the orient perhaps mixed with an Irish sense of irony and humour. Maybe you will inherit your Mum’s keen intelligence, her highly developed visual capacity and her pragmatic and frugal streak. Maybe you will have your Dad’s creativity, deep kindness, warmth and entrepreneurial drive. Maybe you will be a bit of a dreamer.
You will also carry traits from your 4 great grannies and 4 great granddads, only one of whom you will get to meet , my own Mum. But the traditions of those 8 very different people – 4 Chinese and 4 Irish – will seep into the very bones of you and surface in all sorts of unexpected ways – a little gesture perhaps that reminds me uncannily of my own Dad, a way of looking at life that makes sense only to those that know your family history.
I would tell you that the planet you have come to live on is a fragile place so mind it well, try and leave it a little better and certainly no worse than how you find it. I would explain how I fret about the air quality in Beijing, the city of your birth, and hope you get to run in the fresh air and feel the breeze off the sea on your skin. And yet I am glad that you are born into a part of the world where the economy is growing and where you can participate in dramatic change that will sometimes feel slow and sometimes move too fast for any of our liking.
I would explain that the little island that is half your heritage has been battered and rocked in recent years as we’ve tried to make sense of how we got into such a mess and caused so much pain to so many people. But we are a resilient little nation and we are gradually picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and starting over. And maybe this time we are doing it with a renewed sense of what really matters, what’s authentic and real about what it means to be Irish and where we can add value to this world we all live in.
And I would remind you that you too will make mistakes, plenty of them, during your life. And that’s ok too. It’s not the mistakes that matter. It’s how you deal with them. It’s how you learn from them and move on.
I would express the hope that you will inherit some of the best attributes of the Irish – a capacity for story-telling, for language and music, an attachment to the land and nature – as well as that Chinese understanding of food and medicine as two sides of the one coin and of the importance of family and loyalty.
You will face big philosophical questions as you grow up Dermot, trying to make sense of two very different world views. I wish you a capacity for reflection and the ability to be mindful, as you are at this age, and grounded in the present moment.
I would tell you that sad things happened in the O’Neill part of the family just before you arrived in our lives but that you brought much joy, a reminder of the cycle of life and a welcome sense of new beginnings. For that reason too you will always be special.
So while you sleep baby Dermot in your Daddy’s arms, oblivious of the complexities of the life ahead of you and the world in which you live, know that you are loved and cared for and rest happy in the supports you will have as we all hold back a little and allow you to find your own way.