Our second cookery school outing was to Black Sesame Kitchen nestling in an old courtyard just off the north end of Nan Luogu Xiang, a Hutong which I had visited last year which is within easy walking distance of Drum and Bell Towers, one of my favourite Beijing attractions.
The school was founded in 2008 by Jen Lin-Liu whose book “Serve the People: A Stir-fried Journey Through China” might just be the next giveaway on the blog if I can find space in my suitcase for a few copies. I had wanted to go there since it featured in the BBC series “Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure” when Ching-he Huang spent time there learning how to make dumplings and noodles.
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.