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…