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.
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