A Buffet with Bling and Chinese Dumplings – the perfect start to 2014

Sometimes life has a way of turning full circle.
Last New Year’s Day I remember remarking on the beautiful morning in Duncannon and the start of a “shiny new year”. Within three days we had lost Derry’s mother and within a few weeks his younger sister Deirdre. Both deaths were unexpected. Suddenly the new year didn’t seem so shiny any more. But you get through things and you get on with it and baby Dermot arrived on the 5th of February to brighten all our loves (that should have read “lives” but the slip seems somehow appropriate). And the year ended on a high note with a true Shananigans of a Christmas, followed by Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s Christening on 28th December.
I’ve so much to write. So many moments and emotions to absorb after the whirlwind of the last few weeks since Shane, Shan and Dermot arrived on 15th December – a bewildered small child plucked out of his familiar Beijing apartment and plunged into the confusing sights and sounds of an Irish Christmas who quickly made our home his own – followed a week later by nine of Shan’s Chinese family and my daughter and her husband from Australia.
But I’m going to start near the end, back in Shankill, after Claire and her husband Mike had been and gone, leaving behind the imprint of their infectious personalities, after the intensity of the Christmas celebrations.
Truth be told I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve much. I always feel as if I am clinging on for those last few hours to the dying year, to the memories of those loved and lost in the year gone by and with a sense of foreboding about what the coming year may hold. This year I was determined it would be different. It was the first time our Chinese in-laws had celebrated a western new year and it was our own unique Gathering to end a year of Gatherings. I wanted to see it out in style.
Robert Jacob provided my inspiration – a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. I had attended his course at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School in December. I saw how he put it all together in three to four hours. I had blogged about the menu in my post on the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas and, despite being tired after a two weeks of non-stop entertaining, I was determined to deliver.
Well 8 hours of preparation later, including a minor pastry crisis, several phone calls to Robert and accepting his offer to make the gold-dusted Chocolate Log for me, I served  up the full buffet up to our enthusiastic guests including our close friends from across the road. Our Chinese in-laws loved the food and how it was presented. They described it as like a painting – that’s what happens when your teacher is a former fashion designer. There were many warm speeches during the meal marking the extraordinary two weeks we have shared together and suddenly it was nearly midnight.
Preparing and serving the meal left me little time to be maudlin but on the stroke of midnight our thoughts were with Derry’s Mum whom we had spoken to at that moment last year. During the conversation she had proposed 28th December to my Mum as the date for Shane and Shan’s wedding, saying that as the elders of the family they should get to decide these things. Well she did and it had felt good to honour her plan last week.
My thoughts were also with my own Dad. New Year’s Eve 1999, when every household in Ireland had been given a Millennium candle, was also our first in Duncannon and, as we lit that candle to mark the turning of the century, all of us present including my Mum and Dad, my brothers and our children, signed the little note that came with it. Every year since then I have lit that candle for a few minutes for all our loved ones including those that have passed away and those now living far from home. This year my new Chinese extended family and our friends all wrote on the card to mark what surely has been our most extraordinary year end of the century.
That New Year’s Eve meal was the second last culinary challenge of Shananigans Christmas. The last was to be on Thursday night when I planned to make dumplings for us all, mirroring the Chinese New Year tradition and also their association of dumplings with family members parting on a journey – a reminder of how family wrap around you wherever you are in the world.
I got as far as making my two favourite fillings – lamb with butternut squash and cumin and vegetarian which I had learned in Black Sesame Kitchen cookery school in Beijing – and a batch of homemade Chilli Oil as taught to me by Hutong Cuisine.  I was about to start the dumpling dough when my visitors tumbled into the house, windswept and rain-spattered from their sight-seeing and shopping trip to Dublin city centre, in a frenzy of discarded wet shoes and coats, shopping bags and retrieved slippers.
Within minutes my kitchen had been taken over and become a super-efficient Chinese production line. Clearly in charge Da Gu (first auntie) set about making her own pork and Chinese cabbage filling with added zing from ground star anise and cousin Jing Jing made an enormous batch of dough using every scrap of dumpling flour in the house. Xiao Gu (second auntie), Shan, her sister in law Shui Mei, cousin Wei Wei and little Xuan Xuan made the dumpling in relays – cutting out ropes of dough and rolling out the circular wrappers, the younger in-laws filling and folding them until every surface in the kitchen, every platter and cutting board I possess was covered with dumplings just as I always imagined a Chinese kitchen on New Year’s eve.
Even Gao Feng – Shan’s brother – was drafted in to cream garlic to go with the black vinegar and chilli oil condiments. I was redundant in my own kitchen and relegated to the happy role of observer. Dumplings made, it was time to cook them in batches, boiled and pot-sticker style, and platter after platter appeared at the dining table. It is amazing how many dumplings you can eat at one sitting without noticing.
It quickly became obvious that we had enough dumplings to feed a small army. And so, after a brief stint in the freezer, the dozens of left-overs travelled with us to Ardee yesterday evening where we marked the first anniversary of the passing of a very special lady, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.
Dumplings for remembrance and family and the ties that bind.
Below are some photos of  those two very special evenings in our home and the recipe for Da Gu’s pork and cabbage filling.
Happy New Year to you all and thank you for following my tales and learning experiences in the year gone by.
By the way for those of you who would like to learn more about Chinese cooking, my teacher turned friend Robert Jacob and I are collaborating in a Discover China Class at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of 16th January at 7 pm. You can book places here. Shane, Shan and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who is a fabulous Chinese cook will join us for an evening of good food and conversation. I’m hoping that Marie McKenna, who has reproduced nearly every recipe on this blog, will be there too.

New Year's Eve Spread
New Year’s Eve spread

Just some of our New Year's Eve guests
Just some of our New Year’s Eve guests

Tian of crab and gas[acho
Tian of crab and gazpacho

Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche
Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche

Attempting to sit down to dinner
Attempting to sit down to dinner

A very glamourous production line
January 1st –  a cheerful production line led by Da Gu

First and Second Aunties make the filling
First and Second Aunties – Da Gu and Xiao Gu make the pork filling

Jing Jing kneads the dough
Jing Jing kneads the dough

Xiao Gu and Jing Jong - good team work
Xiao Gu and Jing Jing – good team work

Rolling out the wrappers
Rolling out the wrappers

Yes, that looks perfect
Yes, that looks perfect

Xuan Xuan wrapping dumplings
Xuan Xuan fills the dumplings

Pure concentration of a 6 year old
The pure concentration of a 6 year old Chinese cook

Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too
Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too

Dumplings on every surface
Dumplings on every surface

Every cook deserves her reward - the spicier "ma" the better in Xuan Xuan's case
Every cook deserves her reward – the spicier “ma” the better in Xuan Xuan’s case

Da Gu’s Pork and Cabbage Dumpling Filling
This is not a precise recipe. it is the way Da Gu has always made her filling and the trick is to get the right balance of pork, vegetables and seasoning and to use the warm oil to get the sloppy consistency of a thick batter.
Da Gu recommends using ground star anise with pork (she ground it in my pestle and mortar) and ground sichuan peppercorns with beef and lamb.

  • 500g minced pork
  • A thumb of ginger finely minced
  • 2 medium leeks, white part only, finely minced
  • 1 to 2 tbs of soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of ground star anise
  • One head of Chinese cabbage, finely chopped and squeezed very hard to remove excess liquid
  • About 100 ml of vegetable oil heated to moderate and allowed cool slightly.


  1. Mix the pork, ginger leek, soy sauce and star anise.
  2. In a separate blow add the hot oil to the cabbage.
  3. Mix this well with the meat mixture and season with salt to taste – only add the salt after the oil to avoid drawing more liquid from the cabbage.

PS. The next post will be photos Shan and Shane’s Wedding and Dermot’s Christening

Food Fit for an Emperor – Pine Nut and Beef Stir-fry

My grandson is 7 months old today and I’ve found a good reason to visit Beijing in late October. Not that I need much of an excuse with him growing bigger by the day and a yearning to be with him that is almost a physical ache at times. The other day, as I passed though St. Stephen’s Green in the fading evening light, I spotted a woman of about my own age making cooing sounds at her tiny grandchild, their faces close together, while her daughter looked on with a smile. I felt a rush of envy and empathy as I remembered pushing Dermot past the same spot in a buggy in June, on his brief visit home, proud of my new found status as Nai Nai.
So my ticket is booked, I will stay with Shane, Shan, MaMa and Dermot in their new apartment and attend an event called the Beijing Forum while I’m there. I will get to know Dermot all over again and marvel at how he has grown and how his unique and bubbly personality has revealed itself in the months since I last got to hold him. I can understand how cosseted boy-children in China come to be known as “little emperors” but I’m hopeful that the level-headed rearing provided by Shan, Shane and MaMa will mean that he will avoid the risks associated with that particular label.

Just Dermot

If I’m lucky, in between working and Nai Nai duties, I will sneak in another cookery class at Black Sesame Kitchen. I attended a couple of classes there when I visited Beijing to meet Dermot for the first time in March this year. One featured Imperial Chinese Cooking – the complex and sophisticated dishes that were produced within the walls of the Forbidden City, food deemed fit for an emperor. I wrote about the experience here.
Beijing doesn’t have its own clearly identifiable cuisine – it is a melting pot of cuisines from several of the regions of China – but it is influenced most by lu cai, the great regional cuisine of the North, the food of emperors and courtiers, refined, rich and expensive, and by the sweet, soy dark braises of the regional cuisine of the East –  huai yang cai. In that north eastern climate, vegetables were in limited supply in years gone by, especially during the winter months, so the emphasis was on enhancing the flavour and texture of food through taking care with the size and shape of limited ingredients, tenderising the meat, adding rich sauces and using dried ingredients when fresh were unavailable. In the cooler north, leeks are still used as a substitute for spring onions to make up the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and onion.
Imperial cuisine lacks the fiery punch of the food from Sichuan and Hunan provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan or Canton food from further south, but the techniques I learned that day amazed me with their ability to lock in flavour with a limited number of fairly straightforward ingredients.
With Beijing on my mind, I set about recreating one of the Imperial dishes at home last weekend. The pine nut and beef stir fry below is not a difficult recipe but it is a little time-consuming to prepare. I imagine the Imperial Kitchen had any number of chefs delighted to have the honour of preparing the Emperor’s dinner, even if he was a tiny child. If, like me, you are on your own in the kitchen, make this dish on an evening when you are in the mood for the rhythmic pleasure of the precise dicing and slicing involved – the ingredients are all cut into 1 cm cubes – and for the taking the time to “velvet” the beef.
“Velveting” the beef  is an interesting technique. It involves adding a little salt to the meat, then gradually mixing in nearly half its weight in water with your hand until it is fully absorbed and finally mixing in cornflour and egg white. This step takes quite a bit of time. Do it patiently and don’t attempt it when you are in a rush. It wont work. This I know…
The process of “velveting” tenderises the meat which is then deep fried at a low temperature (120C) to lock in the flavour and moisture and leave the beef soft rather than crisp. The result is a delicate, tender texture which absorbs the flavours of the sauce when mixed with the fast-fried vegetables. I find flank or bavette steak ideal for this dish but you could substitute sirloin or fillet if it is unavailable.
Chef Zhang “velveting” the beef at Black Sesame Kitchen

I had not expected this dish to taste nearly as good as it did. In fact it has that umami quality that leaves you wanting to pick at  the leftovers until every last morsel is devoured and, in my case, to jump on a plane to Beijing.
Try it and enjoy.
Pine Nut and Beef Stirfry – Songren Niurou Mi
Pine-nut and beef stir-fry


  • 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 500g flank steak/bavette of beef
  • ¾  tsp salt
  • 200 ml water
  • 2 heaped tbs cornflour
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 small green pepper
  • 1 small red pepper
  • 3 tsp each minced garlic, ginger and leek
  • 3 tbs oyster sauce
  • 90 ml water or stock made with the water drained from the shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 ½ tbs light soy
  • 3 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp sugar
  • ½  tsp  white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp chicken bouillon
  • ¼  tsp salt
  • 3 heaped tsp cornflour mixed to a paste with water
  • 3 tbs deep-fried pine kernels*
  • Groundnut, sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying and deep-frying


  1. Soak the shiitake mushrooms in hot water for about 20 minutes to reconstitute.
  2. Dice the beef into 1 cm cubes and “velvet” by adding salt, then beating the water in with your hand a little at a time.
  3. Once the water is fully absorbed, add the cornflour to coat all the pieces of meat thoroughly. Finally add the egg white and coat the meat thoroughly.
  4. Dice the red and green pepper into 1 cm cubes. Remove the stalks from the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms and dice into 1 cm cubes. Finely mince the leek, garlic and ginger.


  1. Add enough oil to a large wok for deep frying and heat to just 120C. Spread the beef into the oil, separating the cubes with choptsticks or a ladle and cook for about 1 minute until cooked through. Remove the beef  from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  2. Empty all but a tablespoon or two of oil from the wok and, over a medium high heat, add the leek, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce and stir vigorously for 10 seconds.
  3. Turn up the heat to high, add the peppers and shiitake mushrooms and  stir-fry for 20 seconds.
  4. Add the cooked beef and toss for 20 seconds.
  5. Add in the pine kernels, reserving some for garnish
  6. Add the water/stock, soy sauces, sugar, pepper and chicken bouillon and let bubble for 20 seconds.
  7. Ladle in a tablespoon at a time of the cornflour mixture, mixing after each addition until the sauce is thick and glossy.
  8. Serve immediately, garnished with the remaining pine kernels and with steamed rice.

Final stage of cooking in the wok

To deep-fry the pine kernels, put a few cups of oil in a wok, add in the pine kernels, then slowly bring the temperature up to low and then, over the next few minutes to medium low. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes until the pine kernels have turned a light golden colour, then remove with a slotted strainer and drain on kitchen paper. They will continue to cook for a few moments when you take them out of the oil so take them out when they are slightly lighter than done. Alternatively roast the pine kernels in a low oven for about 20 minutes. They will keep in an airtight container for a few days.

On learning, goodbyes and Chao Bing

When I talk to women about leadership I quote Dee Hock who said, sometime late in the last century, that the problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind but how to get the old ones out.
I was reminded of that over the past few weeks when I was on what a friend of mine calls a “learning spree” absorbing new information about cooking Chinese food and working hard to weed out the bad habits I had fallen into while trying to teach myself from cookbooks. It was such a privilege to learn from Chun Yi and Chao in Hutong Cuisine and from Chef Zhang and the team in Black Sesame Kitchen and I look forward to integrating new ingredients and techniques into the kitchen back home.
I’m writing this post on the flight home from Beijing, in between reading Jen Lin-Liu’s “Serve the People” – Jen is the founder of Black Sesame Kitchen where I attended cooking classes on Cooking with Colour and Imperial Dishes – and Sheryl Sandbergh’s “Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead” – multi-tasking as always, that’s women for you. A quote from Chairman Wang, Jen’s mentor, caught my eye “These are the things that make me happy,” she says – “What does it mean to be wealthy? To be able to eat, drink and move about. That is my definition of wealth.”
I thought about how lucky I am to be able to do just that, especially when, in my case, “moving about” means moving across three continents if I want to spend time with my children and their families.
I’ve been learning about other things apart from food on this trip – about what it is like to be a woman, a daughter, a mammy and a granny in the 21st century. I’ve had the privilege over these past three weeks of spending time with three wonderful women – my daughter Claire, my daughter-in-law Shan and my qing jia mu – Shan’s Mum.

Dermot with his other Nai Nai

I have talked to my daughter and daughter-in-law about how they cope with the world of work, the pressures that assail young women who are contemplating or have just started a family and how much and how little has changed since I started on the same road more than 30 years ago. The challenge of balancing the demands of home, work and family are still there.

I’ve developed strong ties of affection with Shan’s Mum. We still have only a handful of words in common (although her English is progressing faster than my Mandarin). But that didn’t stop us making a trek to the local Lotte Market and Jiang Tai wet market in search of utensils and ingredients. Armed only with a shopping list in pinyin, to which she carefully added the Chinese characters, and Google Translate on the iPad for emergencies, we had a very successful shopping expedition.
Jiang Tai market, Beijing

There is only a year’s difference in our ages but our life’s experiences are worlds apart. From her I’m learning about Chinese frugality and the pleasure of a bargain – in the supermarket she dismissed rows of utensils, which to me looked like excellent value, as being “tai gui le”, “too expensive” and instead drove a hard bargain in a small hardware store at the market and got me the hoard below for less than €5.

Choosing vegetables and meat was an exercise in negotiation skills and careful scrutiny of the offered goods. Each potato was turned over and selected individually. Cuts of chicken were inspected. Spices were carefully weighed.
No rush in choosing vegetables

Shopping for spices at Jiang Tai market

When I purchased a very good cleaver at cookery school, she was shocked at the price I had paid (100 rmb, about €12), she could have got me one for 40 or 50 rmb. But then I’m learning that the first thing a Chinese person asks you when you’ve made a new purchase is how much it cost “duo xiao qian?”, inevitably to tell you you’ve paid tai gui le. That’s of course after they have asked you “have you eaten yet?”
Choosing chicken for Da Pan Ji

Shane says that since MaMa came to live with them their grocery bill has plummeted. I’m not surprised. Each day she produces tasty and nutritious meals – her famous Xinjiang da pan ji – big plate chicken with wide flat noodles served to Claire and Mike as soon as they arrived yesterday, beef stew with a Sichuan kick (Shane’s favourite, I think because it reminds him of his granny’s stew), pork rib stew – often with side dishes such as stir-fried cabbage with chillies, black fungus or bitter melon. And of course there are the home-made jiao zi dumplings and finally, a family favourite pancakes with eggs and cabbage, chao bing. As soon as you arrive in the door she puts out a platter of fresh fruit – pineapple, dragon fruit, apple slices. Food and pots of tea are always on the go.
The pancake man at Jiang Tai Market

My qing jia mu is also great fun, easy-going and has a bubbly sense of humour. I love it when she breaks her sides with laughing about some shared private joke with Shane. She has not always had an easy life and has worked hard inside and outside the home from a very young age – Shan has told me some of her back story – and I look forward learning more of it and to getting to know her even better as the years go by and her English, and perhaps my Mandarin, improve.
Hard to keep up with a woman in search of a bargain!

She is generous to a fault. She trekked the market alone yesterday to find me long kuai zi – chopsticks – for cooking and a particular pickled chilli used in Hunan cooking. She sent me home armed with dragon fruit and Chinese treats for my own Mum and a Beijing pancake for me so that I can recreate chao bing at home.
And then there was learning to know my grandson Dermot.
Saying goodbye after this trip was never going to be easy, especially to Dermot. I’ve got used to connecting with Claire and Shane on an almost daily basis by Skype, text, phone, Facebook and even Twitter. But with Dermot so much of the relationship at this stage is the feel of the weight of him as he dozes on my shoulder, his new baby scent, the way he grips my finger in his tiny hand, his fascination with the world around him and the way he can hold your gaze for minutes as he experiments with a tentative smile. I will miss all that and the way he will change over the next two months before his feet get to touch Irish soil for a visit.
Goodbye Nai Nai

As I’m writing, I’m also listening to music on my iPod to drown out airplane noises. It’s a random “Genius” mix and up pops Tir Na n’Og’s “Dance of Years” with the line “The baby sleeps, his hands are still”. That’s what I notice most about Dermot (apart from his huge eyes), when he’s awake his hands are never still. He has the most expressive hands I’ve ever seen.
Saying goodbye was made easier because we had a precious 24 hours with the family united in Beijing. We finished up with a farewell Easter Sunday morning breakfast in Feast at East where we had been staying just down the road from Shane and Shan. Breakfast was great fun with loads of photo opportunities and I enjoyed my qing jia mu’s evident pleasure in getting good value from the excellent breakfast buffet. The Chinese know how to attack a buffet with relish.
Dermot, our own little Teng Teng, seemed completely enthralled with his new surroundings. At nearly 8 weeks of age, his approach to the outside world is one of rapt attention and wide-eyed wonder. It was a joy to have that last hour with him awake and alert and to watch Claire fall in love with him the way I did – you think you know what it is to love a baby before you meet him but the physical bonding process really is like tumbling into love.
Well hello first Auntie

Just before we left for the airport, we asked if one of the restaurant staff would take a group photo of all 8 of us. A super-charged emotional moment was eased when it turned out that the photographer, Assistant Director of Restaurants and Bars at East, Leo Liu, had lived in Ireland for 6 years, working for part of that time in Ely Wine Bar and studying for a Masters in Tourism in University of Limerick. That helps explain the excellent service standards in Feast. His broad Dublin accent when he spoke English made me feel as if I was already home.
A rare Shananigans family photo

So I left Beijing a bit teary and choked up but content in the knowledge that I had left my grandson behind in the company of three strong and very special women and a Daddy who adores him. I’m very proud too of the way Shane has adapted to fatherhood and I’m confident that he will be the kind of “real partner” in child-rearing that Sheryl Sandbergh talks about.

The next special moment to look forward to is to Dermot’s visit to Dublin in June and to introducing her first great grandchild to that other strong woman in my life, my own Mum who I know has been following our adventures closely on her iPad. Hi Mum 🙂
Meanwhile I will leave you with this simple recipe as taught to me by qing jia mu:
Stir fried cabbage and shredded pancakes – Chao Bing
Continue reading On learning, goodbyes and Chao Bing

Food fit for an Emperor at Black Sesame Kitchen

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.

The speed of the wok master in action

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.
Ingredients ready for class action

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.
Deep-frying shitake mushrooms

Straining off the mushrooms

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.
Chef Zhang and Candice serving up the mushrooms

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.
Chef Zhang “velveting” the beef

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.

Straining off the beef and peppers

The usual trio of leek, garlic and ginger were added as well as shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, oyster sauce and roasted pine nuts.
Final stage of cooking in the wok

Pine-nut and beef stir-fry served

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.
Pork mixed in a thick batter

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 Zhang adds the pork…

… piece by piece

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.
Crispy pork strained off

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.
Traditional sweet and sour pork

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

Cooking with Colour at Black Sesame Kitchen

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.

A sleepy morning at Nan Lougu Xiang

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.

Getting ready for some wok action

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.

3 mushroom stir-fry

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.
Cleaver at the ready, facing away for safety

That’s one way to peel an aubergine!

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.
Chef Zhang in action

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.
This is fun when no-one is looking!

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.
No pressure now!

Phew, something like success

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.
Double happiness