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 – 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

The Art of Pulling Noodles – Hutong Cuisine Cookery School

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.

Feast at East

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.
I wonder how long the charge lasts in Beijing traffic?

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.
Good morning Dermot!

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.
Cookery school Chinese style

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!
Some interesting soup spices

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!
The easy bit!

This looks manageable doesn’t it?

Chef rolls the dough

Stretch it out nice and long…

I think she’s got it!

Let’s twist…

Let’s twist again…

There you have it..

Derry could be proud of his efforts

To serve:
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 – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.