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

Home-Style Lemon Chicken with Earth Three Fresh

I feel I should begin this post with “well that didn’t go so well…” You know that moment in the kitchen when you realise you have taken on too many dishes simultaneously. You’ve got yourself addled trying to follow 3 recipes at the one time – one in draft on your lap top plugged in and charging at the other end of the room. There are too many pots jostling on the hob. You’ve lost track of which ingredients are for which dish and those dried chillies you bought today aren’t the mild chilli pieces you have at home that you can pile on certain dishes but fiery monsters from Mexico that have you leaping around the kitchen yelping for water. And to top it all you throw your carefully hoarded supply of Sichuan pepper, which Shan brought from China, into the bin, confusing it with the much milder variety you bought in Dublin which has nothing like the same punch. Note to self – time to learn the mandarin for Sichuan pepper.
It’s days like this that sap your confidence in the kitchen and make you wonder who are you kidding that you can become a competent cook of Chinese food, never mind tell other people about it. The net result of yesterday’s efforts is that my attempt at replicating the fantastic Chongqing Chicken I had in China Sichuan was edible but nothing like the real thing. Back to the drawing board one on that one.
On the other hand the Lemon Chicken dish largely based on the recipe in “The Food of China – a Journey for Food Lovers” was delicious.

A great choice for your Chinese cookbook shelf

The book was recommended to me by Joanne Cronin (Stitch and Bear; @dudara) who has owned it since first came out in 2001. It arrived to me in a package from Amazon on Friday and it’s one of those gorgeous publications that you want to read from cover to cover – a great starter guide to food journeys in China.
Lemon chicken is a staple Cantonese dish but this version is light and delicious and not a bit like the gloopy sauce you might get in a Chinese takeaway. I must “‘fess up”. My variation on the recipe is because I got so hassled last night that I left out one complete step in the cooking process but somehow it worked so I’m describing it exactly as I made it.
Home-Style Lemon Chicken (Ning Meng Ji)

This dish goes particularly well with Shan’s Earth Three Fresh (Di San Xian). Neither dish is spicy and the pale lemony chicken complements perfectly the bright colours and flavours of the peppers, golden potato wedges and aubergine. The balance of nutrients felt good too.
My version of Di San Xian

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