Last week I finally did something I've always wanted to do: attend a cookery course.
In any country, with any cuisine.
So when we moved to the food capital of China, I nudged this long-term goal to the top of my 'extra curricular activities' list, above salsa dancing and Wing Chun martial arts.
It was fitting that the Chinese cookery course was held in Mong Kok, where there are 3000 restaurants alone... it's known to be one of the best places for authentic, 'roll your sleeves up' (as B puts it) Canton cuisine.
Along with two equally-as-nervous-looking gweilos, I made Hong Kong fried rice, Cantonese-style sweet and sour pork, Singaporean stir fried rice noodles, Cantonese-style crispy fish with pickled vegetables and crispy chicken with lemon sauce.
It was a thousand flavours of yum, and tasted even better than Chinese restaurant food (if I do say so myself, which, er, I just did).
Our tutor was a portly Chinese chef called Martha, who had a touch of the no-nonsense Gordon Ramsays and cracked the whip as we scurried around the kitchen, hopelessly trying to get dishes fried to perfection.
Over the next few months I'll be attempting to replicate each of these in my home kitchen, and will post the recipe, tips, photos and result on my blog.
But for now, here's some preparatory tips, courtesy of Martha Ramsay:
1. Looks come first. In a Chinese restaurant, the focus is on sexy presentation above all things - even taste. The locals believe food tastes better if it looks good. So each dish needs to look not only hot, but hawt.
2. Chinese food must be eaten immediately. In restaurants here, people complain if they don't see any steam when the food arrives. The food loses its signature flavour and crispness quickly, and therefore, the pressure's on to chow down asap. This also explains why your dessert will often come out before your entree. Which is kind of annoying.
3. Never serve a Chinese person chicken breast. It's considered rude. While Westerners usually view it as the prime piece of the chicken, in China, you'll pay more for chicken feet than breast - they think it tastes urgh, and will always reach for thighs or wings first. I guess they just aren't 'breast people'.
4. With sauce-based dishes (e.g. lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork) you don't want a thick, syrupy sauce: you only want a fine coating around each piece, otherwise the dish becomes too overpowering. It should taste shchweet, not sweet.
5. Singapore noodles are not necessarily Singaporian. While the Sings do make their own version, it's different from the Cantonese style, which is what we made. So when you order this dish in China, you're not 'ordering outside the region', this is very much a local dish. And it's one of my favourites!
6. In fried rice, egg should be completely invisible. It's extraordinarily difficult to pull that off; in professional Chinese chef school (attended by Martha, who later taught there) if any portion of egg is visible in fried rice, it's an automatic fail. The trick to absorbing the egg is to keep the rice moving very quickly at all times in the wok, especially when the egg is first added. Good luck with this - it's a nightmare.
7. You'll spend all your time on preparation. Dishes can take an hour or more to prepare, due to the delicate chopping required of each ingredient - each piece should be very small and evenly cut. In that same chef school, Martha told us students spend 6 months on cutting carrots, and will only pass when they can turn one small carrot into 1600 evenly-sized pieces. Let's leave that one to the pros, shall we.
8. Once a dish is prepared, the actual frying is intense and super-fast. In a restaurant, they'll whip up Singapore noodles in less than 45 seconds. When we attempted it, we were madly grabbing and throwing food in with one hand, whilst vigorously attacking it in the wok with the other - Martha was over our shoulder calling it like a horse race... with food sprayed all over the walls and floor, it was possibly the most painful 45 seconds of my life.
Next step: see if I can repeat any of this in my home kitchen!
Good luck with that, Natalie.
What I made:
Hong Kong fried rice with BBQ pork, shrimp and green peas.
Cantonese-style Singaporean stir fried rice noodles.
Cantonese-style crispy fish with pickled vegetables in sweet and sour sauce.
Crispy chicken with lemon sauce.
Cantonese-style sweet and sour pork with pineapple and peppers.
Pics from the day:
Now THAT's a knife. Or possibly a cleaver.
Chopping, chopping, chopping. And yet more chopping.
Making fried rice.
Preparing crispy fish.
Martha shows us how to fry it up.
This one will go straight to your thighs.
Preparing sweet and sour pork.