A day at Chinese cooking school

I asked Fiona what insight I should share about our cooking class today. “That it was excellent,” she said. That is my key message.

We started out in the market shopping for ingredients. Toting cane baskets we worked our way through the fresh produce and spices. Our meat had been pre-procured from a supermarket, but apparently in China it’s fine to buy meat from open-air markets if you do so in the mornings. Freshness is ensured by daily slaughter. I never really thought a sentence with the word slaughter would be comforting, but that one is. In what is hopefully a further indicator of hygiene in these parts, raw pork is eaten as a delicacy.

Most Chinese food we consume in the West is from the Cantonese school of cooking. Hong Kong Chinese, who are Cantonese, have had more freedom of movement than their mainland counterparts, so they were the ones who went out and set up smorgasbord restaurants and Chinatowns around the world (including in Peru). Other cuisines are a long way from what we tend to think of as ‘Chinese’. For example, cuisines north of the Yangtze River seldom features rice.

The menu we cooked was mostly representative of Sichuan cuisine. That’s the one with the peppercorn that makes your tongue go funny.

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Basically Master Chef

The kitchen we cooked in was very Master Chef. It included some pretty sweet cleavers. I had dreams of confounding judges with perfectly executed macaroni cheese in response to every quick fire challenge, and nightmares that one of the eight cookers would be voted off the island after each of our three dishes.

The first dish was a salad using dry tofu. I’m not a big advocate of tofu, but in its defence it does tend to take on the flavours you put with it, and we used, among other things, an exceptional sesame oil.

Our second dish was fragrant fish eggplant. This bothered me on several levels. First, I’m no fan of eggplant. This concern was easily overcome by my using giant oyster mushrooms instead. Second, I think I speak for a global majority when I say that fish is not among my favourite fragrances. I am also a personal enemy of fish in unexpected places (I’m looking at you Japanese food). The good news is the dish actually earns its name because it was developed as an alternative to fish dishes that maintained the approach to fish seasoning. Mostly it just tasted profoundly Chinese.

GangBao Chicken: Will try again.

Last on the menu was GangBao Chicken, often known as Kung Pao Chicken. I wouldn’t say Kung Pao is a staple of New Zealand Chinese cuisine, but I know it’s big in the US because I’ve heard them order it on Friends. I gather its sweet and sour flavour is achieved through the use of orange juice there, which means a New Zealand version would probably, inexcusably, use tinned pineapple.

The authentic GangBao we cooked was sweet and sour, but nothing like at home. The flavour was achieved through the sauce featuring sugar (sweet), Chinese vinegar and rice wine (sour) and soy (salty). Getting the balance right was the hardest part. Our host came round to taste and suggest what to add. I can imagine us second-guessing our sauces at home now, adding this and that until we end up with big vats of the sauce.

The dish was a cracker. Deep-fried peanuts – an underrated ingredient in our experience – and Sichuan peppercorns made the flavour pop. The chicken was tender; it was tossed in corn flour after marinating so it wouldn’t dry out. It was remarkable how basically the same seasonings for the eggplant and chicken tasted quite different. Minced ginger and sliced ginger are not the same thing.

Our host was great. She was relaxed and clearly loved the business – Rice and Friends – that she’d made for herself. She also, most likely, had better cooking credentials, and English, than anyone who has ever features on New Zealand’s hottest home baker.

We went home with recipe books and ambitions to stock our pantries with staples of the Chinese kitchen. The only problem for us is that we’ve really no idea when we might have a pantry that is ours to stock again.

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