I rarely cook Chinese food at home and for a long time I avoided eating it out as well. A few visits to Xinjiang restaurant Silk Road in Camberwell however, was enough to enlighten me to the fact that Chinese cuisine has a lot more to it, and to my taste, than your average sweet and sour pork ball.
As someone keen to improve their knowledge of Chinese cuisine, I was pleased to be one of the bloggers invited to take part in a Chinese cookery class for the launch of Amoy Special Selection soy sauce. The event takes place at Central Street Cookery School in Islington with chef Hannah Hayes of Chinafeast. This is me with my cooking partner, Caroline of Lunchbox World.
Hannah is an energetic teacher who fills us with enthusiasm. I will be forever in her debt for giving me an easy way to recall the differences between the four major Chinese cuisines. Hannah says the rich, warming food of Beijing and the Northern regions above the Yangtze River is nicknamed ‘strong man’s cuisine’. Around Shanghai, however, the flavours are delicate, and the presentation beautiful, hence ‘Su’ cuisine is also known as ‘pretty girl style’. Cantonese food exhibits the most Western influences, and is therefore known as ‘playboy style’ for its broad mix of techniques and flavours. The final major cuisine in China is Sichuan, or ‘scholar style’. Known for its spicing, Sichuan food is full of different ingredients and as Hannah says ‘rich in knowledge.’ The dishes we are making today represent both Cantonese and Sichuan styles of cooking.
We begin the session by making egg fried rice, a quick, cheap leftover dish cooked all over China and often done badly by Brits. Hannah’s trick is to crack an egg (per portion) into a clean plastic bag before adding a bowl of cold, ready-cooked rice and squeezing the two together so that each grain is separated and coated in egg. Because the water content in the rice causes it to stick, creating an eggy barrier enables you to cook the rice without the whole lot getting glued to the wok. An additional egg or two seasoned with Shaoxin rice wine and sesame oil is added to the hot wok before the rice to give a bit of texture, then you add leftovers, soy sauce, white pepper, and serve.
Next, we make chicken skewers marinated in soy sauce, mustard and honey. They really couldn’t be simpler. The only tricks are to make sure you cut your chicken along the grain to keep it tender, and soak the wooden skewers for 20 minutes before using. With the skewers under the grill, the heat gets turned up, quite literally, when we start making Sichuan chilli oil.
Homemade chilli oil, as Hannah shows us, is much more fragrant than shop-bought varieties. It is also straightforward to cook, provided you’re not scared by a wok full of hot oil. Hannah shows us how to test the heat of the oil using a chopstick. Stand a chopstick in the middle of the wok, and when small bubbles start to form it indicates a low heat, perfect for frying the spices to infuse your oil. Medium-sized bubbles show a medium heat, and large ones mean the oil is at 200c or more.
First we add six slices of fresh ginger to the hot oil, when they start to brown we add five garlic cloves, shortly followed by a bruised spring onion. When the aromas are released, in goes a tablespoon of Sichuan pepper which we heat briefly before straining the oil onto an equal quantity of red chilli flakes. The chilli oil is hot, hot, hot, and will keep well for around six months.
We use the chilli oil as the starting point for Hannah’s Mouth-watering Chicken by adding to it a spectrum of other tasty ingredients including sesame paste, fresh ginger, Shaoxin rice wine and of course, soy sauce. This sauce is poured over plain poached chicken pieces to create a dish I am hungry to cook again. A delicious vegetarian version is made by poaching mushrooms, perforating the stalks with a knife and marinating them in the sauce.
We end the day in a bit of a blind rush, using the stock from the poached chicken to make a richly flavoured and textured hot and sour soup with shredded pork, Chinese wood ear mushrooms, carrot, ginger, spring onion and beaten egg. Hannah’s soup really is a cut above the stuff you buy at the average Chinese carry out, and a great way to use up the stock from poaching your ‘mouth-watering’ chicken. Here is the recipe:
1 block soft beancurd (cut into thin slices)
3 wood ear mushrooms (soaked and chopped into thin slices)
Palm-sized chunk of pork fillet, shredded
1 small carrot (cut into thin slices)
2 eggs, beaten
6 cups water/chicken stock
1/3 cup bamboo shoots
2 spring onions, shredded
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
4 tbsp cornflour water
2″ fresh ginger (cut into thin slices)
1 tsp ground white pepper
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tbsp sesame oil
1 finely chopped spring onion
Boil the water.
Heat some oil in a wok and fry the carrots until the oil turns orange, add the sliced mushrooms, ginger, bamboo shoots and shredded spring onions.
Add the chicken stock, bring to the boil and then season with white pepper, soy sauce and oyster sauce. Thicken slightly with cornflour water.
Add the shredded pork and when the meat is cooked, add the beancurd. After the beancurd has been added, don’t stir the soup, push it, to avoid mincing it up.
When the soup is boiling again, add the white wine vinegar and the beaten egg, slowly, keeping the soup moving as you do.
When the egg floats to the surface, sprinkle with chopped spring onion and sesame oil and serve.
So, what’s so special about Amoy Special Selection soy sauce?
Amoy Quality Manager Jackie Prior tells us that the new Amoy Special Selection soy sauce, is ‘like Asian champagne.’ Jackie explains how soy sauce, or fermented soya bean extract, is made ‘a bit like beer.’ She says the reason Amoy Special Selection soy sauce is special, and it is tasty, is because it is made from the first extract after fermentation, ‘a bit like extra virgin olive oil.’ The first liquid extract has the highest protein content and is therefore the most flavoursome, but the process is repeated to create lighter, cheaper soy sauces. The remaining solids or yellow bean paste, are also used in cooking.
Jackie says that to avoid using genetically modified crops, Amoy only use ‘identity preserved’ soya beans that are grown in Canada before being processed in China. Neither do Amoy use de-fatted soya beans that have been pressed of their natural oils. This, we learn, is a common practise, but it results in a less flavoursome product than one made using the whole bean.
And here comes that feted term, umami, the fifth taste that Jackie says is ‘savoury but also coats the mouth.’ The reason MSG is so often added to Chinese food products is because it synthesises the specific umami flavour naturally found in anchovies, Parmesan, Shitake mushrooms, and decent soy sauce. Amoy Special Selection soy sauce contains no MSG, just the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate that gives that satisfying umami flavour.
As you can probably tell, I got a hell of a lot out of Hannah’s cookery class and I hope you have too. It was brilliant to meet the other bloggers, so I thought I’d end this marathon post (if you’re still with me) with a shout out to: The View From the Table, Lunchbox World, Best and Beyond, Rock’n’Roller Baby, Utterly Scrummy and Lilinha Angel.
I received samples and was invited to take part in the cookery class free of charge, however, this is not a sponsored post and contains no do-follow links in accordance with Google T&Cs.
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About Chloe King
I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.
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