Cooking Lessons

Friday night dinner at the Kitchen! Both tables were full-a big group of six from Ireland at one table and three smaller parties at the main table. The menu was all familiar dishes except for the 春饼 and the black sesame 汤圆。 During Chinese New Year, each day has a specific dish that you are supposed to eat for auspicious reasons. This time, Chairman replaced the panfried guotie dumplings with chun bing, since the holiday is chun jie. The “chun” in both phrases means spring.

Basically, the chun bing are Chinese tortillas, or think of mushu pork wrappers, except this is authentic and more delicious than Americanized, overly salted cabbage filling. Chairman puts a little oil between two rounds of dough, rolls them thin and flat, then cooks them, light and almost fluffy. For family meal we filled them with glass noodles and bamboo shoots, some fried egg, and some cheap Chinese sausage. Serving them to paying customers, we left out the cheap sausage. For a little extra flavor, we spread on a sweet fermented flour sauce (very similar to Hoisin or plum sauce, which I haven’t seen anywhere in China and am beginning to suspect is a Westernized creation).

It was a good crowd of people, they ate everything (except the gongbao jiding, it was a little spicy, and Chairman kept a little of the hongshao pork aside for me to snack on, isn’t she awesome) and drank 12 bottles of wine! Good night! For dessert, instead of ice cream, Chairman taught me how to make tang yuan, sweet rice dumplings with a black sesame filling. These were another auspicious dish, served very simply in boiled water. Although the ingredients were simple: flour and water paste packed with sugar and crushed black sesame, and just sticky rice flour and water for the dough, actually assembling the dumplings was difficult because the dough and filling are both delicate, and the dumpling must be completely sealed or the filling leaks out during cooking.

Dice's five minute mapo tofu.

We were all still hungry after the guests left, so Dice threw together some mapo tofu, and we ate that and the gongbao chicken and a whole lot of rice while watching an episode of Top Chef. Some serious 麻 (numbing spiciness) was going on with the chicken, but it was good. I got home just after midnight and basically fell on my bed. I was so tired, I couldn’t even make myself walk up the stairs to talk to Bambi, I actually started emailing him from my room. Pathetic.

I finally made it to my first cooking lesson! I’ve been seriously excited. Today was noodle making day.

The dough was simply high gluten content flour and water, although for extra chewiness an egg can replace the water. No measurements here, everything done by feel, just “add enough to get a hard dough.” Add water bit by bit, push the flour into it, add water to the dry flour, and knead until you get a smooth dough ball. Allow to rest twenty minutes. We learned some cleaver skills (my knife skills are atrocious, I really butcher my way through cutting things, so I’m glad to learn real knife techniques) while getting the ingredients together for caramelized pork and eggplant sauce, and a simpler (and healthier) tomato egg sauce. The pork was 五花肉,or pork belly, for which I have a particular fondness. It’s fatty, so many Westerners don’t like it (except for in its bacon form), but so flavorful. In the past I’ve made Taiwanese minced pork belly, and tried some southern style recipes for braised pork served with grits (also serving it on crusty French bread with stewed apples), but this was a much shorter cook time.

Caramelized Pork and Eggplant Sauce

Tomato and Egg sauce

The pork was diced and caramelized in a little sugar and oil, then eggplant added. Really hit every surface of the eggplant with oil to give it a good, not mushy texture. Light and dark soy, star anise, chili peppers and some water all went in and let it simmer for a bit. The egg was lightly fried, the tomatoes cooked down, egg added back in with seasoning and soy and water and all that. Quick, easy, healthy, and I bet I can add some variety with different veggies, serve it over rice as well.

Back to the noodles: our dough rested, we pulled some off and kneaded it, rolled it thin, and then rolled it by wrapping it on the rolling pin, to really lengthen and flatten the dough. With liberal sprinkles of flour, folded it over itself in tidy piles then cut it with our cleavers. I really need to get a cleaver of my own.

Cat Ear Noodles in Pork Sauce

Next up, cat ear noodles. This was the most simple, just pulling off a pea sized bit of dough, then rolling your thumb over it on the cutting board the create a little curl. Similar to Italian orecchiette. We took a little break to sample our noodles and the sauce, then commenced with the daxiaomian (刀削面)or knife grated noodles. The dough was lightly kneaded into a big loaf, then put onto a cleaver, and shaved off with a special curved knife. Dice is really good at this, and two of the other students actually did a pretty good job, but suffice it to say I will not be a daoxiaomian master anytime soon. In restaurants, the cooks will have giant lumps of dough on big boards that they haul on their shoulders and slice off in lightning fast movements.

Daoxiaomian Being Cut Into The Boiling Pot

Lastly, hand pulled. This was a much stickier dough with more water. Rolled out flat and cut into strips attached on one end, well floured, twisted then gently pulled and stretched. It took a couple tries to pull without breaking, but these were very chewy and possibly my favorite.

Home Style Pulled Noodles

Since the leftovers were just going to be thrown out, and I live with boys, I asked to take the sauce and noodles home. No Tupperware to be had, but a few doubled-up plastic bags did the trick. I spent the forty minute walk home cradling a big bag of noodles and two smaller bags of sauce, terrified the handles might rip and that I would lose precious cargo.


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