Banishing Bank Holiday Blues with a School of Wok Cookery Day:
Londoners, like lemmings, leave the Smoke for sunnier (possibly) climes on Bank Holiday weekends. Nose to tail traffic on the roads, packed trains with Sunday service and a general feeling of mass evacuation. The experience is not one particularly enjoy. So I don’t.
That means for the most part, I spend Bank Holidays staycationing alone in the City. This year I was thrilled to be offered the chance to spend a day at the School of Wok learning a bit more about Chinese food. I’ve been to the School of Wok for events (usually in conjunction with Edible Experiences supper clubs) and I’ve always wondered what the courses were like. Right on the edge of Chinatown, it couldn’t be better placed for a day’s introduction to Chinese food – shopping, eating and cooking.
My host for the day was Neville Leaning who told me that his career had taken him from event management to running a pub restaurant and ultimately to setting up and running The School of Wok with Jeremy Pang. It was, he said, his wife’s idea that he moved into running a cookery school – a fusion of skills in catering and event management to ensure a slick and professional operation which is only just over a year old. The connection from thereon becomes complex. Neville’s wife’s best friend’s brother is Jeremy’s brother in law.
‘Understanding the Wok’ is a full day session, with the morning spent exploring Chinatown and the afternoon cooking. If you simply want to learn to cook, then you can turn up for the afternoon only, but you’ll miss out on buns from the Kowloon bakery and dumplings from Jen Cafe. Both of which are well worth experiencing.
The Kowloon bakery, so Nev told us, used to belong to Jeremy Pang’s grandfather, until the family moved to Manchester.. We loitered outside while he went in to bring samples of a whole range of buns out to us. Apparently commonplace in Hong Kong and China, these buns are made of a brioche like dough and have a range of sweet and savoury filling. I’ll own up to having looked but never tried before, but now I will be happy to go in and order. Especially the long thin ones to the right of the picture which are like churros.
Having enjoyed a taster, we went on to shop for ingredients for the afternoon’s cookery session. It also gave us a chance to look around a couple of the supermarkets in Chinatown.
Outside, stacks of fresh vegetables, inside every kind of rice, spice, sauce and oriental ingredient you might ever need. Or so it seemed to me.
Then on to Jen Cafe, where we sat down to enjoy dumplings and bubble tea. One of those places you probably wouldn’t go into unless you knew what to expect, Jen Cafe has a short menu, informal seating and you can watch the dumplings that you eat being made in the window.
They come with two different fillings and prepared in two different ways – fillings are meat (pork and spring onion) or vegetarian and the dumplings are either poached or poached and then pan fried quickly on one side to give a crisp shell.
Soy, chilli and vinegar sit on the table ready to be added by the diner to his or her taste. The drink to enjoy with your dumplings, apparently, is bubble tea. Which I’ve never tried before and which suprised me by being much closer to a fruity milkshake than to tea!
It’s fun and rather charming so I will pop in again when I need a bite to eat and am round that way.
Then back to base to start cooking. Nev told us that 95% of chinese cooking was in preparing things properly. So, we spent the next couple of hours learning to chop, dice, julienne and set up a plate ready for the wok.
I loved the idea of laying the ingredients out around the plate like a clock. The logic of course, is easy to see once it’s explained. Things that need longer to cook should go into the wok first. So, buying a pre-cut bag of vegetables isn’t going to give you great results.
A second principle, the lesser the flavour the more you use proportionally, also seemed to make sense.
Once everything was neatly laid out on plates, we got to play with fire, almost literally.
In the kitchen we used VERY lightweight woks on a very hot stove
Cooking each dish took no more than a few minutes. And we followed the dial principle, adding in the ingredients by following the plate around, so that in the case of the chicken dish below, the onions were cooked first, followed by the peppers followed by the spices, followed by the chicken. Just as we’d laid things out. It made it much easier when we were literally playing with fire, with a very hot wok in one hand and a ladle in the other.
And the result was spectacularly good
Egg fried Rice
Morning Glory – a simple wok fried dish of the vegetable with a dressing of rice wine, chilli, garlic ginger, oyster and soy sauce.
And for me the star dish – Stir Fried Sichuan Chicken. Really quite a simple recipe, but one that has spectacular results.
We also made our own dumplings…but somehow I was too busy eating them to take a picture of them cooked! I do remember being quite proud of the pretty plate ready for frying though. Apparently, the more pleats you can put in your dumplings the wealthier you will be. Well, these might not make me rich, but they did look pretty…and they seemed to work!
School of Wok offer a wide range of Asian Cookery Classes and short courses. You can find out more from their website. I’m planning on adding in the recipe for Stir Fried Sichuan Chicken later, so please do check back…it’s definitely worth it!#
School of Wok
61 Chandos Place
London WC2N 4HG
020 7240 8818