All the classes in my weekend Chinese cooking course are taught by Teacher Hong, a great master of Chinese cooking. How do I know he’s a great master? Well, he has a lavishly decorated uniform that has “China Cooking Great Master” embroidered beneath a patch of the Chinese Communist Party insignia. Also, all the food he makes is really, really tasty, which is good enough for me.
I don’t know much of Teacher Hong’s biography. He flashed a few of his credentials up on a PowerPoint slide on the first day of class, but I seem to have photographed every slide from that one. He has run a restaurant in Shanghai, worked in the kitchens of well-known hotels, and studied under chefs famous enough to earn nods of recognition from my classmates. Outside of class Teacher Hong told me he hails from Anhui Province. Anhui is an impoverished inland province and one of the chief sources of labor for Shanghai’s army of migrant workers – I don’t know much of Teacher Hong’s background, but it probably says a lot that he had the tenacity and skill to work his way up the culinary ranks in Shanghai.
Classes with Teacher Hong begin with two or three students piling out of a car or taxi, arms weighed down with bags of vegetables, fresh cuts of meat, and bottles of sauces. We splay everything out on a metal table in a room dedicated to chopping and preparing ingredients, where Teacher Hong runs us through the basics of peeling, slicing, dicing, mincing, and dissecting whatever it is we need to cook that day. Everything we make is intended to be eaten with chopsticks and needs to be cooked fast in a wok, so we dedicate a lot of time to cutting things into small pieces.
After Teacher Hong demonstrates how to prepare each ingredient, we scurry off to our own stations to cut them ourselves, sometimes with each person cooking their own set of ingredients, or dividing the labor up so each person cuts one vegetable and then dividing them up later. It quickly became obvious that my singular weakness was being very slow at mincing this holy trinity of seasonings – I’m still a bit intimidated by using an enormous cleaver to cut everything, which means I move it very slowly and carefully. But I’m fine double-fisting a pair of cleavers to pound thinly-sliced meat into a fine paste.
After we finish prepping the ingredients, we leave them to one side to go to the demonstration cooking classroom, where Teacher Hong demonstrates making the day’s four dishes, sometimes using all three of the demo kitchen’s woks at once. The classroom has rows of desks and there’s a mirror above the oven range so seated students can observe, but our class of eight students is small enough that we all just crowd around the cooking area to watch the action up close (and warm our freezing hands at the burners).
The demonstration cooking is the meat of the day’s class and usually takes a couple of hours. Each day’s menu is chosen to have one cold dish, one hot dish, one vegetable dish, and one soup. One of these is usually simmered or otherwise slow-cooked, meaning we keep it going in a pot or wok over low heat while Teacher Hong moves through the faster stir-fried dishes. This may be the most efficient way to cook a four-course meal, but it can make taking notes complicated since you’re jumping from one dish to another. Teacher Hong is good about describing each step, but it’s still easy to get mixed up. Each student devised their own way of keeping track – mine was to hold my iPhone in one hand and a voice recorder in the order, photographing each step while dictating notes about timing and proportions. Each day I go home with about 300 pictures and 15-20 minutes of audio notes to go with the recipes provided by the class.
Teacher Hong is clearly having a ball working multiple pots at once before an attentive audience. He never seems to enjoy himself more than in the final stages of a good stir fry, when he’s using a fluid arm motion to launch the contents of the work into the air and catch them on the way down. This requires serious hand-eye coordination and upper body strength and often isn’t necessarily that much better for the food than stirring it around with a wok spoon. But it looks cool as hell, so why not?
The cooking demo ends one of two ways. Some dishes cook quickly and are best prepared in small portions; we’ll practice those later in a third room where up to ten students can fire up woks under teacher supervision. For slow-cooked dishes or ones where we cook all the day’s ingredients at once, Teacher Hong will carve them up for the students to take home. We’re all instructed to bring four food containers to each class so that we can take home the fruits of the day’s labor. The best-tasting dishes inevitably are the ones prepared under Teacher Hong’s practiced hand, and each day we place our containers before him like baby birds awaiting a feeding from their mother. (Mine’s the one with the orange lid)
Below, Teacher Hong carves up a couple of chickens, which after being doused in a spicy sauce and a few hour’s refrigeration will become the classic Sichuan Mouth-Watering Chicken.
And here Teacher Hong finely slices a chunk of streaky pork, which we’ve been simmering with ginger and scallions, and will top with a sauce of minced garlic and spicy oil