Sunday 15 September 2013

Authentic Chinese Flavours at the School of Wok - worth a shout instead of just a whisper

School of Wok's Sichuan Aubergine, Fujian Fried Rice and Crispy Pork Belly

As the name suggests, the School of Wok is an Asian and Oriental cookery workshop tucked away in Chandos Place, just behind the Strand and only a few doors down from my favourite fast Mexican food joint Wahaca. I'd visited their dining room previously as the location for a few Edible Experiences pop-up events, and certainly heard whispers about their expert tutorials amongst London's food-loving community.

As I explored their state of the art facilities at their first anniversary party in June, I marvelled at the wide variety of culinary techniques on display; guests were learning how to build their own spring rolls in one room, whilst freshly steamed dim sum were being served in the Spice Kitchen, and Head Chef Jeremy Pang was stretching out giant strands of hand-pulled noodles downstairs in the Wok Kitchen.

So accepting the School's kind offer to attend a complimentary cooking class was simple...the difficult part was deciding which session to choose, as they all sounded so appealing! Eventually I settled on the Authentic Chinese course, as this is the one style of Asian cuisine that my boyfriend has never enjoyed. Hopefully the School of Wok could show me the secrets to producing flavourful Chinese food at home, free from the dreaded MSG?

Authentic Chinese Flavours at School of Wok

During the evening we would learn three authentically Chinese dishes, which fortuitously contained some of my favourite ingredients. After a quick background introduction to the School of Wok by Jeremy, we set to work on our crispy pork belly. Whilst 3 hours might sound like (more than enough!) time to cook your dinner, he explained that this meat really benefits from slow cooking on a low temperature; the longer we could leave our piggies in the oven, the better they would ultimately taste. This visually striking dish is often the centrepiece of celebratory banquets, when the belly joint can be left in the oven for up to 5 hours!

Head Chef Jeremy Pang School of Wok

The clever Chinese formula for ultra crispy pork skin and totally tender belly meat is a "double cooking" process, where the joint is briefly braised in boiling water before roasting. We could immediately see and feel the difference once the belly pieces exited the pot, as the skin had constricted and taken on a dry paper-like texture.

Braising pork belly

Braising the belly also removes excess fat and impurities, so the resulting lean joint only contains the marbling that's so vital for a juicy roast. Grey and scummy water is the sign of a very fatty belly...I just hope this doesn't happen the next time I get in the bath!

Scoring pork belly skin

To give the skin a kickstart in its transformation into crunchy crackling, we scored a cross-hatch pattern on the top and rubbed salt into the grooves. Keeping the scoremarks close together whilst avoiding cutting into the soft flesh was a challenge! We then coated the meat in a heady mix of spices to add an authentic Chinese taste to our belly, before it was whisked off to the oven for a 2.5 hour sauna session to follow its quick dip in the jacuzzi.

Fujian Fried Rice ingredients

One recipe done, and next on the list was the Fujian fried rice. Demystifying that mixture of semi-scrambled-semi-fried egg and flavourful rice had been one of my key reasons for selecting this particular course. I was even more pleased to discover that we'd also be taught how to make a bonus seafood stir-fry to top the classic side dish, involving my beloved scallops and king prawns, plus (somewhat more intimidating!) squid.

The vast array of vegetables, herbs and sauces on the bench was certainly intriguing, so I wondered what was coming next...

Chef Jeremy Pang knife skills

...the answer: a lot of chopping! It turns out that the rumours are true, and Chinese cooking really is 90% preparation! Jeremy shared his tricks for successfully peeling garlic and ginger, then demonstrated the traditional technique for finely "slicing and dicing". The main things to focus on were to move the knife in a steady forward rocking motion, to always make sure that the end of the knife made firm contact with the wooden board, and to form a "claw" with the other hand to keep whatever we were chopping secure.

School of Wok knife skills

He made it look so easy. But the cleaver in front of me was very large and very sharp, and the garlic and ginger were both very small in comparison! Suddenly any coordination skills I had went out the window; it was like my brain and my chopping hand were completely disconnected...I knew what I was supposed to be doing but just couldn't quite make it happen properly!

Finely diced ginger and garlic

Thankfully with some extra guidance from our mentor I completed the first task with all of my fingers still intact. I'm sure Jeremy could have sliced and diced a whole bulb of garlic in the time it had taken me to chop one clove!

Chopped coriander

For the next hour and a half we were like martial arts novices practising our routine, with one victim after another surrendering before us; coriander, spring onion, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, and finally the slippery squid (which required a full dismembering!).

Sliced asparagus

Clearly I still had a long way to go before earning my black belt, but I was pleased with my initial efforts. I'd been longing to learn knife skills in-depth for years, so I was truly delighted that so much of the class was dedicated to this. I'm definitely going to continue training at home with my own Flint and Flame cleaver!

Fujian Fried Rice seafood and vegetables

The scallops and prawns had kindly been prepared for us in advance by the School's chefs, so all of our Fujian fried-rice ingredients were now good to go. This dish would take mere minutes to stir-fry, so we organised our vegetables and aromatics into the order in which they'd hit the wok before heading to the "Spice Kitchen" in pairs to cook our feast!

Sichuan Aubergine frying

During our chopping marathon we'd also portioned up our aubergine coins for our third dish. We fried these in oil until golden brown and then coated them in the spicy viscous concoction that made up our Sichuan sauce, to be left to simmer in the saucepan whilst we finished our Fujian fried-rice. It's a staggering testament to the speedy nature of Chinese cuisine that excluding the preparation (which could all be done in advance), the actual cooking time for both these two dishes combined was only 20 minutes!

Chinese egg-fried rice

Now for the moment I had been waiting for all evening...learning how to make authentic egg-fried rice. We watched in earnest as Jeremy worked his magic with the wok, keeping the semi-scrambled egg and cold pre-cooked rice in constant motion with a rhythmic routine of "cutting and folding" to ensure nothing burned in the scorching hot oil. My 5 fellow students and I were clearly in awe of Jeremy's skill at such fast-paced cooking, and exchanged nervous laughter about our ability to replicate this...!

School of Wok Authentic Chinese Flavours dinner with wine

The rest of the cooking session seemed to fly by in seconds, as we threw one ingredient after another into the wok, frantically flipping our stir-fry as the vegetable slivers wilted and the translucent seafood transformed in the heat.

Finally, it was time to relax with a glass of wine to admire our handiwork...and even better, to find out how our three dishes tasted! Overall the balance of flavours and textures in the meal worked perfectly, and after many large helpings of our supper selection I decided that the surprise highlight for me was the moreish Sichuan aubergine.

Fujian egg-fried rice

Jeremy's perfect egg-fried rice, tastier than any takeaway!

Fujian Fried Rice seafood vegetable sauce

Beautifully vibrant Fujian stir-fry of soft seafood and toothsome vegetables in a delicately balanced gravy

Sichuan Aubergine served

Sichuan aubergines that melted in the mouth; the powerful sauce started with a spicy kick before mellowing to a sweet finish to leave you wanting more

Crispy Pork Belly

Aromatic pork belly with a skin so crispy it was impossible to resist returning for just one more bite-sized piece!

Leaving the School with a very satisfied stomach, I felt proud of how much I had learnt in just three hours. Jeremy is incredibly knowledgable about the history and tradition behind Asian cuisine, and taught us a huge range of skills that will be useful for many different aspects of our home-cooking. Normally this session would cost £90; whilst I appreciate this is a lot of money, it is very good value given that the class was totally interactive including a lot of individual tuition, plus we enjoyed a delicious authentic Chinese meal made using top-quality ingredients.

These courses make the ideal gift for any amateur chefs or gastronomes, and with the School of Wok's current multi-buy offer to celebrate the Moon Festival there couldn't be a better time to book...I'm already eyeing up the expansive list to plan my next visit!

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