Learning to cook Chinese @SweetMandarin

Sweet and sour chicken. That’s the most popular dish at the northern quarter’s Sweet Mandarin restaurant and so it also featured as part of the cookery school I attended today.
At first it struck me as odd that this above all other dishes would be a restaurant favourite. I’d always thought (wrongly it transpired) it was an Anglo-invention, the chicken tikka masala of Chinese cookery.
Our teacher, the restaurateur Lisa Tse soon put me right and explained that the dish’s origins are very much true to traditional cooking, the balance of the seven necessary flavours being an essential element of Chinese food.
So it was time to get hands-on and practical making not only the sweet ‘n’ sour but also chow mein, fried rice, beef in blackbean sauce and chicken with ginger. (You can get an idea of what’s entailed with the short video clip below).
In just a few hours the four of us had without any previous experience (apart from several confesions of failed fried rice!) managed to produce each of the dishes to an edible standard. And eat them we did!
So much was learned so quickly but here’s a few discoveries;
• Surprisingly few ingredients are used.
• Sweet and sour sauce is made with the addition of tomato ketchup.
• Marinading the chicken in a little water, salt and potato starch before it’s added to a stir-fry retains the moisture and stops it becoming rubbery.
• The white part of the spring onion isn’t used but all the leaves are.
• Oyster sauce, potato starch, Shao Shing wine and sesame oil are essential store cupboard ingredients.
I’ve posted Lisa’s sweet and sour chicken recipe here.
As well as being a thoroughly enjoyable morning, the cookery school also provides the opportunity for us amateur cooks to get a bit of an idea of how a professional kitchen operates.
The small size of the working spaces, the fiercesome flames from the wok stations and the frightening looking cleavers all de-mystified under Lisa’s watchful eye.
But she has taken a lot of effort to research the dishes to ensure students can create them at home and that the professional equipment isn’t required – trying electric and gas appliances in different locations to replicate the experience before passing it on.
It’s a well-thought out course, delivered in a friendly way with plenty of knowledge handed on – all I need to do now is get the wok out and get started.

This morning’s lessons were also tweeted on the micro-blogging platform Twitter in first for a UK restaurant. Recap @sweetmandarin.
Sweet Mandarin Cookery School is held at the restaurant in Copperas Street. See the website http://www.sweetmandarin.com for more details.

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