Honours, fish and chips and investigations – hello 2014

A very Happy New Year to all!

Getting 2014 started here at the food blog with heartfelt congratulations to Manchester’s amazing Tse sisters, Lisa and Helen.

The twins, who operate the Sweet Mandarin restaurant, were each awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list.

While they are probably best known to many for the Dragon’s Den appearance below, I shall personally remain in Lisa’s debt for teaching me some wok moves all those years ago when the pair of us tweeting our cookery lesson became a first for a UK restaurant. Wow, how times have moved on.

Cheers to you both for your well-deserved recognition.

A haddock fillet with light and non-soggy batter, mahogany edges protruding from the soft embrace of a scantly buttered bap. Fried in dripping, not sunflower oil. Always with scraps, those delectable leftover fragments, the pain perdu of the fryer.

This, what I can only call an ‘ode to fish and chips’ was published earlier this week on my latest project, Contributria.com – a community-funded writing platform. It was written by Kate Feld, the writer behind the enduring Manchizzle blog and is a delicious piece of food writing. If you fancy doing something similar for a future issue, the site is now open to writers to propose submissions for commission and membership is currently free. Further details on that here.

Finally, I happened to catch, briefly, some trashy TV programme over the break about how the food and health industries make us unhealthy. Before I switched over, a startling claim was made – that industrially produced bread is padded out with chicken feathers. Now whether this is true or not I haven’t had time to properly investigate – I’m guessing there’ll be many a complaint from the food lobby to Ofcom if it’s not – but it struck me that many edible products now seem to contain what can only be described as byproducts from other parts of the food industry.

I’m hoping to look at this more at some point this year and would very much like to hear from anyone who has first-hand knowledge about any such activity. Please feel free to contact me in confidence foodiesarahATme.com.

Behind the scenes of the F-word

Gordon Ramsay’s hunt for the best UK restaurant has had us couch cooks on the edge of our seats – but what is it really like in the heat of the TV kitchen?I caught up with SweetMandarin‘s Lisa Tse, whose hopes of getting the Manchester Chinese restaurant into the final were dashed this week, to get the insider’s view.

First of all, the question everyone wants to know the answer to, how scary is it being up close with Gordon?

Lisa didn’t seem to find him daunting at all:

“Gordon Ramsay is actually very different in real life to his TV persona. In real life he is friendly, charming, polite (i.e. no swearing) and smiles a lot. I think his swearing is all for the camera – but he’d probably do better without the swearing. I was amazed that he didn’t swear at me ! If he did, I probably wouldn’t have been able to cook!”

But surely when the heat is on, that kitchen must be hell?

“The F word kitchens are very hot because an Aga is constantly on. There are cameras pointing at you in all directions. There was only one sink – which was a bit awkward as both teams needed to use the sink at the same time.”

Lisa has become well-known among Manchester’s digital community, and spread the word of her Northern Quarter restaurant further afield, by utilising Twitter, and she told me that her followers had played a part in the selection of recipes for the programme.

“Gordon requested that for the starters we had to use squid as our ingredient.  So we opted for our bestseller, salt and pepper squid – and one of the Twitterer’s favourites.  For the mains we were allowed to choose anything from our menu – so opted for the house special (our Mum’s dish), the Mabel’s Claypot Chicken.

“I have always loved this home cooked rustic dish with its chunky chicken, lapcheung, bak choy and chinese mushrooms. I was so happy when 42 out of 50 of the F word diners voted to pay for this main course – throughout the series, we scored the highest main course vote.  For the desserts we were instructed by Gordon to cook Banana Fritters.”

The support the restaurant received from the local community, as well as those online fans, has been remarkable – even causing the Sweet Mandarin restaurant website to collapse at one point.

“The level of public/community support has been phenomenal. We’ve had 180,000 hits per minute on the website (which has caused it to crash). The phone has had at its highest level 250 calls a minute. Its been crazy and a brilliant response. “

And although viewers will have seen her knocked out of the running earlier this week, Lisa said she remains open for similar opportunities in the future and is not downhearted.

“”I learnt that our customers are really the best and I will do as much as I can to help them and continue to feed them my good food. I learnt that if you really believe in your offering, and continue to work hard and improve every day, then it will be recognised.

“I think that the scores speak for themselves. We scored 82 out of 100 and came second on the leaderboard, winning the title the Best Local Chinese Restaurant in the UK and I’m really proud of that achievement – its is an accolade of a lifetime and a huge honour which I dedicate to all of Manchester and to all Twitterers, as well as my Mother and Grandmother.”

Sweet Mandarin is at 19 Copperas Street, Manchester, M4 1HS. 0161 832 8848. @sweetmandarin on Twitter. The F-word website is here.

Twitter success for Manchester food folk

Manchester’s foodie types are finding online success by using social media platform Twitter to cook up a treat.

There’s been a noticeable bubble of activity on the micro-blogging service from the city’s restaurateurs and chef Simon Rimmer is now the city’s “most followed” person in Manchester.

For those not familiar with the service, Twitter users are “followed” by other users who sign up to see their regular 140 character updates known as “tweets” and engage in online conversations.

No 1 Simon, has amassed more than 7,000 followers in just three months of activity with updates about his Cheshire eaterie Earl and his ready replies to questions from other others.

Earlier this week at @simonrim he reveals information about how he is currently in hospital for an operation to his leg, engages in some foodie banter and posts jokes such as “2 cannibals eating a clown, one says to the other ‘does this taste funny to you’?”

He’s not the only one who hoping tweets will prove tasty. Another of Manchester’s twitterati Lisa Tse of the Northern Quarter’s Sweet Mandarin restaurant agrees.

In the months she has been tweeting, Lisa has amassed more than 5,000 followers and is ranked the city’s 21st.

Lisa provides a very individualised service at @sweetmandarin with her food tips, replies to user questions and even cookery lessons from her trusty Blackberry.

She explains: “A few clients encouraged me to join Twitter. I already was a FACEBOOK myspace and blogger fan so why not! I joined early Feb 2009. I have never looked back since!

“Twitter is fun and has helped me connect with the community and clients. It has helped business in giving Sweet Mandarin a voice to tell people about our events, special offers and cookery school. I am also happy to answer any foodie and cooking questions and love to just natter or Twitter the day away…its like getting an insight into the world of Sweet Mandarin – and has been so amazing when Twitterers visit us!”

Some more of the region’s top chefs are just getting started. The award-winning former Harvey Nichols chef Alison Seagrave is using Twitter to engage with online users following her moves to start a new patisserie which is due to open at the end of the month in Bury.

Although @yourmacaroon only has a few followers at the moment but as she explained: “I have been really busy last couple of weeks finishing at HN (Harvey Nichols)but now 100% focused on Macaroon and tweeting updates more often.”

Here’s a couple of other north west foodie favourites from my follow list;

@ItsaNingThing the Malaysian restaurant is following in the Northern Quarter footsteps with regular tweets. So far it has tended to stick to information about the opening times, events and menu.

@HelsbyArms HelsbyArms’ Carole Currie at the Cheshire pub provides regular updates about life in the kitchen, special offers and menu items as well as wider issues such as the MPs Early Day Motion for Government assistance.

And I’m also around @foodiesarah so do tweet me if you come across any more.

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.