I know my beloved T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but sometimes I think he got his calendar mixed up. To me, January and February are the cruellest months – that wasteland after the excitement and anticipation of Christmas have worn off; when all the bills from the Christmas excesses are clamouring to be paid; and when any sign of substantially warmer weather is still a good two months away – before the daffodils and after the mistletoe, so to speak. It’s a good thing, then, that Chinese New Year falls squarely in the middle of this bleak period and gives us a reason to celebrate with food, friends and family.
Over Chinese New year celebrations, people splash out on gifts, decorations, clothing and food; and traditionally every family thoroughly cleans their house to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for incoming good luck. Windows and doors will be decorated with red paper cut-outs of images symbolising good fortune, happiness, wealth or longevity. The evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather to enjoy an annual reunion dinner, light firecrackers, wish relatives a happy new year, and give gifts of money in red paper envelopes. This year, Chinese New Year falls on Sunday 10 February and the Hong Kong Tourism Board has partnered with some of the finest Chinese restaurants in London (including Ming Jiang where I had a fantastic Beijing duck dinner recently, Grand Imperial, China Tang at the Dorchester, and China Club) to offer foodies of all nationalities a chance to sample some authentic Chinese New Year cuisine.
But if you want to feast at home, The School of Wok in Central London offers a variety of hands-on classes, ranging from 1 hour quickfire wok sessions to intensive 5 day course. And after you learn to prep and cook the food, you also get to eat the dishes you create, and probably make some new like-minded friends. I was recently invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to attend a taster class at the School of Wok, situated on the fringe of London’s Chinatown. The school consists of two large spaces – the sleek, modern kitchen, with 5 cooking stations, each with its own induction hob; and a reception/dining room which also doubles as the venue for our pre-course mingling and later, our wonton folding. Soon we were in the capable hands of owner and head chef/teacher, Jeremy Pang, whose family moved to London from Hong Kong in the 1960s and started a Chinese takeaway. The cooking bug never really left him, and after studying engineering at Bath University, Jeremy eventually gave in to his urge to cook and trained at Cordon Bleu. After a couple of years teaching cookery privately, he started walking tours of Chinatown, which proved so popular that, six months later, he opened the school. Jeremy is a ball of enthusiasm and it’s hard not to feel fired up for some cooking after he talks us through what we’ll be doing: fried wontons, and Hong Kong noodles, a mixture of finely chopped vegetables, noodles and soy sauce that is apparently a popular Hong Kong breakfast dish.
Having explained to us what we were going to do, Jeremy gathered us all around the table to teach us the basics of wonton wrapping. To speed things up, we used ready-made wonton wrappers (available at Chinese supermarkets) and a filling that Jeremy had pre-made, consisting of a mixture of minced garlic, ginger, prawns, Chinese chives, soy sauce, sesame oil and a pinch of sugar. “See – it’s not that hard”, said Jeremy as he deftly folded the pastry around the filling, sealed and twisted it. He looked as if he could do this in his sleep. Could we in any way replicate his neat little sailor hats of dough? As it turns out, either the entire class had been hiding their latent wonton-making skills under a bush, or Jeremy is an extremely gifted teacher (or a bit of both!). Soon the table filled up with increasingly neat wontons and chests were swelling with pride.
From there, we moved into the kitchen where Danny volunteered to help Jeremy to demonstrate some wok skills. Although many of us own a wok, not everyone uses it correctly, with the crucial part being the correct level of heat. Nothing should be added to the wok until the oil is smoking, and once the food is in, the heat can be controlled by either using your ladle to move the food up the sides of the wok away from the heat, or tossing the food in a smooth front-to-back move while lifting the wok off the heat. But as Jeremy kept on calling out to us as we cooked: “don’t lose the sizzle!”. Danny did a great job of the demo and soon it was our turn. I paired off with the lovely Maitha who promptly informed me that I was to be the one on wok duty while she would add ingredients for me as necessary. Performance anxiety!! But once again, Jeremy had given us all the tools to do a good job and even the tossing of the veggies went better than expected: nothing flew out of the wok, and Maitha only flinched a little bit with each toss The end result was a steaming and perfectly caramel-coloured plate of Hong Kong noodles.
Job done, we decamped back to the dining area where our deep-fried wontons awaited us – light, crispy and packed with flavour, they are worth the effort of hand making. We were also introduced to the charming ladies from A Grape Night In, Laura and Kiki, who presented a few wines for us to try with our food in order to challenge the perception that Oriental food is difficult to match with wine. With our wontons we had 2010 Ant Moore “Kiki” sparkling Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough,New Zealand. This was a refreshing surprise full of zesty citrus rather than the aggressively green notes that some Sauvignons have, and a fresh, fizzy match for the wontons. They also brought bottles of 2012 Some Young Punks “Monsters, Monsters, Attack!” Riesling from Clare Valley, Australia which I adored because it reminded me of German Rieslings, packed with the flavour of white peaches and spice. without ever being too saccharin. The red wine was a 2011 Sepp Zweigelt from Burgenland, Austria – a wine which I will haul out next time anybody makes snide remarks about Austrian reds in my company. It’s organic and unoaked so even at 12% alcohol it has smooth and gentle tannins, fresh red cranberry flavours, and a hint of black pepper and star anise – delicious and so accessible.
Wines in hand, we were ready to sit down and sample the fruits of our labours. We had our noodles as well as some fried rice that Jeremy had whipped up earlier to try with each of the wines and come up with a favourite. My verdict was the white wine for sipping; and surprisingly, the red wine as a food match! Possibly the spiciness in the wine worked well with the spiciness in the food, but either way, it was a surprisingly good match.
The entire evening was very enjoyable and left me curious to return and attend a longer class at the School of Wok – I reckon I may have found my calling throwing wonton shapes Jeremy is an excellent and encouraging teacher, and as I have said before, food-based social events like this are probably my favourite way of meeting new people. It also left me curious to explore the culinary treasure trove of Hong Kong where you can eat at a different restaurant every night for something like ten years before running out of restaurants. The food covers the full spectrum from affordable street food through Cantontese, dim sum, Japanese and even Western fine dining. Sounds like my kinda town
Find out more about Hong Kong on the Hong Kong Tourism Board website (which also has a special section dedicated to the food of Hong Kong). The School of Wok is hosting a series of Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day feasts and classes during February – check out their website for details. The A Grape Night In girls offer wine dinners, events and bespoke wine packages throughout the year – check out their website for details.
More photos of the evening are available in my Flickr set. For other prespectives on the evening, have a look at:
DISCLOSURE: I attended this evening as a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board but received no remuneration to write this post and all opinions are my own.