Winter is coming, time to brew some masala tea

Each year as winter approaches and the nights get chilly, I start craving masala tea to warm me up. I learned to make it in Afura’s house in Zanzibar, doing a cooking course in the packed earth courtyard of her home, over a charcoal brazier.

Masala tea at cooking class in Zanzibar village
Masala tea at cooking class in Zanzibar village


The refreshing taste of hot Masala tea in a hot climate.

Masala tea in Zanzibar is similar to spicy chai teas worldwide, with a few differences. It is drunk both hot and cold, and is always drunk black, no milk. Even cold, the taste of spices creates heat in the mouth and a lingering aftertaste. It’s become a winter staple for me, and is very easy to make.

Start with a litre of boiling water in a saucepan on the stove top and add:

  • half a cup of lemongrass chopped into rough lengths of 2-3 inches,
  • half a cup of roughly chopped fresh ginger,
  • 3 cinnamon sticks, and
  • half a tablespoon each of crushed cardamon seeds and cloves from the mortar and pestle.

Let the pot boil for 10 – 20 minutes and then add a quarter cup (or 2-3 teabags) of black tea leaves on top of the boiling water. Boil for another 2 minutes maximum (the tea leaves can quickly taste bitter if boiled longer ) then take off the heat and pour through a fine strainer. The tea is now ready to drink, add sugar or honey to taste. I love how the cloves give it a nice peppery, slightly numb aftertaste.

Have you discovered a new favourite tea in your travels?


Banging the wok in Bangkok

It’s a long flight from Australia to the UK, which is why I am exiting Bangkok’s airport at midnight into a wall of pleasant heat for a twenty four hour stopover. First priority is to get to the hotel and sleep. Now that its morning, I am relaxed, refreshed and ready to jump into my cooking class, or more specifically jump into the free transport van which is waiting to take me to the BaiPai Thai cooking school in a lovely two-storey house in the suburbs.  Downstairs is a big open air but roofed, custom built cooking area. There’s a huge central bench where the whole class (up to 10) sit around and watch the chefs demonstrate each dish, there’s even an overhead mirror to make sure we can see every bit of the action.
Bai Pai cooking school Thailand
Then there are 10 separate cooking stations, with our own gas ring, wok and implements, where we attempt to create the same dishes. On the side are beautifully set tables where we sit and dine on each course as soon as we have finished cooking. I am looking forward to this stage, having skipped breakfast on the assumption I am going to be doing lots of eating.

Bangkok Cooking Class – Deep Frying.

They throw us straight into making Kra-tong Thong, Crispy Golden Cups. This one scares me – its involves large amounts of very hot oil and an extremely steady hand. I’ve made the batter, now I pick up a brass utensil that looks like a tiny tart tin on a long handle. I dip it into the batter, the goal is to evenly coat the outside of the shape with batter, right up to the lip, but not letting any get over the top to the inside. Then I thrust it into the wok of hot oil, holding it just barely submerged for 3 seconds, then pushing it gently to the bottom of the wok and holding there for a few more seconds until the little fried pie crust pops off the tool as I release it from the bottom, and I quickly scoop it out, put on the side to drain and then start the very precise process all over again. If I get it wrong it either sticks to the mould, or breaks into little pieces. Due to my expert supervisor, I manage to make my six more easily than I had imagined. We now make a quick tasty stirfry filling with pork and sweetcorn, and with an audible sigh of relief, sit down to savour our crispy golden cups.

Bai Pai cooking school Thailand

Bangkok Cooking Class – Noodles.

Our next dish,  Yam Woon Sen, (glass noodles), is a more gentle option of a simple light five-minute meal. The glass noodles are “cooked” by standing in boiling water. We use the wok  to make a light minced pork & mushrooms mixture, seasoned with celery, shallots and spring onions, and pop in the prawns at the end to quickly cook. As I have repeatedly learned in asian cooking classes, the trick to the wok is to toss and swirl the ingredients as I stir-fry, and not to push them around with a spoon – use the arm and wrist muscles and the stir-fry won’t stick or burn. I add the now transparent and drained noodles to the pork & prawn mix for about 20 seconds, tip onto my plate, and add a dressing of chillies, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Its so light its like eating spicy air.

Bangkok Cooking Class – Curry & Chilli

Finally its time for the chillies and curries. First is Nuea Pad Prik, a beef chilli stirfry. I thinly slice my beef, green and red chillies and onion, and add garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, a splash of broth, and a touch of sugar to balance it out, and toss around the wok till just cooked. This is where the individual cooking stations come into their own – I love chilli and some of my classmates don’t, so we each make and eat our own with our own preferred level of heat. Finally we tackle the rich yellow chicken curry, Gang Ka-ree Gai. Having pounded my own yellow curry paste of red chillies, salt, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, curry powder and turmeric in the stone mortar, I now add it to fried onions, with a mix of coconut milk and coconut cream. I add chicken meat with diced potato and carrot, and surrender my senses to the rich aromas and glossy yellow thickness of this curry as it quickly cooks. A side relish of cucumber, shallot and chillies in rice vinegar, water, sugar and salt is a fresh contrast to the big taste of the curry. Although this is now the equivalent of eating four dinner mains, I have to finish off the whole bowl, it’s addictive.
Bai Pai cooking school Thailand

Bangkok sightseeing

I am amazed we have achieved all that in half a day, thanks to the very friendly, professional and helpful approach of the class chefs. So clutching the glossy little pack of recipe cards for the dishes I have cooked, covered in my scribbled notes, I am happy to roll back into the van and head off back to my hotel with a very full belly indeed. And I still have about eight hours left before I head back to the airport. This is where getting a very late check-out is essential. It means I can walk off all that food in the steamy heat, explore Wat Pho, home to the world’s largest reclining buddha, neighbouring Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and nearby Chinatown, get a massage and still have a hotel room for a final shower, change and then head off to the airport in the middle of the night feeling fresh and relaxed.

Shanghai Stirfry

Wet markets are brilliant, all that fresh produce, some so fresh they are still alive, at least until you pick them out from the display. This local market in Shanghai has live chickens, fish, crabs and frogs amongst others.  And lets not be squeamish about this, the floor is very wet from the constant hosing off of blood and guts as we pick out our live ingredients and the stall owner dispatches them quickly into whatever serving size and shape we find appropriate. Add to that the array of fresh and exotic fruit, veges and spices and we soon have all the ingredients for our cooking lessons. Luckily we are not cooking frogs, or even the black chickens that I saw, the strangest things – their skin and flesh (raw) is completely black. All in all a lot more fun than a supermarket.
Shanghai Wet markets

Shanghai Stirfry Cooking Class.

We make our way back  a couple of blocks to an edgy industrial Shikumen block that has been converted into a maze of small creative businesses. This is where the Chinese Cooking Workshop has one of it’s two classrooms, near the centre of Shanghai.  We all share one large central bench to prepare, and each have a dedicated gas burner and wok to cook with. The classroom is on the top floor of the building, and we can climb out the sash windows onto a roof terrace to take a break and take in the view. We have Chef Huang teaching us stirfry dishes today, and I am excited. The wok has been a staple in my kitchen since my student days, it’s quick one-dish cooking at its best. But I know there is a big difference between cooking in a wok and creating a genuine chinese dish, and I am hoping to bridge that gap a bit today.

Shanghai Cooking School
Colourful Fish Strifry.

We start with San Se Yu Si, which translates literally as colourful sliced fish. It’s a simple dish of thinly sliced fish with red and green peppers. This is when we learn that pretty much every stirfry in Shanghai has a base seasoning of salt, sugar, pepper and chinese cooking wine, only small amounts, maybe half a teaspoon each of the salt, sugar and pepper per serving size, and a splash of cooking wine. In the same way, most will be finished with a last minute addition of corn starch (half a tablespoon) in cooking wine, to thicken any juices and create a glossy glaze so that the meal presents well. We slice the fish up into small strips by removing the skin, and then slicing the fillet into two layers about one cm thick each, and then slice across the fillet to create even strips one cm wide as well. Then we slice the the peppers into strips of the same size, as we strive to create the visual appearance of balance, so important in chinese cooking. Now its time to practise our wok skills, getting it really hot over the gas, first adding some green onion and ginger and then the peppers and fish, keeping the wok moving, tossing the ingredients around constantly. A quick final swirl of the cornstarch/cooking wine mix, and we serve up and sit down to eat our own creations. Now this is delicious,  it looks and tastes better than any stirfry I have cooked before, and is one I want to try again at home.

Shanghai Cooking School
Shanghai stir-fried mushrooms.

Now we move onto Chao Shuang Gu, two mushrooms with oyster sauce, another descriptive name. This time we dunk the mushrooms and bok choy in boiling water briefly first, then start the stirfry with the salt, sugar, pepper and cooking wine, add oyster sauce and mushrooms, then the corn starch. Plate up with the bok choy and a dash of sesame oil. Another chance to sit down and eat our own efforts, and its also a good opportunity to hear about the life of Chef Huang and his family in Shanghai.
Shanghai Cooking School

Shanghai Chaomain.

Our final dish is also a classic, Shanghai Chaomian. This follows the methods and techniques already learned, except we boil the noodles first, then stirfry shredded pork, baby bok choy, mushrooms with both light and dark soy sauce, and then mix through the noodles. This dish is so filling, on top of the two plates that I have already eaten, that I can’t even finish it, but it does taste delicious as well.

And all too soon our half day is over, our bellies are full, our cooking skills improved. I want to make sure I remember my salt/sugar/pepper/cooking wine seasoning mix as the base of each dish, the dash of starch/cooking wine at the end to make it shine, and the need to constantly throw the ingredients around by agitating the wok continuously over the flame, using my wrist, not by stirring. These are my souvenirs to take home and put into practice. Now it’s time to explore all the studios in all the alleyways in this Shikumen building, full of all sorts of intriguing creative studios and businesses.