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?

 

Spicy cooking secrets of Zanzibar

This is a full immersion cooking class. I’m quashed into the back seat of the dala-dala(local minivan buses), escorted by the chatty Heelal and the quieter Sa’id, on my way to Afura’s house on the outskirts of Stonetown.  Heelal is one of the people who have set up this network of mothers who take tourists directly into their homes and teach them staple Zanzibar dishes. It gives the family a new way to earn money and us a chance to experience a small slice of their life. I’m also marvelling at how a thirteen seater van can so easily accommodate twenty  two passengers.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

A curry cook-up

Travelling through Tanzania provides many opportunities to try the local curries. The Zanzibar version has no curry powder or tumeric at all, it focuses on the spices that grow on the island, and I’m here to learn to cook it. In a large pot over the charcoal brazier, we add a sliced onion into the hot oil. I struggle to peel and roughly chop three potatoes and a small eggplant with a blunt knife, at least it is easier to grind a generous amount of garlic and raw ginger with the mortar and pestle – using at least half a handful of each, more if I want a strong curry. A further wrestle with the knife as I peel and chop three tomatoes and it’s all added to the pot over the hot coals. After five minutes of cooking weadd a peeled and chopped mango – firm but not green. A couple more minutes and we add 5 tbsp of tomato paste and then mix in a cup of water to get the right consistency.

The final ingredient is four small fried fish. We use sardines, crispy fried, but any small strongly flavoured fish will do it’s similar to adding fish sauce in other parts of the world. It simmers until the potatoes are soft, and then we take it off the heat and let it settle while we prepare the other dishes, including the chapatis to mop it up with.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

Spicy samosas.

This is another dish adapted to Zanzibar’s plentiful spice supply, and easier to master than the chapatis. By this stage I have lost all feeling in my legs while sitting on a very low wooden stool. We peel four potatoes, chop into four pieces, boil till soft and then mash. Meanwhile we finely slice a red onion, and in the mortar we pound together two tbsp each of cardamon and cloves and two tsp of rock salt. All of these are added to the mash and set aside until the pastry is ready.

The dough is much easier to make than the chapati dough. Afura rubs 3 tbsp of soft butter into 2 cups of plain flour. We start adding about 1/2 a cup of water, bit by bit, kneading it in as we go until the dough is smooth, but not elastic like the chapati. We divide the dough into small golf ball sized balls. Each ball is rolled out into a rough rectangle about 10-12 inches long and 4 inches wide, and then cut into 3 rough squares. A spoonful of mash is placed in the centre of each square, and then the dough is folded in half diagonally over the mash, and the two unfolded sides are folded over again to seal the samosa. Now its time to cook in a deep pot of very hot oil – we test the heat by adding a small piece of spare dough first, if it puffs up and cooks immediately, the oil is hot enough. We cook in batches until golden brown on the outside, and stack on a plate to drain.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

Eating the spoils of the cooking.

Lets face it, one of the best things about a cooking class is eating the dishes afterwards, and my mouth has been watering for a while over all these amazing spice smells we have been cooking up. So its time to rip off some chapati and use it to scoop up some curry, nibble on a samosa and wash it all down with cups of masala tea. Its all delicious, and luckily we’ve cooked large quantities which means the extended family all get to eat it as well. I sit cross legged on the floor with two of the men, Sa’id and one of Afura’s sons. I ask if Afura is joining us for the meal, and Sa’id tells me that she isn’t, as she is not hungry now. The penny drops and I ask if, as a Muslim household, the men and women always eat separately, and Sa’id tells me that they do. I ask then why am I eating with them, and they reply that it is OK for a female guest to eat with the men. I suspect they mean that they are prepared to ignore their customs when it is a paying guest, but it’s their house and their rules, so I tuck into my little feast, happy that half of each dish we have made has been taken to  the next door room where the woman are eating. At least I get to pay the pre-agreed price directly to Afura, for her to split amongst the others involved, so I leave hoping that in spite of the eating arrangements, she has some real control over this business.

Cooking classes are still an embryonic business in Zanzibar, so if you are interested in doing a cooking course you may be able to arrange it through your hotel, or I can recommend you arrange it direct with Heelal:

Heelal Tours & Safaris Ltd; Mr Denge, Manager;  Mobile +255 7733 20121;  email dengeramadhan@hotmail.com

Getting back to basics with a cooking class in Zanzibar

I move slightly from one butt cheek to the other, as subtly as I can, hoping my face does not reveal my deep discomfort. I’ve been sitting on a solid wood stool only six inches high for the last two hours.  It is the best seat in the house, and as the guest getting a one-on-one cooking lesson from cook Afura, matriach of the household, I don’t want to look rude. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and trickles down my backbone in this midday heat. Afura’s home is in a very basic village on the outskirts of Stonetown, and we are cooking on a charcoal brazier in the packed earth internal courtyard, between the three small concrete-block rooms which form the house.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

I get to choose four african dishes from a list, and I select curry, chapatis, samosa and masala tea – and if that sounds more Indian than African then welcome to the island which has been a trading post for Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans and Portuguese for over 1000 years. We have already made the curry and are about to start on the chapatis. Daughter Sophia brings Afura a flat round tin tray with about 5 cups of flour on it, in a ring with a hole in the middle. We dissolve a couple of tsp of rock salt in a cup of water, and I add it drip by drip to the flour as Afura starts mixing and kneading it with her fingers. I stop adding water while it stills looks like a flaky dry mixture, and Afura adds about 100gms of soft butter, and kneads through thoroughly, using her thumbs for power, until the dough is very smooth and elastic. We separate it into five apple sized balls and knead each again until smooth.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

More flour is sprinkled onto the flat wooden board and Afura rolls out the first globe of pastry until about twelve centimetres in diameter, and then rubs a tbsp of oil across the top to keep it soft. She folds it over and over into a strip about 2cm wide, tugging it gently longer as she does. After resting the dough for a few minutes, she stretches it gently again until it is about 25 cms long, double its original length. Lying it on the board, she rolls both ends into the middle, and when the two coils meet, she folds one on top of the other , like a double decker cinnamon roll, and then rolls it flat yet again. Finally it is thrown onto the hot oiled pan on the charcoal and cooked to brown flaky perfection.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

In the meantime, my legs and rear have gone numb, making me unsteady as I try to rise to my feet for a stretch, giving the family a good laugh. Today is going to be delicious, but not so comfortable.

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.

How to destroy a love of dumplings in one easy lesson.

My new habit is to take a cooking class when I travel, especially when I travel to a place where I like the food. So I am doing a one-on-one cooking class with an expert dumpling maker in Shanghai. And today’s dumpling is my favourite, the steamed prawn dumpling – the yummy, guilt free, even healthy, choice from years of yum-cha.

One of the statistics that surprises me is that Shanghai has an official population of 27 million, of which 18 million are Chinese and 9 million are expats. That is a lot of expats, and a lot of those expats (and locals) appear to be pretty well off. The cooking school I am at today, www.thekitchenat.com , reminds me of this because it is a luxury modern facility that definitely seems designed with the expat market in mind, and it is priced accordingly. Today I have a one-on-one lesson with expert dumpling chef Yang Xiao-Yun, made only slightly more challenging by the fact that she does not speak English and I do not speak any Chinese dialect at all.

Shanghai cooking school kitchen
Shanghai cooking school kitchen

Shopping for ingredients in Shanghai

First I go for a walk with one of the assistants to the local produce market, to gather our ingredients. Normally I love a wander around a good market, but this time, this is where it all starts to go wrong. I discover I am making a batch of prawn dumplings with 1 kilo of raw prawns, handfuls of sliced bamboo shoots, and 1 kilo of pork fat. What?…No! Prawn dumplings are delicious and light and healthy – there can not be massive amounts of solid white pork fat in them! Call me naïve (no, go on!), I have often ordered “pork & prawn” dumplings, but surely that was pork meat minced up?

It takes me a while to accept the evidence, that my beloved prawn dumplings are all solid pork fat. I find this distracting while we make the wrapper pastry (simple ingredients, lots and lots of kneading). Then I spend about ten minutes massaging and kneading all that fat through the raw prawn meat and bamboo shoots, until it is so well mixed that it doesn’t show up as a separate ingredient, especially once the prawn meat turns pink as it cooks. I feel like a traitor as I earnestly knead away to hide the evidence.

making pork and prawn dumplings, Shanghai cooking school
making pork and prawn dumplings, Shanghai cooking school

Shanghai cooking guilt

Then comes the tricky part (physically anyway). Chef Yang Xiao-Yun has a very strict process to make the perfectly shaped dumpling. I hold a small circle of pastry in the flat palm of my left hand, while my right hand picks up and rolls a small ball of the prawn mixture, and places it slightly off centre in the pastry. This is the only time my right hand gets used in this process, it is not allowed to touch the pastry, so it’s all up to the dexterity of my left hand now. I use my thumb to fold half the pastry over the filling, and doing a pincer between thumb and forefinger I fold small pleats, one at a time, across the top edge of the pastry, while pushing it firmly into the bottom edge to seal it closed. Miraculously this forms a perfect symmetrical fluted seashell shape.

Chef tells me that I have excellent finger origami skills (my translation) and that if I make these every day for at least a couple of years I could become a master (she may have been humouring me). We gently steam the dumplings for a few minutes and then I am seated in luxury with a plate of thirty perfect steamed prawn dumplings in front of me. The chef and the assistants do not sample with me, perhaps they have been politely exaggerating how well they thought I had done?

The dumplings taste good, delicious even. But I can’t forget the massive block of fat that I kneaded into these, so I feel my arteries clogging on each mouthful. But I eat many of them anyway as I know in my heart of hearts that these may well be the last steamed prawn dumplings I will ever allow myself to eat. Sometimes it is not a good idea to learn too much about your favourite things in life – you may just ruin it.

cooked pork and prawn dumplings, Shanghai cooking class
cooked pork and prawn dumplings, Shanghai cooking class

What favourite food did you discover was not what you thought it would be?