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 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.

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 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 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, , 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?