This And That: My First Day Of Cooking School
Martha Sherpa means business. The Hong Kong-native runs a cooking school out of her former two-bedroom apartment that she transformed into an industrial kitchen several years ago.
Situated in North Point just a few blocks from the harbor, the space is no more than 700 square feet. I’m here to take my first dim sum cooking class and learn the art of Chinese bread making. There are two sinks, two ovens, four burners, a few induction plates, racks of tools, an open-shelf pantry filled with sauces, spices, dried fish and other unrecognizable ingredients. And standing at one of two stainless steel prep tables is yours truly, attempting to dice a carrot with a cleaver.
Chinese cooks typically have one multi-purpose knife in their kitchen — the Chinese cleaver or Cai Dao. The sharp blade of steel is used to do everything — from slicing vegetables paper thin to chopping raw meat. The tool differs from the cleavers used by Western butchers and chefs. Martha’s husband, who teaches the part of class focused on prep, tells me that the Chinese cleaver is extremely versatile and easier to use than the many knives I’ve likely tried in the past. Then he observes my dismal chopping skills and seems to retract that statement.
“Do you ever cook in your home?” he asks while examining the carrot pieces I cut into strange skinny rectangular shapes. “You’re supposed to dice.” This does not make any of the pieces appear more cubic.
Mr. Sherpa is responsible for the school’s food shopping, which he does on a daily basis. Certain ingredients can be purchased at one of the city’s wet markets -- the term used to describe markets that require daily floor rinsing as they sell local meat, poultry, fish, produce and other non-packaged foods. He prefers to purchase other goods imported. Shrimp, for instance, he says to not even bother with. “Buy it frozen in a supermarket,” he instructs.
Mushrooms, on the other hand, are purchased in the wet market and endure what seems like a day-long cleaning and preserving process. First, he soaks loads of mushrooms in water for three hours, regularly changing the bath to remove all the dirt. Then, the mushrooms are soaked in a salt solution for some time, and then again mixed with some starch for another period of time. Somewhere along the way, Mr. Sherpa removes the mushroom tops from the mushroom bottoms. And when the tops are finally dried, he individually freezes each one so he has a stash of them to use when cooking. Mr. Sherpa puts more effort into cleaning and freezing his mushroom tops than I put into basically anything in my life.
Martha enters the kitchen as we complete our prep work. This moment makes my knees shake a little. At first, Martha reminds me of my mother in her kitchen in New York, since the chef immediately tells me to stop touching my hair and wash my hands. The immediate scolding makes me feel at home, so I start to settle in. Now, we start cooking.
First up: two kinds of dough.
This is the moment when I realize that each type of dumpling requires an entirely different dough recipe, and my appreciation for dim sum begins to grow. The term literally means “to touch the heart,” and I see why. Like all things culinary, preparing dim sum is a labor of love. Chefs are required to get to the kitchen at 4 a.m. to cook before for the morning rush. Even though big-batch recipes can create tons of dough, the act of wrapping each dumpling with precision seems like the culmination of so many characteristics of cooking: discipline, patience, creativity and most importantly, restraint. Dim sum doesn’t show off because it doesn’t need too — one bite and you’re hooked.
The first dough recipe we make is for Guk Cha Siu Bao, or as Americans fondly know it: Baked BBQ Pork Buns. The secret to the dough is really no secret at all. There’s tons of sugar, so it’s like making a sweet dessert bread. Martha’s bread kneading process is best described as beating the shit out of a cooking substance. It involves slamming the dough against the table, ramming the heel of my hand into it repeatedly, stretching it upwards, and then scooping it up with a dough scraper. I repeat this process for 15 minutes. The important thing to note here is that Martha tells me I’m doing it wrong multiple times over. At first I think she’s angry with me but I glance over and notice she’s laughing.
The next dough is for Guotie, or potstickers as we call them. The magic with this popular dish happens when Martha takes us to the stove. The reason potstickers are magical little creations is because when cooked correctly, Guotie is first fried, then steamed and finally toasted to crisp perfection, without ever being removed from the pan or stove. Guotie is served with Chinkiang Vinegar, which is nicknamed as Chinese balsamic vinegar. This black vinegar is rice-based, and has more of a salty tang than balsamic vinegar. One taste and I decide it’s earned a place in my pantry forever. I want to put this on everything.
Martha’s teaching style truly comes alive when she takes me to the wok to prepare the filling for my Guk Cha Siu Bao. The wok seems so welcoming at first and than utterly terrifying. I learn instantly that woks take practice and patience, two things I lack. The sides of the wok are the hottest parts, while the center is the coolest. Martha turns the flame on high and shows me how to hold the wok and move it around the stove. She throws in the ingredients, hands me a spatula and tells me to “GO! GO! GO! FLIP! YOU’RE NOT FLIPPING! FLIP FASTER! NOW GO!” I am too weak and too slow, so the oil splatters everywhere. I begin sweating, and wonder how anyone uses a wok without eight hands and Iron Man strength. Martha takes over.
For the third dumpling of the day, Seen Har Fun Gor, we create the kind of dumpling wrapper that’s transparent. I recognize the dumpling from a dim sum place I went to in New York City, where I had one stuffed with red bean paste. Today’s recipe involves shrimp, vegetables an another new favorite food: shallot oil.
The only non-dumpling dim sum recipe we cook is pan fried peppers stuffed with mince fish in a fermented black bean sauce. Mince fish is created from fresh fish fillets that’s been run through a mincing machine. You can buy it in the grocery store already seasoned, but Mr. Sherpa strongly advices against it. “Season yourself,” he says. Here I learn about ingredients like tangerine peel, kaffir lime leaf and shrimp powder, which provides so many dishes with its umami flavor. I now have a reason to visit one of Hong Kong’s many dried fish shops. Shrimp powder is just dried shrimp that’s been crushed up in a mortar and pestle.
As my 7-hour day with the Sherpas draw to a close, Martha tells me to take all the leftovers with me. But it’s 5:30 in the evening. “What will you have for dinner?” I ask.
“Oh, we only eat out,” she says.