I know from experience that Chinese chefs never give up their secrets easily. With recipes, there may be just one ingredient missing but you can believe that that ingredient will alter a dish making a wonderful dish into a merely nice one and one that you say "It's nice but it's not quite as good as so and so's." The first time my mother gave me a recipe she left out a few important tips. Yes, they keep these secrets close to their heart.
That's why I was particularly curious to try out the Cantonese BBQ cooking class held by Alvin Tan. Malaysian born Tan teaches classes at the Eastern Suburbs Community College and has owned restaurants here and in Malaysia and has appeared on Maeve O'Meara's Food Safari. He now holds classes at his home in Matraville. He has a devoted group of followers with one woman travelling from Melbourne to attend the class (ok she works for Qantas so she gets a cheaper airfare but perhaps you get my drift right? ;) ).
For the Cantonese BBQ cooking class, we are learning how to make four dishes including one of my very favourite items in the world. Do you know how some people cannot keep chocolate or ice cream in their house for fear of polishing it all off? I'm fine with both and can sit in a bed full of chocolate without having to eat it all but if you change that to char siu, well let's just say don't get in my way because I am a bottomless char siu monster. I'm just warning you darlings ;)
Alvin holds the classes in his kitchen - the same one where the episode of Food Safari was filmed. To the left, facing him, is the table of condiments because as you know Chinese food is all about condiments and myriad spices and flavours. We are making four dishes: char siu, crispy skin roast chicken, shantung chicken and soya sauce chicken with ginger and green onion sauce (a bonus for me as I adore this sauce!). I was curious to see whether the recipes and dishes tasted like restaurant ones.
It's a four hour class and Alvin explains the various recipes to us and there are five of us in the class. The rest of the attendees have attended his classes at the evening college and have followed him here. A lot of the ingredients look familiar but there are some like licorice root which I haven't come across before. We start off making the soya sauce chicken which is poached in a masterstock.
Ahhh yes the famous masterstock. He explains that with a masterstock, you are meant to keep using it and using it for years and the flavour of the stock only gets richer and more delicious as time goes on. There are stories told about mums leaving their master stock sin their will but the process is very simple. You make an aromatically flavoured broth in a large saucepan making sure to put the aromates in a little drawstring bag for easy removal and then cook the chicken. Then once the chicken is cooked, just boil the master stock once again for about 20-30 seconds to kill off any bacteria (it will go rancid otherwise) and place in the freezer or the fridge with the bag of aromates if you intend to use it soon after. Every 3-6 months change the bag or herbs.
We get to work pounding the large pieces of rock sugar and measuring all of the aromates down to the gram and Alvin sets a pot of water on to boil on a portable gas burner to show us. The bag of aromates are then placed inside to simmer with the chicken for 15 minutes, then the heat is turned off and the chicken poaches in the still hot water for an additional 25 minutes. He explains that he uses two soy sauces: a dark soy sauce for colour and the light soy sauce for flavour. We are doing this with chicken marylands but this can also be done with a whole #15 chicken.
Because a lot of these dishes require marinating and cooking time, he jumps ahead to seasoning the crispy skinned chicken. To make a salt and pepper rub and to increase flavour we dry fry the salt and Szechuan peppercorns so that the salt turns a very pale brown shade, almost like cinnamon sugar in colour. This is then pounded and sieved a few times so that only the smallest particles remain and then a small amount of five spice powder is added. We rub this on the underside or the skinless side of the chicken maryland.
We then make a liquid coating with maltose, a sweet, very thick sweetener similar to a very bland honey although much thicker in texture. He says that this is popular as it doesn't impart much of a flavour and it is much more cost efficient than honey which is relatively expensive. To use maltose, you heat it in the microwave as it is very stiff otherwise.
First holding the maryland so that the skin side is facing upwards, we ladle over with some boiling water to make the skin contract and open up the pores. Then, we ladle over the maltose, vinegar and wine coating taking care not to wash the salt rub off underneath it. We also can't touch the skin once the maltose liquid has been ladled over it as that part will not crisp up. We then leave it to dry overnight or in a 50C/122F oven for 3 hours to dry the skin out as much as possible which will help it crisp up much like you do to get a nice crackling on roast pork.
Next up is my favourite char siu! The key to this is to get the right cut and the one that you want is 1 kilo or 2 pounds of scotch fillet, also known as pork neck. He shows us how to slice off the end piece and then cut it into even shaped pieces. Meanwhile we get the marinade together which is a mixture of oyster sauce, hoi sin sauce, ground brown bean sauce, sesame paste, soy sauce, salt, sugar, rose wine and red food colouring powder.
You can also use sherry in place of rose wine (which is strong stuff!). Now I know that the red food colouring does look alarming at first! It gives it that distinctive red hue and without it, the char siu would look dark brown. Because this needs to marinate overnight he shows us one that he started marinating the evening before and this is the one that we will cook.
One more thing before we start grilling the char siu (and I was getting rather hungry from the smells and had to ask what time lunch was going to be!). We need to make the ginger and green shallot sauce for the soya sauce chicken. I know my mother will be positively dying to find out what is in it and I'm curious to see whether it tastes like the one you get at restaurants because we've tried experimenting at home to no avail. Alvin starts by peeling the young ginger which he prefers to use here as it is less stringy than old ginger. He whizzes this with some water in a food processor with some Shaoxing wine and a bit of water while the rest of us chop up a stalk of shallots and measure the salt.
Once the ginger and shallots and mixed together we heat up some vegetable oil and sesame oil until smoking hot and then pour this over the ginger mixture being careful as it does splatter a little. We stir and try it and by George, it's just like the ones in a restaurant!
We get the grill heated up and take out the char siu pieces from the marinade draining them well and the pop them under the grill for 10 minutes. We have to be careful to watch them so that they don't burn too much as they have quite a bit of sugar in them.
The char siu is busy grilling and the soy sauce chicken is busy poaching away so we jump to the crispy skinned chicken marylands which we will deep fry. You can also bake these in the oven but they won't quite get as crispy and the best results are really had with deep frying. Alvin heats the oil until hot and places the maryland skin side down and fries it for a few minutes before turning it over and frying it for another 10 minutes-13 minutes which is ideal for the average 500g maryland. For very large marylands you would fry them for 15 minutes.
The char siu is ready and Alvin shows us how to test it for doneness. You snip into a piece and see that it is cooked through - the key is to make sure that it is cooked but not dry or overcooked. Then you brush it with a mixture of maltose and water to give it gloss and extra sweetness. He tells us that in restaurants and bbq shops, they use the maltose as a protective layer so that the char siu doesn't dry out while it is hanging up.
And ta da! It's lunchtime! We busy ourselves trying the char siu. I'm curious to see how it compares and one bite into it it surpasses anything you could buy pre made as it is so tender and moist but with the same flavour as the ones that you buy. It is so utterly addictive with such a tender texture and it ends up being everyone's favourite at the table.
While we are busy eating the char siu Alvin takes a cleaver and chops up the soy sauce chicken which he serves with the ginger sauce and we can help ourselves to steamed rice if we would like. The chicken is herbal in flavour and aroma and again the texture is phenomenally tender - made fresh nothing beats it.
Our next course is the Shantung chicken which is made up of deboned crispy skin chicken mixed with cucumber, garlic, chilli, parsley and peanuts with a black vinegar sesame dressing. I must admit that we rarely order Shantung chicken, I know some people love it but I'm not a huge lover of it although this is a good version.
Lastly is the crispy skin chicken which he serves with some more of the salt and pepper mixture on the side which smells heavenly and like a dish in itself if you inhale deeply. The skin is crispy and crunchy and glassy and the salt adds so much flavour and aroma to it.
There's even enough food for people to take home and it is too delicious to let it go to waste so we take a box away with us. But most importantly I have these recipes with me and after the char siu class I can't ever imagine buying it again.
So tell me Dear Reader, which food can you not be left alone with for fear of devouring it all? And has your mum or dad passed on many recipes to you?
My Asian Table
The Cantonese BBQ cooking class is $90 per person (bring your own apron). The class is held in Matraville, Sydney.