Hands-on flavours of China

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, takes a class in Cantonese barbeque, and learns to make a long-time favourite.

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.

For the Cantonese BBQ cooking class, we are learning how to make four dishes including one of my very favourite items in the world, char siu.

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.

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We start off making the soya sauce chicken which is poached in a masterstock. Ah 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 stocks in 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.

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.

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.

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.

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And ta da! It’s lunchtime! We busy ourselves trying the char siu. I’m curious to see how it compares and one bite in, 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.

NQN and Mr NQN attended the class as guests of My Asian Table

The Cantonese BBQ cooking class is $90 per person (bring your own apron). The class is held in Matraville, Sydney.

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