Pleasing powerful Ladies who Lunch.

Imagine your very first cookery demonstration: not even in a kitchen; supported by a chef who barely speaks English; an audience of the most powerful women in the world’s largest city.  Daunting or what?  I desperately fell back on the tried-and-tested Victoria sponge but with a little twist to make it my own (https://youtu.be/0H0jPBwpD1M).

I was in Chongqing in China with one of the top chefs, Frank, at the prestigious InterContinental Hotel.  We were providing the entertainment for the regular lunch of the International Women’s Group.  This was a truly impressive gathering of the key female influencers in this vast city of 37 million people: Consuls general heading up the local representation of their national embassies; leaders in business and academia; my Rotary Club sponsors; movers and shakers in heels.  And this was my initiation audience so I chose something hopefully foolproof and quintessentially English.

Frank and super-Beverages and Food Manager, Sam, did all the hard work.  All I had to do was crack the eggs and turn on the mixer.  I just tossed raspberries in to the mix and let Frank carry it away to the oven.  Hardly testing or high cuisine!

My mini-sponges looked suitably simple alongside the accompaniment Frank had produced: a delectable chocolate stiletto shoe each garnished with fruit.  He was just showing off and definitely caught the attention of the whole group.  It was clearly the difference between a truly professional chef and yours truly – but did he have to rub it in so hard?

Frank and I had a great time working together – I just wish we had been able to do more.  But the lunch was another chance to spread the word that disability needn’t be the end of the world – just give us a chance to show what we can do.

Penny

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Chocolate Masterclass.

Cooking alongside another young blind woman in China, together we learned a classic chocolate Mousse during a session with Intercontinental chef, frank (https://youtu.be/wwNtojsbuuU ).

Lisa was intrigued by the talking thermometer and I was too by the practical demonstration as to how altitude makes such a difference to the boiling temperature of liquids.  Once the milk had boiled, it was cooled by adding chocolate and then eggs until the whipped cream could be folded through when the mix was at 30 degrees centigrade.  Once cooled and set, the mousse can be served with our very easy strawberries steeped in orange juice, a little sugar and a splash of optional orange liqueur. 

We had been trying to use very simple processes with a few ingredients that weren’t too expensive or strange for these two young women with virtually no kitchen experience.  And the Intercontinental team put together a parcel of other western dishes for them to take home, share and learn more flavours.

Lisa was very tiny and, although trained as a medical masseuse, is just too small to practice her skill.  Instead, she is trying to generate income through her handicrafts.  She has some limited residual vision so doesn’t use a white cane and is wildly independent.

It was a time to treasure: the two blind women had been with us at the Intercontinental for lunch and then cooking in to the early evening.  They were enthusiastic and self-confident – great examples of how education and training could equip them for life.  Alongside the Intercontinental chefs were wonderful in their support, patience and empathy.  It seemed to me that both the chefs and young women were having a completely new experience cooking together: finding that food was a force for breaking down barriers.  I tried to stand back and give them time to learn about each other’s lives.

Penny

Pressing the flesh: rare, medium or well-done?

Two young blind masseuses spent an afternoon with the top Intercontinental chefs and me in Chongqing, China.  We were all trying to learn from each other: some basic cooking, Chinese medical massage and living with blindness.  Head chef Jack taught us to use our sense of touch to test how well a beef steak is cooked (https://youtu.be/BvIuYBQwehI).    This very simple professional tip is perfect for blind people anywhere – and anyone else too.

During our time in the city, I learned that other blind people weren’t very obvious.  Perhaps they don’t get out much or perhaps they tend not to use white canes.  Either way, my videographer Toby didn’t spot many during our stay in the world’s largest city with a population of about 37 million.  There would have been many citizens with different levels of visual impairment arising from all the conditions that are recognised world-wide: many would be age-related, others linked to past malnutrition in this country of massive economic growth.

Medical massage is a key work opportunity for young people who attend the local blind school to gain the necessary qualifications.  They then practice in a massage clinic that is also their home.  The patient couches become their beds at night and an “auntie” comes in to cook their meals.    Living and working in the same place obviously has lots of advantages but possibly less chance of learning how to cook.  My thanks to the Rotary Club of Chongqing for bringing us all together as part of their initiative to support local visually impaired people.

Like me, the blind girls probably hadn’t had much time in a professional kitchen in a prestigious hotel but we all managed to enjoy the opportunity together rather than being over-awed by the location.

The two girls quickly learned from Jack.  He’d probably also had very little experience of blind people in his kitchen but was wonderful with all three of us: patient and empathetic, caring and courteous.  I just stood back while the rapport developed between him and the blind girls: they were all completely immersed with their experience of each other.

For the beef dish, Jack showed Wan Lin a safer way of handling her knife and how to toss the pan of vegetables.  Alongside, we had Julia and food and Beverages Manager, Sam, both translating plus Toby shooting video and a small audience.  From this chaos Jack still managed to produce an excellent dish – what a professional!

And the trick with steak: the muscle at the base of your thumb becomes harder as you fold your thumb and fingers: thumb only – rare; two fingers folded- medium; three – well-done – but the video explanation is probably easier!

Next time, we use taste to refine a simple salad.

Penny

Tofu or not Tofu, that’s the question.

Vegan sausage rolls have been hitting the headlines and national news in the UK.  Not just very successful PR but an echo of my Christmas party discussions: a fellow guest had given up eating all animal products because of the environmental impact of methane, de-forestation to increase grazing land, the chemical inputs to factory farming and more.   The debate about eating less meat to save the planet is hotting up.    If you want to try a half-way house, see the tofu dish I learned in China (https://youtu.be/j4QuNQxxyi0) which cuts the amount of meat but keeps the flavour with a little beef.

Professional chef Tony showed me how to transform pale, rather tasteless chewy cubes of bean curd in to a typical Chongqing dish: Lao LAN Ma or Sichuan-Style Braised Spicy and Hot Tofu.  There was a little simmering and frying plus lots of the strong flavours so popular in the local cuisine.  The beef (so finely minced that it was nearly a paste), some “chicken powder” similar to a crumbled stock cube plus chilli and the famous local pepper made all the difference.  And Head chef Jack couldn’t resist taking charge of us both.

If we want to cut our meat consumption, there are lots to learn from the kitchens of China and other countries if we can be open-minded to alternatives that have already stood the test of time and satisfied millions of people.    And there are new ideas emerging all the time: already, scientists are trying to “grow their own meat” in the laboratory.

The key question remains: will those meat substitutes bring enough profit for the food industry?  There need to be alternatives that grab the taste buds of the mass market if whole areas of food production are going to change or even end.  We aren’t there yet but tofu has a part to play – even if you don’t have the special Chinese sauce made from fermented broad beans that added to this dish.

And all thanks to the Chongqing Rotary Club that made this visit possible – next time, we are cooking with two of the local blind women assisted by the Club.

Penny

Chongqing – probably the biggest and most exciting city on Earth!

For richness of experience, this is the place: bustling, teeming, throbbing with life, developing, exploding, cutting edge, fascinating, stimulating and so much more!  Thank goodness for the vision of the rotary Club of Chongqing for making this latest Baking blind visit possible over the last nine days.  And, particular thanks are due to the indomitable Julia who organised every event.

Forget any myths about life being grey, the people being unfriendly or the culture being stifled.  Here life, like the thrum of the traffic and the 24 hour construction workers, never stops.  I’ve experienced everything from the woman sitting alongside her pavement display of antique coins to the dynamic optimism of high rise living.  Even at night, the city sparkles with drama: vast collections of buildings lit up:  the mystery of Chinese calligraphy to fish darting from tower to tower.

I’ve explored miniature garden landscapes (complete with waterfalls) in the flower market, haggled over sales, chorused improvised songs in an air-raid shelter cave, tramped along alleys carved in to rock complete with huge tree roots, negotiated steps galore, talked to everyone from local school children to Consuls general, just about managed some basic Mandarin and had one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

And cooking, of course, has been at the heart of it all.  Chongqing is famous (or notorious for some) for hot spicy food – they just love chillies.   Everyone needs to try their renowned “hot pot” at least once: a dish of hot oil redolent with chillies in which everyone cooks different delicate slices of meat, mushrooms, vegetables and seafood.  Each diner mixes their own dipping sauce: a personal ring-pull can of sesame oil poured over slithers of garlic, fresh coriander and, perhaps, soy and oyster sauces.  It’s like a fondue on acid – and only the bravest will attempt the option of offal slices – a gland too far?  I was lucky enough to share an authentic hot pot high in the mountains with the key chefs from the Intercontinental Hotel – Corporate Chef Julie Donaghue plus her Chinese colleagues Chefs Jack, Dylan and Frank plus the magnificent general Manager, Sharon.  If this team couldn’t find the best place, no-one could.   After a couple of the chilli-oil cooked delicacies, it felt as if I’d developed a Botox trout-pout of numb lips so I cravenly resorted to food cooked in hot chicken stock – delicious when my taste buds had returned to consciousness.

This city has already gained international credibility and must be one of the best places for business opportunities.  But I focused on Chinese cooking and have barely touched the enormous range of styles and diversity of fabulous ingredients.  There was chicken, wonderful braised pork and tofu with Chef Dylan, yellow fish and prawns with Chef Dong, sweet and sour pork plus braised beef with Charlie and a lunchtime feast with May.    There will be videos and recipes next year – and you can watch six of us struggling to make the traditional steamed dumplings so expertly demonstrated by Wangyi’s aunt.  I did knock up some rather unadventurous raspberry sponges for the International women’s group – but mainly as they were simple and time was tight.

You’ll be able to get a real insight in to how and where people cook: from the wild and noisy commercial kitchens to the sleek modernism of high rise apartments with the hippie chic of Charlie’s hillside backpacker hostel.

When I started this Baking Blind venture, it was all about how sharing a great enthusiasm might bring people together, regardless of disability or blindness.    This week has proved that a common passion for cooking can transcend cultural differences, language difficulties and so much more.  The best example is how the Intercontinental chefs and I worked alongside two young blind women.    Both had trained to provide Chinese medicinal massage but had virtually no kitchen experience – even handling a knife!  So they are utterly dependant on others feeding them – whether the cook in the massage centre or street food.  It was poignant to take part as they gained in confidence: together we made dishes that used all our senses, learned how to feel how meat is cooking, taste for balance of flavours, feel temperatures and consistencies, smell and listen as food cooks.   What was magical was how something as simple as food worked to create the bonds of humanity and empathy – transcending differences in culture and capacity, relegating preconceptions about disability and blindness to the bin.

Check out the Baking Blind website and the YouTube videos so far.

I’d love your feedback and perhaps you have a recipe to share: penny@bakingblind.com.