Humbling – Living with blindness in China

If I grumble about coping with life without sight, beat me over the head and remind me of the two young blind women in China.    You can watch (or just listen to) our conversation in Chongqing https://youtu.be/tLJUNO5EnVU

Wan Lin and Lisa had spent a few hours cooking with me and the Head Chefs of the Intercontinental Hotel – together we’d explored using touch to cook steak, taste in a salad and sheer naughtiness with chocolate mousse.  They both had very little experience of cooking as, at the massage clinic where they live, an “auntie” prepares all their meals.

They were both in their early twenties and seemed tiny to me – I felt like a giant looming over them.  China was starting to develop when they were born but there were still difficulties for some people in getting all the food and medical care they needed – with the consequences upon their health.

But Chinese progress is very swift: they had been educated at the local school for blind children and progressed to training in medical massage – an intrinsic element of Chinese medicine and health therapies.  But for Lisa, her small stature added further difficulty to her work: she only has the strength to massage very young children.

What was so impressive was the determined independence and motivation of them both.  With very little sight, they were travelling across this huge city – and not a white cane or guide dog between them.  I tried to offer them a taxi home that evening  as dusk would reduce their vision even more but they refused :wary of becoming car-sick.  They were delighted to have new experiences, meet new people and learn cooking skills.

The chefs were fabulous: caring and kind, patient and empathetic.  They had probably never encountered someone with disabilities in their work place but were naturally generous and inclusive.  They put together a mini-hamper of the dishes we had all made together so that the girls could share their experiences and success with their colleagues at the clinic.

It was extraordinarily poignant to see how big hearty Head Chef Jack warmed to these young women – there was no need for me at all so I stepped back and let them enjoy their cooking together.

 

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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

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

Kitchen cupboard-love.

For years/decades, I’ve yearned for one of those pointed oval tins for raised game pies (the type with clips at either end).  Just one of those longings for a classic piece of cooking equipment that carries breaths of nostalgia and tradition.  When I had the chance, I’ve scoured antique fairs without success but my longing was finally more than satisfied this Christmas by friends Sue and Joan.  Heaven knows why these tins are so wildly expensive!

My own version of hot water pastry to make the game raised pie included: strong white bread flour added to the ordinary plain; rubbing in butter; adding lard dissolved in hot water.  A quarter of the pastry was set aside for the pie lid and the rest went in the tin.  I pressed it out and gradually raise it up the sides.    Just like trying to mould hot greasy and slithery plasticine!  It kept oozing back down the sides of the tin and gathering at the bottom –it would have been better allowing it to cool more so it didn’t sag like Nora batty tights!

Pork gave bulk to the filling:  sausage meat and mince seasoned with mustard powder and ground allspice. Pork is also important in adding a little fat to keep the game moist – in this case, partridge (skinned and bones removed) marinaded with a little white wine.

By the time I’d struggled with the pastry, rather roughly layered in the meat and topped off with the lid, I was running out of cooking time.  But, even though I had to switch the oven off 30 minutes early, leaving it in the residual heat did the trick.  I confess that one side was a bit scorched (too near the gas), I failed to do the egg glaze and the jellied stock added later didn’t reach all the parts required or set firmly enough – it sounds like a series of disasters.  But the pastry was the best I’ve ever made and the filling was deliciously moist.  Definitely an experiment to be repeated in rather slower time to do more justice to that excellent tin.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for another classic pork dish, look no further than this week’s video (https://youtu.be/s9ssUcVIIto) which features the first of three versions of sweet and sour spare ribs from my time in Chongqing in China.  This was the recipe from the professional chef with two more homely versions to come.

Penny