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Chinese cookery class in Culford, near Bury St Edmunds, is a 'game changer' for me and my wok


Culford, near Bury St Edmunds is not the usual place I go for Chinese food, but I had been promised something that would change my cooking ways forever.

When I was first offered the chance to take up one of Lilian Hiw’s Chinese cookery classes for this review, I spoke to two-time London Prestige’s Private Chef of the Year and confessed my wok was the most unused item in my kitchen.

But Lilian assured me by the end of her class not only would I go away with loads of tips for cooking Chinese food, but my wok would be coming out a lot more often.

Lilian Hiw not only offers cookery classes but is also a private chef, food stylist and a cake designer
Lilian Hiw not only offers cookery classes but is also a private chef, food stylist and a cake designer

With her enthusiasm and passion for the food of Asia, she was not wrong.

The evening started with me pulling up onto Lilian’s driveway. Turning off the engine, I soon felt part of some secret club for one night as I joined people with their carrier bags (filled with tubs to take our creations home in) and going into her house.

We were greeted by the Singapore-born chef and led into her beautiful kitchen – a huge central island welcomed us filled with ingredients and chopping boards with knives, with a backdrop of walls adorned with incredible art from her homeland.

The eight of us on the course sat at Lilian’s table before promptly being offered a Firecracker mocktail, which was the perfect start to what lay ahead.

After preparing our refreshing drinks, Lilian welcomed us to her home and we raised our glasses of deliciousness to the Chinese New Year of the Water Rabbit – a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity in Chinese culture.

Soon, off our seats, we were around the island ready for the real work to begin, with lessons in knife sharpening and safe cutting techniques before we started to prep.

Wok smoked beef in black bean sauce and Cantonese sweet and sour pork were the main dishes we were going to cook, to be accompanied by drunken garlic pak choi and golden egg fried rice.

Lilian went through the cuts needed for the spring onion, red peppers, pineapple and mange tout in the dishes and you could see her experience gained at some of the top international hotels in Asia, including the renowned Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Her ethos with Chinese cooking, she said, was to cut cooking and preparation times to give more time with family and friends when you are hosting and to demystify this style by showing it did not need a long list of ingredients.

Getting these dishes ready as a collective had a real community feel to it, which Lilian explained was a very family-style Asian way, and really helped to break the barriers of initial nervousness the group may have had.

Lilian Hiw with David Carter. Picture: Kev Hurst
Lilian Hiw with David Carter. Picture: Kev Hurst

After the prep, we were split into groups for the cooking where I found out some had travelled from Cambridge, Essex and even London to come to the class – Lilian’s reputation has rightly gone far and wide.

My cooking partner for the evening was David Carter from Cambridge and our first dish was the wok smoked beef.

This is where another one of the many tips Lilian promised me came in, the dragon’s breath of the wok – the flavour given to food by a hot wok. In this case it was the smokiness given to the meat that instantly filled the room.

With the meat cooked and taken out of the wok, it was not long before David and I had gone through the rest of the ingredients and the dish was done.

From the first chopstick going into my mouth the salty punch of the garlic and black bean sauce hit hard and really pulled the meaty flavour out of the melt-in-the-mouth seared beef.

Wok smoked beef in black bean sauce. Picture: Kev Hurst.
Wok smoked beef in black bean sauce. Picture: Kev Hurst.

The crunch of the coated peppers and the other vegetables also gave a great texture to this incredibly flavourful dish.

With how simple, quick and delicious that was, I really wondered why I had never attempted to cook this, my favourite Chinese dish, before.

Next, after a few sips of Taiwanese Oriental Beauty tea, we were onto the sweet and sour pork.

As David submerged the marinated and cornflour battered pork pieces in a separate wok of oil, I put the sauce together with the likes of soya sauce, sugar, pineapple and onion, before we combined the two elements.

The crispy deep-fried tender and perfectly-cooked pork was graced with a sauce balanced with the sweetness of pineapple and sugar, the tang of the rice vinegar, and the depth of the soya sauce.

Cantonese sweet and sour pork. Picture: Kev Hurst
Cantonese sweet and sour pork. Picture: Kev Hurst

Not only was this a carnival of colour on the plate but it was also a firework of flavours on the tongue – we both gave ourselves well-deserved pats on the backs for this one.

With two dishes tubbed up for us, the blink of an eye and the flash of our pan then gave us our drunken garlic pak choi.

I felt I could gladly eat this speedy crunchy, slightly wilted greens accompaniment, flavoured with shallots, oyster sauce and garlic, with the pork or the beef or on its own without rice.

Drunken garlic pak choi. Picture: Kev Hurst
Drunken garlic pak choi. Picture: Kev Hurst

But fortunately I did not have to think about that as the final dish debunked one of my main misconceptions and errors I have made with Chinese cooking in the past.

With a broken whole egg and some cooked rice, I have made a real mess of fried rice dishes in the past, but with Lilian’s golden egg fried rice recipe that was about to change.

By avoiding too much stirring in the wok (another thing I do normally), putting the yolk in with the rice before it goes in the pan and separately cooking and stirring the white in the same wok before combining the two halves, this dish was ready for eating.

This for me was a game changer and something I will definitely be cooking again.

These recipes coupled with Lilian’s stories and teaching throughout the night made this experience very special and I highly recommend her classes on any of the styles of Asian cooking she offers.

To find out more about Lilian and her cookery classes, go to lilianskitchen.co.uk

As I left into the cold night air with my carrier bag now a little heavier with beautiful dishes, Lilian can be assured my wok will definitely be a lot busier from now on.