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Chinese New Year Feast

This course recap is written by Christopher Robbins who attended our Chinese New Year Feast hosted by Lydia Downey, Chinese cookery expert and all around star tutor. If you're inspired by his recap, then come along to one of Lydia's upcoming vegetarian Chinese cookery courses.

Chinese cook-in beats Chinese carry-out.

The latest eating out survey results put the Chinese take-away as the most popular take-away meal in Britain (ahead of fish & chips and Indian) in 2015. Two facts spring immediately to mind. The first is that an average adult’s monthly spend of £110 per month on takeaways is about what I spend on cat food. The second is that take-away Chinese food tastes and looks so unlike the traditional home-cooked version that why bother with a carry-out when you can cook-in??? Chinese is one of my favourite ethnic foods. To be able to cook it at home would make me both happy and very popular amongst my friends.

Lydia Downey’s Chinese New Year Feast on Saturday 6th Feb was an inspiring introduction. For me, Chinese cooking is about the best vegetables, interesting and perfectly combined spices and other flavourings, and such simple and quick cooking techniques. I shudder to think how little of the take-away offerings resemble my experience of eating Chinese cooking.

We started with the basics, and they were simple basics. Most were new to us and even the familiar ones (soy sauce, sesame oil, Chinkiang vinegar, ginger root) now have a refreshed appreciation of (shall I say) what to throw out from my cupboard and what to replace them with. We were introduced to fresh lotus root (for crunch), Chinese chives, water chestnut, Chinese dried mushrooms, dried lily buds, rice wine and rice vinegar, and the magic symbolism within Chinese food, from the offering of oranges at the table, to the colour red, the number of crenellations in the seal of the dumplings, and the length of the ‘longevity’ noodles used in a simple vegetable stir-fry.


  • The iconic Chinese dumplings were the first skill we learnt. The simple dough was rolled into 7-10 cm circles with a thicker centre to allow filling with julienne cut vegetables in the hand and deftly folding into half like a miniature calzone and then crimping into different shapes. These were steamed.
  • Lydia showed a method of making Pot Stickers by frying the bases of dumplings in a pan then lidding the pan and steam cooking them.
  • We made very thin spring rolls with special wrappers. These were lightly deep-fried. Lydia used a cut banana like a Prit-stick, to glue the spring roll sheets as they were rolled up, perfectly, a trick she had learnt from the wonderful Vietnamese chef Noya Pawlyn.
  • Three dishes were made in the must-have wok. Here the simple mastery of technique and perfectly cooked vegetables just shines out. An aubergine dish with lily buds; a three types of tofu with peppers, red and green peppers and black beans; and a perfectly simple Chinese variety of greens cooked whole with the ubiquitous ginger and garlic. Heavenly.
  • Desserts aren’t a feature of Chinese meals, but sweet treats are. Lydia demonstrated special festival Tangyuan rice flour balls, filled with ground, toasted sesame seeds and sweet ginger syrup. These small, smooth slightly chewy balls split onto the tongue a delicious sesame filling. They were not larger than a child’s marble but packed such pleasure.

I knew Lydia learned her cooking by her Chinese mother’s wok when she revealed several secret tips. First, was the peeling of the outer, thin skin from ginger root by drawing the side of a teaspoon across the skin (using it like a potato peeler). The thin skin fell away leaving the outer juicy layer intact. Cool. And second, a pulverised mixture of spring onion, garlic, and chopped ginger root. Instant flavour enhancer. And you thought Branston Pickle as stock was clever!

I may not be ready to cook for the Lydia’s family’s Chinese New Year, but I know what it should taste like when I get there.

Guest post by Christopher Robbins, Feb 9 2016

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