On Saturday, 8 July, I had the privilege of joining a cooking class. With Chef Kurt, owner of The Fat Lady’s Arms.
It was the most fun Saturday afternoon I’ve had in a long while. Especially on a cold and miserable winter’s day as it was, yesterday.
A disclaimer – and more
Although Kurt is one of our longest standing (ahem…not older…) McGregor friends, I am not sharing and waxing lyrical at his behest. I do so because it was a glorious afternoon and it’s an initiative hope will flourish.
We have food in common – eating and cooking. He’s the professional, I’m not. Learning how to make “new” food is something I relish. Also, I’ve long been thinking about fermenting things and just never got around to it. Kimchi, too, I find fascinating. A few years ago, a Canadian blog pal who lives in Korea with a Korean wife, wrote a fascinating (to me, anyway) blog about the family kimchi-making tradition. Alas, the post, I cannot find, otherwise I’d send you there.
Cabbage and I have a love-hate relationship. I’ve eaten kimchi just once that I can recall. I was underwhelmed but thought that when the opportunity came, I’d try it again. I’ve been around a few blocks to know that like so many of these things, who makes them, how they’re made (at home or in bulk), etc., etc., makes a huge difference.
I jumped at the invitation to learn more – and from someone who has spent a significant amount of time in the east. Kurt lived in China for six or so years and although his day job was planets away from food, he spent is spare time in friends’ kitchens, including a “pukka” Korean restaurant. His interest in eastern flavours also pre-dates that trip: The Husband and I frequented his and Andre’s first restaurant – in McGregor – even before we moved here. Already, Asian influences – like the fa-bu-lous duck spring rolls – were menu staples.
The first (parts of the) lesson
There’s an old saying that it’s 90% preparation and 10% doing. And if there isn’t, there should be. The first – and a significant of the time in making kimchi is in the preparation. First, the proper (not quite) dismembering of the Chinese cabbage that had been harvested just that morning, This, we washed and salted (brined) and set aside. What followed was a significant amount of chopping the other additions: daikon, carrot, garlic, ginger and spring onions.
As Kurt pointed out, there are machines that do this work, but two things: there is something about hand-made food and then there’s learning knife skills from some who really “does” them. My knife skills have developed over the years – with practise – but I was making at least one mistake. Now remedied – with the logic explained.
Once we’d finished playing with knives (mostly), with everyone’s digits still intact, we were handsomely rewarded with a glass of Prosecco. Partly, I suspect, to soften us up for the middle – and very messy part of the lesson.
Because we used out hands for this part of the lesson, I have no photographs of our mixing the rice “porridge” and chilli into our “choppings”. I had been a little anxious about this, I admit. I am allergic to chillies. Although, over the years, I have developed a tolerance, I know that working with crushed, dried chillies is another matter. Not a problem: Kurt had latex gloves on hand and I was spared the chagrin of somebody else
assembling stuffing my cabbage with the flavourings that make kimchi, kimchi.
Once we had done that, we had the dubious pleasure of squishing the stuffed cabbage, bar a little, into jars. And I mean squishing.
I’m not hearing any of those squishy noises…
…said Kurt. And then he did. As we stuffed our large (and smaller) bits of marinated cabbage into the jars he had supplied.
To end (the last part of) the lesson
It wasn’t enough for Kurt that we just make Kimchi. We had to do something with it. That “with it” was dumplings.
In addition, then, to learning about – and making – a natural, fermented, instantly edible product, we learned how to use it. I was fascinated by the dough: just flour and water. So many cultures have flour and water as a base for a sort of bread staple. From bread to tortilla and Chinese dumplings. Unlike bread, and more like tortilla, this dough is made with warm water. Like with all doughs that need kneading, it will take some practice. Another technique to hone – and learning about the balance between releasing the gluten and not breaking it.
My dumplings were a bit doughy, but stuffed with the chopped, fresh kimchi? Delicious.
Playing with fire
I’ve run ahead of myself: we didn’t just get to play with knives, we played with fire, The technique for cooking the assembled dumplings was a combination of frying and steaming – all in the same pan.
You know that oil and water don’t mix, right, and that if they do, there are big flames? And so there were when Kurt played with my dumplings!
All’s well that ended well – handled with the calm that is both the man and his years of experience.
Rounding things out
We went home with our kimchi, recipes and instructions about how to look after it.
But that’s not all
This wasn’t just about chopping, messing with chillies and drinking bubbly. This was a well-rounded experience, orchestrated with aplomb.
Firstly: Not only does Kurt explain the whys and wherefores of kimchi and fermenting, but also the well-documented health benefits of this traditional – and trendy – Korean staple. It’s always this type of cerebral value-add that gets me.
Then, and equally importantly was the quality of the knives – and other equipment – we got to work with. Proper chef’s knives, and properly sharp. (I am someone who goes on a self-catering holiday with my favourite knife.) Properly sharp. No, it’s not only about the knives: each workstation had exactly the equipment we needed. I loved the colanders, the peeler (different from my one at home), the bowls and the swabs for cleaning up after ourselves.
If I’d had one, my only gripe would have been no apron – I had the foresight to take my own. An oversight Kurt acknowledged and plans to remedy. That said, I don’t think it’s essential. If you know you’re playing in the kitchen, you should go suitably prepared for mess.
Last but not least, Kurt’s experience is backed by his training in one a top-rated chef school..
A last (important) word
This was the first of what Kurt plans to be a regular, first weekend of the month event. At R550 for three hours well spent, it’s excellent value for money. If you’re not a local this is just another a great reason to visit the village. The plan is that each month, Kurt runs the same course four times: Friday and Saturday mornings and afternoons. For less than a good meal and a bottle of wine, it’s an experience you won’t regret.
I’d do it again. In a heartbeat. Especially when it’s something I’ve been nervous of trying without help. It’s also a great way to celebrate a milestone event with your (foodie) friends.
Until next time
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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