By Jo Cooksey
This seems to have been the year of cookery classes for me, both here in the UK and on my travels abroad. The most recent invitation was to join Malaysian chef, Norman Musa at his Manchester restaurant, Ning to learn to cook some traditional South East Asia dishes.
Norman is a fantastic chef, who originally moved here from his home in Penang to study Quantity Surveying. However, he found that he missed his Mum’s home cooking so much that he decided to teach himself to cook and in doing so he gained a whole new career. He now has his restaurant in Manchester and two back home in Malaysia. He is also a food ambassador for his home country, makes guest appearances at food festivals around the UK and runs his own cookery classes. He’s a very busy chap.
The class was held at Ning on a Saturday morning and we were going to cook two types of chicken curry; Kapitan and Guili, a fried noodle dish with prawns called Char Kuey Teow and finally a flaky flat bread, Roti Cania to mop up the sauce. There were only three of us in the class, so the teacher pupil ratio was really good.
Norman had his head chef, Jackie on hand and they had prepared all the ingredients in advance for us. They had set up cooking stations in the restaurant for us to prepare the two curries and after a chat and a cuppa we were off.
I love Malaysian food, I think it’s the combination of traditional flavours infused with influences from India and China. The use of lemongrass, galangal, ginger and chillies adding piquancy and heat and then coconut, nuts and citrus to add creaminess and sharpness.
Norman demonstrated both curries, which were relatively easy to make, though the Kapitan had quite a few more ingredients. Both were ready fairly quickly and smelt delicious. I was suddenly very hungry. We kept some of each curry to one side to enjoy for lunch and then boxed up the rest to take home and share. After another tea break and discussion about how the first task had gone we were shown into the kitchens. Here we would be making the prawn noodle dish using the restaurant’s industrial wok burners. These are a serious piece of kit, that when turned up full sound like a jet engine taking off. I think we were all a little apprehensive but after using one it has gone on my kitchen wishlist. Again, Norman demonstrated and we tried to copy. He had shown us how to flip the ingredients in the pan to mix them but I didn’t have the strength so Norman assisted me. It was over in a flash, this dish literally takes seconds to cook. The combinations of fat, juicy prawns, wide flat noodles, chilli paste, lemongrass and two types of soy sauce was heavenly. Norman pointed out that this was typical of the Malay food that is available on every street corner and the reason why so many Malaysians never learn to cook. Food there is cheap, delicious and readily available, so there is little reason for people to cook at home.
Our last task was to attempt to make the traditional flat bread, Roti Canai, which has a texture similar to rough puff pastry, due to the folding involved in it’s preparation. Jackie had already prepared the dough in advance, as it has to prove overnight whilst sitting in vegetable oil. There is a particular way to stretch the dough that involves carefully picking up one edge then flourishing it in mid air like a toreador with his cape and slapping it down on the table. This is supposed to be repeated until the dough is thin enough to read a newspaper through and holes start to appear. Norman got his to about 30cm square, however, mine made about 10cm square and had more holes than a fisherman’s net. At this point one should start folding it in on itself with a flourish to trap air between the layers. Well that’s the theory. The book folded dough is then cooked in a griddle pan, on both sides, before being turned out on to the work surface. It is then clapped between the cook’s hands to release the layers and so helping the flaky texture. Despite my obvious lack of aptitude and my third degree clapping burns, my bread actually didn’t taste bad. A little soggy in the middle but I was still proud enough to serve it that evening to my family.
Once all our dishes were finished we all sat down together with Norman and enjoyed the fruits of our labours and a well-earned Tiger beer. Norman talked to us about his upbringing in Penang, which was a great insight in to the Malaysian attitude to food and how they use it in celebrations and festivals.
The morning was well organised and the atmosphere was light and fun. Norman is a great teacher with lots of patience and always on hand to help and encourage. It would make a great present for that hands-on foodie in your life or even to yourself. Go on, you’ve deserved it.
The next classes at Ning Manchester are 19 th November, 3 rd and 10 th December.