The best food tasting events are those where one emerges wiser and more knowledgeable as well as having enjoyed a jolly good lunch. A Chinese food tasting lunch, hosted by Lee Kum Kee Sauces at the Grand Imperial restaurant in the Grosvenor Hotel, satisfied all these criteria and more. The occasion was provided by the visit to London by Charlie Lee, Chairman of Lee Kum Kee Sauce Group.
128 years ago, Mr Lee’s forefather, Mr Lee Kum Sheung, mistakenly invented oyster sauce. He forgot about a pot of oyster soup on the boil and returned to discover that it had cooked down to a thick deep gravy. From this surprising beginning oyster sauce grew to become phenomenally popular in Chinese cooking and the sauce company expanded to include a large range of sauces to enhance both professional and home cooking.
The chef at the Grand Imperial showed us how the professionals do it. An eight course meal showcased the use of many of the sauces, some familiar – like plum sauce – while other a revelation, to me at least. This was an occasion with great attention to detail. The menu was presented as a beautifully printed booklet with large colour photographs of each dish along with explanations of which sauces were used in preparation. As each course was presented, representatives from Lee Kum Kee provided the guests with anecdotes about Chinese ingredients and cooking which deepened an appreciation of what we were eating.
We began with a Dim Sum Platter. Dim Sum, we were told, translates as ‘touch the heart lightly’, a sentiment as beautiful as dim sum often are. On our elegant platters were three dim sum representing three traditional cooking methods – steaming, roasting and deep frying.
It was suggested that we accompany the steamed prawn dumpling with XO sauce – made with dried scallops. While I have eaten many prawn dumplings in my time, the XO sauce was a revelation. Although it looked to the uninitiated a little like crispy, caramelised onions, it tasted of seafood. In fact, so excellent was this sauce that I kept taking teaspoons of it and just eating it from the jar throughout the lunch. Dried scallops are traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year. With a bottle of this sauce in my kitchen, I can eat it all year round.
Roasting was represented by a Char Siu pastry rather than a Char Siu bun – a flaky, delicate pastry filled with BBQ pork. I have always associated flaky pastry with French cuisine not Chinese so this was new to me and delicious it was too. The deep frying method brought two prawn rolls with tofu skin which had been folded into a triangular shape.
The second course was a Crispy Duck Salad in Special Dressing. This dish did not look at all like something I associated with Chinese cuisine so it was interesting to see how the chef took traditional dishes like crispy duck and mixed it up with salad ingredients like frisée lettuce, pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and even pomegranate seeds. We were all intrigued by the dressing which, we were told, was a mix of plum sauce – providing the sweet base – with chilli, lime juice, lemongrass and mint. This created an attractive amber coloured dressing that was at once sweet, spicy and fragrant. One of our hosts told us that plum sauce is so versatile that it can even be served on vanilla ice cream.
I learnt about the process of producing soy sauce from on of the representatives from Lee Kum Kee Sauces. ‘We have a big tank for the fermentation whereby the first draw is the deluxe soy sauce more concentrated, more rich in taste. That is the premium soy sauce. Then there is a second draw and a third draw. The first draw will be rich and the third draw will be light. The first draw is the best in terms of colour, smell and taste. It is used for dipping. It is sold as the premium soy sauce but we also mix it with the second and the third draw.’ It sounded rather similar to the process of olive oil pressing where the first press produces the best quality.
The third course delighted the eye. Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup with Lobster was an abstract swirl of colours, shapes and textures. It looked simply gorgeous and I couldn’t wait to dip in my spoon. It was a bowl full of complex flavours. First came the sour notes followed soon after by the chilli.
The stock had been boiled for 10 hours to prepare ‘the top soup’ where a great deal of umami had been extracted from the chicken and pork ribs. The soup contained delicate strips of bean curd, a type of fungus and bamboo which swirled around the central pivot – a slice of lobster tail. The chef had used Chilli Bean Sauce and Chilli Garlic Sauce and finally sprinkled on Chiu Chow Chilli Oil which added further aroma and colour. While we enjoyed this intriguing dish we were told that umami actually originated in China although it is often associated with Japanese cuisine. It is called xian wei in Chinese and although the fifth element of taste, it is the most important of all.
Course four was served in a large scallop shell. Steamed Scottish Scallop with XO Sauce showcased my new favourite sauce beautifully.
A whole Scottish scallop was served on a bed of transparent, glass noodles which are made from mung beans. This was a full on flavoured dish and another attractive offering. The delicate noodles had absorbed the punchy flavours of the dish. The chef had balanced the dish well so that the delicate flavour of the scallop was not overwhelmed despite the saltiness of the sauce. XO sauce was invented in the 80s or 90s and Lee Kum Kee was the first company to sell it commercially. It is very popular in China. It is quite expensive but a little goes a long way.
The fifth course arrived at just the right point in the meal when I began to feel the effects of several courses. Stir –Fried Kai-lan and Cloud Ear with Chinese “Hua Diao” Rice Wine and Oyster Sauce sounded like a mouth-watering description and I had little idea of what would be delivered to the table.
Kai-lan is a Chinese kale or broccoli. It looked similar to tender stem broccoli and was stir fried along with the Cloud Ear. This unusually named vegetable is in fact a fungus and did indeed resemble a dark cloud. It is good for lowering blood pressure. It was softly chewy and a textural counterpoint to the kai-lan. Finely chopped garlic and ginger added flavour along with the rice wine and oyster sauce added to balance the bitterness of the kai-lan. I particularly enjoy Chinese stir fried greens so this course was most welcome.
We were told an interesting story about Shaoxing wine (or rice wine) which is also known as Daughter’s Red. In the past a family would bury wine when a daughter was born. When she was to be married, the wine would be dug up and presented to the new family. It was wrapped in red hence the name.
The sixth and seventh courses were served together. Sautéed Diced Scotch Beef Fillet with Shiitaki and Shimeji Mushrooms in Black Truffle Sauce was accompanied by Special Fried Rice with Seafood, Tobiko and Egg White. The meat dish presented a fusion of Western and Oriental flavours represented by the aroma of the black truffle and oyster sauce. A melding of two cuisines. The beef was beautifully tender having been seared and then stir-fried with the mushrooms. Overall it was a gently flavoured dish and despite having eaten many courses by this time, I could not resist polishing it off.
The rice dish was a version of crystal fried rice, using only the egg white which gives the rice a crystal-like look and a different texture to other fried rice which uses a whole egg. Colour was added with dots of tobiko, the fish roe often seen atop sushi. It goes well with XO Sauce.
At last it was time for dessert. We were treated to a trio of tastes, textures and colours.
I was delighted to find one of my favourite Chinese desserts on the platter – Golden Glutinous Rice Ball with Black Sesame Paste. This is essentially a deep fried rice ball which opens stickily to reveal a wonderfully sweet paste made from black sesame. It is not only a surprise to bite into as the contrasting tastes and textures combine, but the white exterior contains a black interior – a monochromatic simplicity that is elegant. Next was a shot glass of Chilled Mango Cream with Pomelo which was my least favourite of the trio. I kept the Pandan Coconut Jellycake for last. It was a fun end to the meal – the bright green pandan turned into a jelly which brought a sophisticated meal to an end with some humour.
Throughout this lengthy meal the champagne flowed generously. Being one of those people who cannot stand up straight after one drink I kept to tea which was discreetly refilled each time I emptied my cup. I later found that I had been drinking Oolong Tea King. This mild-roasted tea perfectly accompanied each course.
At the end of the meal we were treated to beautiful goodie bags decorated with a lovely picture of a boy and a girl paddling an oyster boat. Inside was a selection of Lee Kum Kee sauces. I sighed with pleasure when I lifted one of the bottles out of the bag and found that I was holding my very own bottle of XO sauce.
The entire afternoon and lunch was an excellent introduction to how these sauces can be used to enhance one’s cooking. The meal was plentiful and elegant. I enjoyed it all. But the highlight of the event for me was the discovery of XO sauce – my new favourite ingredient. Perhaps one day I will travel to where it is made to discover more about this delicious condiment. In the meantime I look forward to adding teaspoons full to all manner of dishes. Just don’t ask me to share!