“Door to the left of Nam Wah Pharmacy” the email directed, “Buzz Flat 1B on the intercom”. Martha Sherpa operates a very popular cooking school in Mong Kok, to the north of Hong Kong Island. Whilst online reviews rave about her lessons, I was both nervous and intrigued by the seemingly residential address that I was navigated to. PayPal funds already deposited in advance, there was no going back now! In Hong Kong, land is so precious that mixed-use buildings are very common, in this case the ground floor being retail and the first floor converted from homes into commercial spaces. The open plan living/dining room cleverly adapted into a commercial kitchen using shelves stacked full of portable electric ovens and camping stoves for the Woks hooked into Calor gas cylinders.
I was happy to be joined on the “Wok Cooking” course by a charming lady from Boston MA, who had taken one of Martha’s cooking courses on a previous trip to Hong Kong. We were also later joined by two British expat girls now living in Hong Kong, of a similar age to myself. Courses usually consist of 4-6 people, although they can squeeze in up to 10 locals apparently, who tend to be of smaller stature and less hung up on personal space.
We were given a basic NDA to read, telling us not to publish or share Martha’s recipes online. It turns out that she has quite the cult following in the world of Hong Kong cuisine, with people learning and then using her recipes in restaurants locally and as far afield as Russia. Martha also gets a lot of housekeepers joining her courses, whose employers demand restaurant quality meals at home.
Unlike countries such as India or even the UK, it’s very rare for parents to teach their children how to cook in modern Hong Kong, creating a generation of adults unable to do anything but microwave, “just add water” or eat out. Kitchens in many homes mimic a depressing trend also seen in Manhattan, consisting of a microwave and sink, nothing else. Hence most of Martha’s pupils come either from abroad or from professions where they’re expected to cook.
Keeping to a well structured 7 hour lesson plan, we proceeded to prepare and cook 4 dishes, working in pairs;
- Stir fry Chinese broccoli with beef, yellow chives and oyster sauce
- Chicken steak with lemon sauce (aka “Lemon Chicken Hong Kong Style”)
- Pork chop with onion and HK special fruity sauce
- Fish fillet with twin sauces
I’m guessing that these had a very regional (British Colonial) twist to them, with ingredients including a Colman’s version of HP Sauce, Lemon Squash/Cordial and in almost every dish… Custard Powder!
For me, the big take-away’s from the day were how to deep fry in a Wok so that the food doesn’t taste greasy and making “Sweet Corn Sauce” which is only ever seen in the western world as a diluted Chinese Chicken & Sweetcorn Soup. The preparation and cooking techniques will prove very handy for my future endeavours, revealing how meat in Chinese dishes seems to melt in your mouth and the importance of pickled vegetables in an authentic Sweet & Sour Sauce.
As well as being educational, we also found the day to be rather humorous when it came to the delivery of Martha’s instructions. I was taught by a second generation Chinese friend that Mandarin uses words to express emotion and context, such as “ma” turning a statement into a question. As these words cannot be translated into English, Chinese conversations can sometimes incorrectly sound confrontational. Our day of cooking was littered with outbursts of “Stir faster!” and “Give it here!” which our group found both amusing and endearing.
If you’re interested in food and planning to visit Hong Kong, definitely set aside at least one day for a cooking course with Martha Sherpa. My full-day course cost $1,668 HKD (roughly £144 GBP / $215 USD), with the dishes rotating throughout the week and seasons. Lessons can be booked by emailing her, but they do get booked up very quickly and well in advance. You’ll eat enough food to last you all day and it’ll definitely be one of the best meals you’ll eat in Hong Kong (I always think that cooking something yourself makes it taste that little bit better anyway)!