The first ingredients seemed simple enough: fish, tofu and vegetables, but even when the recipe called for black fungus, no one raised an eyebrow. The William & Mary Confucius Institute (WMCI) recently brought the far-flung ingredients of Chinese cuisine to campus with the Peter Chang Cooking Class, which just completed its first session. The four-week course introduced a new range of ingredients to an eager audience, many of whom now find the items for the foreign dishes much more familiar.
Robert Sanchez, visiting assistant professor of philosophy, was among the first group of 10 participants to take the Peter Chang Cooking Class, which held its fourth and final class this week. “On the first day the ingredients seemed strange” he said. “But now it just seems natural.”
Sanchez and the other participants were introduced to traditional Chinese ingredients like chili paste, rice wine, gingerroot, oyster sauce, and black fungus—also known as dried black mushrooms. A different dish was prepared at each of the four classes in this first cooking session. A chef from the restaurant—or sometimes Peter Chang himself—came on campus to teach the class at the request of the W&M Confucius Institute, which saw popularity growing in the community for traditional Chinese cuisine.
“We decided to offer this cooking class based on the community’s interest for Chinese food,” said Lei Ma, Chinese deputy director for WMCI. Ma also serves as translator for the course, giving the participants step-by-step instructions on the food preparation and cooking.
Gathering around the kitchen island in the Baptist Collegiate Ministries house, Ma translated for the chef as he discussed the ingredients first and then demonstrated how to cook the dish. At this fourth class, fish and tofu balls were on the menu, along with a mix of vegetables like bok choy and carrots. Green onion, white pepper, ground ginger, soy and oyster sauce were also on hand to add flavor to the dish. The chef mixed the boneless white fish and tofu together and then hand-squeezed the mixture into small orbs that were cooked in a simmering pot—a stand-in for a traditional Chinese wok. A fusion of spices, sauces and vegetables completed the dish, and after the chef’s demonstration, participants dug in with chopsticks to taste the culinary creation.
After their taste test, the participants became the chefs and made their own version of the fish and tofu chef specialty. There’s no specific recipe with measurements in this class, but participants took plenty of notes and the WMCI staff was on hand to help with questions. Sanchez found the lack of exact ingredient quantities liberating: “I feel like I’m developing a skill and not just watching the chef.”
The chef also offered insights to the cultural significance of the dishes throughout the class—another bonus in Sanchez’s mind. “I like everything that the food captures—I like that there was a story behind the dish,” he said.
Another participant, Becca Marcus, senior staff counselor at the counseling center, was thankful for the high quality and authenticity the course offers. “I’ve been waiting a long time for a good Chinese restaurant to come to Williamsburg,” she said. With the skills from this class, she’s ready to make genuine Chinese food for friends and family.
Only 10 participant spots were available for the first session, which filled up quickly.
“This cooking class has been so popular we’ve had to turn people away,” said Ying Liu, assistant director of the WMCI. The Institute’s mission is to promote the study of Chinese language and culture at the University and in Williamsburg and to facilitate cultural exchanges between the U.S. and China.
The WMCI plans to continue coordinating the Peter Chang cooking class, with the second session beginning after fall break. The next session’s menu will feature a new set of classic Chinese cuisine, and plans for a special dessert class are also in the works.