Part 2 of the Chinese Food class was held at a Chinese restaurant on the corner of Tryon and Cary Parkway in Cary – called Able Karaoke Bar & Grill. I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect from the name of the place, but the food was really delicious and we were served a feast! The Confucius Institute combined the second part of the food class with a graduation and celebration ceremony for their language students and their teachers from this semester, probably 30-40 people altogether.We started with a tea pouring demonstration by Mr. Able. We got to smell and sip the special jasmine tea and black tea that he imports for himself and doesn’t serve at the restaurant.
He also showed us a special dried blossom (I think chrysanthemum or something related?) that is twisted and tied in a special way while drying so that when you immerse it in hot water it gradually blooms, like this! He cautioned us that the resulting ‘tea’ doesn’t taste very good, but hey – it’s pretty :) This was also the point where Mr. Able said that he only serves food in his restaurant that he himself enjoys eating. His reasoning is because if he doesn’t taste the food, then he can’t guarantee that it is up to his standards. That encouraged me about the level of quality and pride that he brings to his restaurant – which was definitely proven by the meal that followed.
Pork Skin Jelly – you know how when you roast or cook pork at home, the juice forms a gelatinous goop when you chill it? This was like eating a very firm version of that jellied pork broth, not my choice in textures but it wasn’t unpalatable either. I finished a whole piece, but didn’t have seconds.
Very tasty Chinese Salad – shredded dried tofu, carrots, snow peas, and bean sprouts. I couldn’t place the flavoring, but when I asked, Mr. Able said that it was Szechuan peppercorns, a distinctive spice that was very tasty in this dish.
We also had fried shrimp chips. These were all considered appetizers, which we ate while making dumplings.
They delivered a plate of filling (leek, pork and shrimp) and a plate of homemade dumpling wrappers to each table and we all tried our hand at forming the dumplings. Then they gathered them back up and cooked them for us.
Spring Wraps were also on the menu for the evening. From the name, I was thinking they might be like Vietnamese summer rolls or fried Chinese spring rolls – but this was actually something in between, and different than anything I’ve had at a Chinese restaurant before. The fillings above, seasoned chicken and beef and scrambled eggs were provided to our table along with a big plate of shredded lettuce and green onion.
We wrapped any mixture of these fillings in a thick wheat flour wrapper which reminded me of a thick mu shu pancake or a homemade flour tortilla. It was then eaten fresh. If you only try one thing at this restaurant, you HAVE to try these spring wraps – they are offered as a lunch special and you can get them with assorted fillings.
About this time, others at my table were complaining about being too full, and I was having to finish off some of the extra food at the table so it wouldn’t ‘go to waste’ ;) I found the pace of our meal to be slow enough that I really could eat more. We ate the entire meal over the course of about 2.5 hours, with a graduation ceremony in the middle.
This is when our main entree arrived at each table – a hotpot bowl filled with spicy broth on one side and mostly unseasoned broth on the other. They brought so many plates of veggies we could barely fit them on the table – baby bok choy, chinese cabbage, mustard greens, 3 kinds of mushrooms, bean sprouts, and bean thread vermicelli. Shortly after this picture was taken they also brought us 2 plates full of shaved beef, and one plate of shaved lamb. All of this was placed in the hotpot to cook and eat communally.
I have to say that the spicy broth (again flavored with Szechuan peppercorns) was incredibly spicy – and I don’t have a low tolerance for these things. Once I realized that there were whole peppercorns contributing to the heat, I was able to avoid biting into those, and the beef cooked in that side of the pot was very tasty. But it was impossible to scoop out the vermicelli without getting a whole bunch of peppercorns with it from the bottom of the pot. And the greens also seemed to soak up the spicy heat. But it was a very fun time with the others at my table, and if I go back again I’ll figure out my method for what goes on each side. It does make me worry a bit about the spicy hot pot mix that I bought at the supermarket last week though…
While we were cooking the hotpot additions, they brought us one more “appetizer” of lamb kabobs, seasoned with a very nice mixture that I think included cumin and paprika. They were cooked perfectly, still moist and tender with a lovely grilled flavor. It didn’t taste at all like what I would consider “Chinese” – but as we learned in part I of the class, there is a lot of variation within that cuisine that we aren’t typically exposed to in the West. Also, if you’ll notice, there was not a single grain of rice served at the meal!
Needless to say, we were all incredibly stuffed by this point, and there were a number of hotpot ingredients that could not be eaten at our table. I asked the waitstaff if the remaining beef, bok choy and Chinese cabbage would be discarded and when that was confirmed, I offered to take it home instead. Luckily (according to others at my table), this is seen as a compliment in Chinese culture, so they were happy to provide me with a takeaway box. I made this delicious stir-fry the next day with just a bit of soy sauce and ginger added.