Updated: Sep 7, 2021
It’s been one week since I decided to tuck into self-isolation in my little Bangkok apartment in the clouds. Last Monday, March 16th, I went to school and took the practice exam for the first term of my Thai Cuisine course at Le Cordon Bleu. The final exam was meant to happen three days later, but by Tuesday the school had announced it would begin Spring break early and final exams would be canceled, due to the protective orders from the government in the face of the COVID19 outbreak in the city. At that time, Bangkok still had fewer than 100 confirmed cases of the virus, and some of us felt it was premature to close the school. A week later, so much has changed and without a doubt I am grateful for the aggressive measures local and national governments are taking to protect all of us in Bangkok from this pandemic.
The funny thing about culinary school is that it feels like I’m choosing to be there more than I’ve ever chosen to be anywhere. I’m paying with my hard earned money and taking time off of working to do this, just for the pure joy of learning to cook this incredible cuisine. I sit front-row-center for every lecture, soak up the Chef instructor’s words of wisdom and genuinely love every minute of it. When our campus closed, we were told we would be skipping the final exams and our grades would be based on our scores in the practical kitchens. To my surprise, I was very disappointed. I’ve never looked forward to taking a final exam and back in my college days, I would have LOVED to hear that a final exam had been canceled. To make things weirder, tests at Le Cordon Bleu are intense, to say the least. They are cooking tests where we have an hour to prepare a complicated dish perfectly, which will be blind judged by a panel of surprise local experts who will decide the grade. The recipe we’re given will only include the list of ingredients, and it’s up to us to recall the method. Of course, we don’t know the recipe until we enter the kitchen. From the beginning this sounded incredibly stressful. But I have been enjoying the course so much and have received such positive feedback in the practical kitchen thus far, that I was looking forward to the exam as a means of proving to myself that I was good at this. I wanted to see for myself that I could perform under pressure and meet the expectation set by Le Cordon Bleu.
But, the school has decided continuing students won’t re-sit the exams when the school opens (fingers crossed) April 20th. Instead, they’ve decided our Term 1 grades will be based 100% on our grades from the practical classes. Those grades are given at the 3 classes per week we have in the practical kitchens, where we attempt to reproduce the recipes from our demonstration classes. I understand that in terms of scheduling this is the best option for the school.
When the school was ordered to close on March 17th, the message that I shouldn’t be going out in public started to sink in and my self-imposed quarantine slowly began. I still went out to grocery stores and walked around malls (to get in some walking under climate controlled conditions) but that only lasted 2 days, by the 19th I had basically locked myself in my apartment. The government didn’t impose more broad closures of the city until March 21st, when 26 types of public facing businesses were ordered to close for two weeks.
So here I am, one week into self-isolation, with one week added onto my Spring Break. I knew even before school closed that I wouldn’t be going anywhere for Spring Break. Even though our COVID19 numbers were below 50 in Thailand the week before the school closure, it felt irresponsible to travel in the midst of a global pandemic. So I had planned for quite some time to stick around the city and do some cooking projects at home. I hadn’t expected to spend the entire time in my apartment, but we’re all in this together!
During my two days of grocery shopping out in the world, I stocked up on some project recipe staples. I wanted to make things with dough, as I’m not very experienced with bready things. I had the crispy bottom Sheng Jian boa and soup dumplings, Xiaolongbao, on my mind. But after failing to find baker’s yeast in any market and getting intimidated by the sheer quantity of pork bones I’d need to buy for the soup dumpling, I settled on simpler options. I’d make homemade Northern style Chinese dumplings (Shui Jiao) from Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe in Every Grain of Rice and then I’d invent a second dumpling filling for a vegan option, starring mushrooms.
In addition to Every Grain of Rice, I used YouTube as a reference. Of course I did- YouTube is the best teacher on the Internet! The Omnivore’s Cookbook YouTube channel has a fantastic video How to Make Chinese Dumplings showing her method of folding pot stickers, which has racked up over 3 million views. I account for probably 100 of those views as I had that video on repeat for quite some time, before I eventually internalized how to fold a dumpling. It’s all about patience and perseverance!
As I didn’t have a handy little dumpling rolling pin I started by using a sturdy drinking glass, which turned out to be a terrible idea. It felt really precarious against the granite countertop and the leverage wasn’t right at all. So I switched to doing the entire thing by hand, just pressing the dough into tiny palm sized pizza like discs. As evidenced by the photo, it started out VERY poorly, but by the end I was folding up bundles that could pass as pot stickers and I was quite pleased.
I had the test dumplings for lunch and wasn’t completely satisfied with my results, so I decided that I would hybridize the recipe. I was planning to make the vegan dumpling of my dreams, but in the end I had added too much ginger and I just didn’t have a winner on my hands. Also, I felt the pork dumpling was too dense, due to the fact that I had no idea what % fat I had bought (thai packaging). It would benefit from som
e vegetable to soften it up. So I mixed everything up and created quite a beautiful pork, mushroom and cabbage dumpling that I would be very happy to pull out of the freezer at any time. I will continue on in my quest for the perfect vegan dumpling, I think I’m just a ½ teaspoon of ginger away.