|The scornful eye of Martha was upon her, poor Isabel.
|"Do like this."
And this will give you a vague idea of the wonder that is Martha Sherpa's teaching style:
Martha: "Pat that flat."
Student, fumbling, tries to pat some pasty filling on the metal work table.
Martha. "No. Wrong! Like this."
|a mighty and dexterous hand
Martha, wearily: "No. Too slow. Wrong."
Student tries again. Asks: "Is this okay?"
Martha: "Clearly not okay."
She tosses things at you. A rag to wipe the table. A ball of dough to shape. A scraper to scrape up a microscopic particle of dough that you left on the counter and which must be reincorporated into your bread. It is all commands and rebukes and I suppose this is a very gentle version of the way she herself was taught to cook in Hong Kong restaurant kitchens.
And you know what? After a short, bracing adjustment period, it was great. We were mixing, pounding, kneading, slamming, stretching, washing, scraping, baking, and fielding criticism for seven hours and at the end of it we really knew stuff.
I've given the impression that Martha was horrid. She was not. Although she was formidably rude, she was also funny and candid and entertaining and even Isabel was giggling by the end of the day. In between issuing commands and concocting insults, Martha told stories about disgracefully spoiled Hong Kong children and perfidious bakers who lace their bread with chemicals, about the going rate paid to Filipina "helpers" (she blames the helpers for spoiling Hong Kong children) and the foolish entrepreneurs who come to her class for one day and think they can move to San Francisco or Penang and open a restaurant.
Some general facts about Chinese bread:
-Butter is always salted butter.
-Whole milk powder is often used, just like in the Milk Bar cookbook; nonfat dried milk powder is not a substitute. I'm going to try to buy some proper milk powder at the supermarket down the street from our hotel.
-Unlike Western bread, Chinese bread is served steaming hot. It is torn apart, not cut, and it is eaten all at once; you don't break a loaf and save the rest for later.
-The Chinese detest crusts, so surfaces are brushed with syrup to keep them soft.
At the end of the class, the other American woman in the class declined to comment in Martha's guest book. She rolled her eyes and said, "That was fun, but I don't know what to make of her. " Isabel declined to comment as well.
I commented. I wrote that this class was the highlight of my trip to Hong Kong and unless something miraculous happens today or tomorrow, that will be the truth.