Make light wok

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Want to raise awareness of other countries and cultures? Call in native cooking experts and you'll have a recipe for success. Nick Morrison reports

It was a straightforward choice, and in the end it came down to that trusty guide: price. "We couldn't decide on pork or prawns but it was too expensive to have prawns," says Katherine.

The result is that Katherine, along with Alex and Hugo, is tucking into a tasty-looking dish of pork and noodles with stir-fried vegetables. They chose noodles, Alex adds, because they like them. Anyway, they had rice last time.

As well as budgeting and cooking Chinese food, Hugo says he has learned how to use chopsticks. He's certainly managing them with aplomb, although the soy sauce on his white collar suggests a little more practice wouldn't go amiss.

Katherine, Alex and Hugo are Year 5 pupils at St Joseph and St Theresa RC Primary in Wells, Somerset, and this week it's their turn with the wok and chopsticks, under the expert eye of Hairong Zong. Hairong has been coming into the school on Friday mornings to give groups of children a taste of Chinese culture. A high school teacher from Suzhou near Shanghai, she has been working as a Mandarin language assistant at Wells Cathedral School since September as part of a British Council programme.

After deciding on a menu, she takes the group shopping, with a weekly budget of pound;5. On returning to school, they cook what they have bought, finishing just in time to eat it for lunch.

"They learn something about China from cooking, they know what Chinese pupils usually eat and we talk about what life is like in China," says Hairong, 29. "We spend the morning together, so we talk about Chinese schools and the life of primary pupils. In China they have more work, less playtime."

The arrangement began when Nigel Walkey, deputy head at Wells Cathedral School, contacted Penny Steadman, head of the 115-pupil St Joseph and St Theresa, offering Hairong's services for half a day a week. Nigel says they had been looking at ways of using their Mandarin assistant outside of language classes, while Penny, who herself started at the school in September, says the offer came at an opportune time.

"One of the things I want to do as a priority is to raise awareness of other countries, and because it is a small group there is a lot of discussion about what it is like in China, what they wear and what they eat," she says. "It sounds obvious to say that life is different for people in other parts of the world, but this has brought it home for them, and it has been a good cultural experience."

In addition to learning about China, the children get to shop within a budget and find out about healthy eating. As St Joseph and St Theresa has no kitchen, the meal they prepare on a two-ring cooker is also their only chance to have a hot dinner at school.

The arrangement has had an unexpected spin-off. After spotting Hairong with some of the pupils in a supermarket, a member of Wells' Italian community offered to come into school and make pizzas with the children.

Back in the staffroom, which is doubling as a cookery school, Hairong tells the children about the characteristics of Chinese cooking: spending a long time on preparing food and a comparatively short time on cooking it. She highlights the importance of food in Chinese culture by telling them that instead of "how do you do?" the traditional greeting is "have you eaten already?"

Alex says she's already cooked her own stir fry, although Katherine is more cautious. "I think I will cook Chinese food a lot when I'm older," she says

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