Set in the shadow of Bath’s landmark abbey, in the very centre of the city, Demuths is highly regarded for its rigorously organised vegan and vegetarian cooking courses (so highly regarded that one couple on our course had driven all the way from Yorkshire just for the evening to join the class).
Founder Rachel Demuth ran a long-established vegetarian restaurant in the city before selling it to focus on her cookery school and cooking holidays. And, while the school runs a wide range of skills courses – from Fermentation to Vegan Cakes and Puddings, Food Photography, Pasta Workshops and Low Carb High Veg – it has a particularly strong reputation for its world cuisine classes, influenced by Rachel’s extensive travels.
These range from Indian Street Food to Exploring the Spice Route, a Middle Eastern Mezze class, Korean and Totally Moorish but the class that caught my attention was Myanmar (Burmese) Teahouse Cooking. A short (three-hour) evening class this vegan course was aimed at beginners and offered a chance to explore a cuisine I knew relatively little about (beyond the country’s famous fish stew, mohinga) without needing a raft of sophisticated kitchen skills.
Kicking off on a dark winter’s evening at 6.30pm, the course began with a quick introduction – and a welcome cup of ginger tea – around the school’s classroom before moving downstairs to the teaching kitchen. Here we were given aprons and name stickers, and asked to tie back long hair and wash our hands (so far so much the tightly-run ship we had expected). With 12 students and two tutors – Jan Berridge and school founder Rachel – it also meant a good ratio for hands-on guidance.
Putting Burmese food in context, Rachel started with a quick rundown on the country’s food culture. India may be brilliant for veggies, she said, but, surprisingly, the menus in many South East Asian destinations – including Thailand and Laos – are not so easy to navigate as many meat-free meals come spiked with fish sauce. This is also the case in Myanmar; Rachel advised substituting high quality shoyu at home to keep dishes truly veggie-friendly. Peanut oil is another one to watch if you have allergies: it’s a staple in Burmese cooking.
Rachel went on to explain how the country’s geography has influenced its menus; interaction with its neighbours mean Indian, Chinese and Thai flavours are common, and samosas, pakoras, stir-fried rice and noodles and green mango salads are all widely found. Myanmar’s cooks tend to use few ingredients, though, sticking to traditional recipes based around ginger, turmeric, garlic, chillies, tamarind, rice vinegar, salt and toasted sesame oil. Most of those, of course, all of us students were familiar with but we learnt that soaking and sieving tamarind pulp, rather than buying jars of paste, can make a noticeably fresher difference to the flavour of the final dish (though watch out: salt is sometimes added to the pulped variety).
This simple list of ingredients tied in well with the fuss-free ethos of the course. Burmese Teahouse Cooking may be unfamiliar to most of us (though two of the students had signed up having recently visited the country) but that didn’t mean overly complicated dishes. These were recipes chosen to be repeated easily at home. The fact that it was a short evening course, with only three hours to play with, meant there wasn’t time for more elaborate recipes – or, thankfully, for doing much graft… Jan had chopped, snipped and weighed all the ingredients out for us beforehand and helper Beth took charge of the washing up.
The first dish we didn’t make ourselves but watched Rachel demonstrate – Shan tofu. Actually not tofu at all but a polenta-like block named after the Shan ethnic group, it is made with gram flour and turmeric, mixed with water and salt, left to set, then cut into little squares and gently fried.
While the tofu was setting, the group split into pairs to made three dishes – first a simple stir-fry, with tenderstem broccoli, red peppers, pak choi and noodles that we ate as soon as it was ready to stave off post-work hunger pangs. There were tips to pick up here, despite it being such a simple dish; we were reminded to take our time cooking the onions until they were soft rather than scorching them to a crisp and advised that toasted sesame oil is better glugged onto a sir-fry at the end, to add flavour, than used as a cooking oil. Rachel also taught us a trick for cooking perfect rice (all to do with gauging water levels and leaving it to stand).
In fact there were lots of tips to absorb over the evening. Rachel took the beginners’ level seriously, never assuming knowledge, and there were some good reminders of the basics – making sure you choose jasmine rice, not that basmati you have to hand in the cupboard, for South Asian dishes, for instance.
The second dish, a bitter (Thai) aubergine curry with tomatoes, was a good example of Myanmar’s fondness for bitter flavours. The slowly simmered result, laced with shallots, ginger, garlic, chilli and turmeric, was surprisingly gentle – light and fresh with only a slight sharpness from the aubergines.
While it bubbled away we got on with the final dish, a light pumpkin and peanut curry cooked just to the point where the pumpkin was nutty but not mushy and where the peanuts still had a soft crunch. Once this was ready we took all the dishes to a communal dining table to test them out over a hard-earned glass of wine (or Bradley’s zingy Cox & Bramley apple juice).
The freshness of both curries really stood out for me. Vibrant and wholesome, these would be perfect midweek suppers, not guilty pleasures. The Shan tofu was a revelation, however. Served with a little dip made with peanuts, chilli, shoyu and coriander, I could have eaten a whole plateful of these saffron-coloured cubes – silkily soft on the inside with a gorgeous toasted crunch on the outside, these are surely Myanmar’s answer to a bowl of hot salty chips.
The next Myanmar Teahouse Cooking course takes place in April 2017;demuths.co.uk