The Parkholme Supper Club was founded by Alicia Weston and operates in her Hackney home, where every second week the large kitchen buzzes with volunteers dicing, slicing, frying and baking in preparation for the evening meal. Alicia has a threefold mission: to foster communality through cooking and eating, to mentor and train people who want to learn to cook, and to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières in a constant and sustainable way. Alicia has been spectacularly successful in this third aim, having raised £24,000 in two years. And having attended two of her supper clubs to take photos, chat, eat and chop veg, Eat Hackney can confidently say that Alicia is forging ahead with her other goals too.
All about the supper club
Alicia’s approach to cooking doesn’t revolve round fancy ingredients: if it did she wouldn’t be able to donate £35 of the £40 she charges diners to MSF. She starts with creative and engaging menu ideas. At the recent Diwali night Alicia served up an astonishing variety of food, including green fish curry with fresh herbs and coconut milk, a dahl recipe collected on a visit to a Rajasthan Palace, plus pineapple, lamb and chicken dishes: the food just kept on coming. And for the Road to Revolution night, Alicia drew on family recipes and her own Chinese heritage to contrast cooking at the Imperial Court with the earthy peasant food favoured by revolutionaries.
Once the menus are devised, Alicia shops at the Ridley Road Market, a great source of cheap, interesting ingredients such as pomelo, mangoes, water convolvulus and Chinese pear. She goes elsewhere for free-range pork and chicken, but otherwise the market has everything covered. Alicia is an experienced cook and organiser, adept at getting the best out of novice and expert volunteers.
And she draws on the specific knowledge of friends like Hong Kong-born Louise, whose guide to making Chinese dumplings follows. Louise had lovely background on some of the dishes – she told Eat Hackney the story of Wo Tou, the conical steamed bread pictured. A Manchurian Empress, the mother of the last emperor, fled the imperial palace during the Boxer Rebellion. She was offered shelter by a peasant, who revived the hungry empress with a maize and sugar roll. Restored to the palace, the empress instructed her chefs to make the dish. In fact, they reinterpreted it using the refined ingredients that characterise imperial cuisine: chestnut flour is used instead of maize.
So the Parkholme Supper Club is more than just a dinner with potential new friends… it also makes for a delicious foodie history lesson. And while it may not quite reach the grandeur of the imperial courts – 100–200 dishes with names such as “Golden Phoenix Five Treasures”, eaten with silver chopsticks, and served by concubines – what Alicia manages to achieve with £5 per person is pretty amazing, all elegantly served at the long table in her dining room. Eat Hackney loved the communal cooking and eating, and will return for more. Amongst the forthcoming events are a provincial French night and an alternative Christmas dinner with dishes from around the world. Past menus set to make another appearance in 2013 are a Georgian Feast, Syrian Supper Club and Malay Malam. It could be the tastiest and most worthwhile £40 you ever spend…
How to make Chinese dumplings
Supper club volunteer Louise made cute dumplings for the Chinese evening. The process starts with the “three shinies”: clean hands, gleaming bowl and shiny dough. Chinese people believe it is unlucky to cut dough, so it is torn into small balls. (There’s a scientific reason too, as cutting severs the strands of gluten and makes the dough tougher.) Ideally, the rolled out circles of dough should be thicker in the middle than round the edges. And they’re cooked in vegetable oil and water, meaning they’re both fried and steamed. Click here for Louise’s visual guide to the art of making beautiful dumplings!
Alicia has kindly shared a couple of recipes from her Chinese supper club. First up is Chairman Mao’s favourite dish, punchy and pungent red stewed pork: caramalised sugar gives the meat an earthy reddish brown hue. The dense and delicious mango pudding shows a Western influence on Chinese cooking as it includes dairy products. It made a great end to the evening’s menu, and can be decorated with pomegranate seeds or mango. To learn more about Alicia’s cooking style, sign up for one of her classes which are informally taught to a maximum of four students.