Today, Friday 8th March 2019, Ceri has taken her GCSE Catering practical exam. It’s worth 35% of her final mark and is a pretty big deal. This time last year, Emma was taking her GCSE Catering practical exam, and what a difference a year has made…

Last Year, Emma’s assignment was:

Choose a family occasion and then plan, prepare, cook and present three dishes which could be served at the chosen occasion.

In contrast, Ceri’s assignment was:

Plan, prepare, cook and present a range of dishes that are based on Asian cuisine. You must present 3 dishes.

Consequently, Emma decided that she would offer as fancy a three course meal as she could do, in the three hour limit. The occasion she chose was, a wedding anniversary celebration. She eventually arrived at the following menu:

Just the sort of menu you want to be able to offer in a GCSE Catering practical exam.

Emma’s menu was based on the experiences of her life. It was based on the meals that she remembered enjoying, from both eating at home and eating at pubs and restaurants. While Emma had a lot to choose from, she had plenty of first hand experience to guide her.

By comparison, Ceri has never been to Asia. The only time I’ve been to Asia was a holiday in Turkey, more than 20 years ago. As a family, we don’t really have a taste for spicy foods, so I don’t cook that type of meal. Likewise, when we eat out, or order in, we try and steer clear of spicy options. And because we have no experience of what might be spicy, we avoid whole cuisines. Just to be on the safe side. Ceri is actually something of a minor exception to this, which I will come to in due course.

On the whole, this meant that Ceri had no meaningful first hand experience to help her. She also had precious little second hand experience, from her parents, to draw on. Yet, somehow, she had to refine the entirety of the culinary options of the whole of Asia, down to just three dishes.

The reason that I’m labouring this point is that the AQA guidance for setting the GCSE catering practical includes the following:

One task to be selected from three tasks set by AQA to be issued in school in the November of the academic year in which it is to be submitted.

This means that each teacher gets to choose one out of the three available options set by the exam board. Now, I would of thought that the point of these three options would be to allow the teacher the opportunity to select the task that they feel would give their students the best chance of getting the highest grades. We live on the outskirts of the county town in a rural part of South West England. If we’ve famous for anything, cuisine wise, it’s cider and cheeses. Maybe soft fruit. Asian cuisine…? Not so much!

So, let’s look at the scale of the problem that Ceri was facing…

Asia is the largest continent in the World, home to 4.5 billion people and comprising of 48 countries.

According to FoodBev, the top ten most popular takeaway foods in the UK are as follows:

  1. Chinese
  2. Indian
  3. Fish and chips
  4. Pizza
  5. Southern Fried Chicken
  6. Kebab
  7. Thai
  8. Burger
  9. Sushi
  10. Italian

The ones in magenta, half of the total, are from Asia. In theory, that’s great: there are plenty of opportunities to start investigating the topic.

In practice, you just have to look at a Chinese takeaway menu to see the vastness of the variety of dishes on offer.

The menu from our favourite Chinese takeaway, which is of the ‘Peking style’.

Likewise, any Indian takeaway menu.

Except it’s not even that simple. Within Chinese cuisine, you have the Eight Great Traditions:

  • Cantonese
  • Sichuan
  • Anhui
  • Shandong
  • Fujian
  • Jiangsu
  • Hunan
  • Zhejiang

And that’s nothing compared with the variety of Regional Cuisines included under the Indian Cuisine umbrella. There are more than 35, which is too many to list, but details can be found here.

The point I’m trying to make is, with an assignment that is so vague and all encompassing, how do you even know where to start?!

Ah well, better her than me.

Wait, what? She wants me to help…?! Oh, come on!

Faced with that horrifying bit of news, I spoke to Ceri’s catering teacher at the next parent’s evening. It wouldn’t be too bad, I thought, we should be able to come up with some Asian Fusion, three course meal. The only question was what the dessert might be, there isn’t a huge dessert traditional in Asian cuisine…

I needn’t have worried.

When I suggested the Asian Fusion three course meal idea to the teacher, she was adamant that she didn’t want a traditional three course approach. That, apparently, was soooo last year.

The teacher that had taken Emma’s class, the previous year, had gone part time, which meant that Ceri had this new teacher. And said new teacher seemed like she wanted to make her mark by moving away from what went before. Besides, the teacher elaborated, she didn’t want dessert, because too many pupils find dessert too tricky. The look of horror that appeared on Ceri’s face, at this announcement, took many weeks to fade away. I’m not convinced that it’s fully gone, now.

Ceri, you see, like any true Lewis, is firmly of the belief that the dessert is the best bit.

Ah, sometimes you just know that you’ve brought them up right… *sniffles*. So proud!

Anyway, I imagine that I looked pretty horrified as well. Firstly, this seems to be a deliberate dumbing down of the curriculum. If pupils find desserts tricky; spend more time teaching the pupils how to make desserts.

Secondly, it meant that neither Ceri nor I had a clue where to start… Asia is a seriously big place…

What sort of GCSE Catering practical assignment, just asks you to just choose three dishes out of that…?!
By Koyos + Ssolbergj (talk) – National Geographic.

All through the five years of both Emma’s and Ceri’s school life, during their catering classes, the focus was on the more commonly consumed British foods. Things like bread, pizza, Swiss roll, etc. Quite often throughout the years, pupils were told to ‘choose a recipe including [something]’. The ‘something’, in question, could be an ingredient, like chicken, or a cooking technique, like poaching.

The pupils would then choose a recipe and cook it in the next class. The recipes Ceri chose, of course, where the ones she was familiar with. Recipes that she liked the taste of. And, quite often, dessert based recipes that she could share with her friends after the class. You might not be surprised to hear that, in her five years of cooking in this way, Ceri never once selected an Asian recipe. Naturally, then, this left Ceri woefully unprepared for a GCSE catering practical assessment that solely focused on Asia. Particularly one that prohibited desserts.

I can’t help thinking that Ceri’s teacher has put her desire to move away from what went before, ahead of the best interests of her pupils. I find that infuriating.

Still, no point crying over spilled milk, we had to get on with it.

This first part of the assignment was a two-stage investigation, designed to narrow the morass of options. Firstly, Ceri needed to study the various Asian countries and then select a few that had cuisines that she thought she could work with. She then needed to narrow those countries down to just three, which she could focus on. From that focus, she would select her three dishes.

Ceri decided to cast her net wide and looked at, China, India, Japan, Thailand and Turkey. Ceri also decided, after the teacher made the requirements clear, that she wanted to present dishes from three different countries. This was in order to make her dishes as different from each other as possible, thus ramping up the difficulty levels. She wanted the highest grade possible, which means she needed to make her GCSE catering practical as technically challenging as possible. As such, she went for one country from the west of Asia, one from central Asia and one from the east.

In the end, she settled on Turkey, India and Japan.

The Japanese dish was established very early on, Ceri wanted to do Sushi. But, in choosing sushi, and only wanting one dish per country, she was ruling out some other great options from Japan. Making noodles from scratch, for example, shows high technical skill levels and making sushi meant that making Udon Noodles was ruled out.

In actual fact, Ceri could have made an excellent three course meal using Japanese recipes, had that been an option. We looked at:

  1. Sushi
  2. Udon Chicken Soup
  3. Anpan

(Anpan is a sweet roll filled with red bean paste (like Aduki beans))

It might not be much to look at, from a British dessert perspective, but it’s nicely technical.
By katorisi – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

This would have been a menu that showed a lot of technical skills, like handling raw chicken, making noodles and baking a yeast bread. It also seemed to be within the remit of the AQA assignment guide. But, no. The teacher didn’t want a ‘traditional’ three course meal, and she didn’t want dessert. Because… reasons! And the teacher was the one who would be doing the marking, which meant Ceri had no choice but to abandon the above menu.

So, Ceri kept the sushi, which involved handling raw fish and, therefore, surely classed as technically skillful?! This meant that she had to find two more dishes that allowed her to demonstrate the necessary skill levels to get the highest grades. The problem was that some of the usual routes to high technical skill, the ones that Emma chose on the way to getting her top grade, were not open to Ceri.

Making a pastry from scratch, for example, scores very highly. But pastry seems very thin on the ground in Asia. Well, apart from Filo type pastry, and Ceri simply wouldn’t have enough time, and probably enough space, to make filo. Emma made a pâte sucrée, for her ganache tartlets.

Likewise, a roux based sauce is classed as a very technical skill. Thick sauces, however, also seem very rare in Asian cuisine. Again, Emma was able to take advantage of the roux element by making a cheese sauce to accompany her soufflé, which is, itself, roux based.

Emma also had a chicken dish as part of her GCSE catering practical. To achieve the top technical marks, all she needed to do was slice the raw chicken to create a pocket in which to stuff the mushroom mixture. Ceri, however, was making a Turkish Kofta dish, where lamb is far more traditional. To achieve the same technical skill marks with lamb, Ceri was required to start with a leg of lamb: bone it, trim it and then mince it. Something that is significantly more time consuming.

Which left the Indian dish. Ceri, bless her, has spent the last couple of years trying to overcome her Lewis-based weakness when it comes to spicy foods. To this end, on the occasions we end up having ready meals from the supermarket, she’ll often choose an Indian dish. It’s got to the stage, now, where she can comfortably handle a korma. Meaning that a korma was the logical, nay poetic, choice for her Indian dish.

While Ceri prefers eating a chicken korma, there was little point cooking one; she had already demonstrated the technical skills associated with raw meat, in the kofta dish. What she needed was some new area of technical expertise, which is why she chose a Paneer Korma. The hope was that making a paneer, to use in the korma, would be the equivalent of the roux that she wouldn’t be able to make.

To go with the korma, Ceri would make chappatis. She hoped that this would replace the skills she would have shown making udon noodles. Or as the pastry dish equivalent from Emma’s GCSE catering practical exam.

By the end of all the juggling of dishes, ideas and concepts, Ceri ended up with a menu that looked like this:

Only time will tell whether this menu was technical enough for Ceri to achieve the grade she wants for her GCSE catering practical.

Now all Ceri had to do, was learn how to cook it all.

And this brings me back to a point I made last year; in situations like this, it seems like you can buy your kids better grades at their GCSEs.

As Emma had, last year, Ceri did three complete rehearsals of her GCSE catering practical menu. Each of them timed against the three hours that she would have on the day of the exam. The first attempt, as you might expect, was slow and clumsy. The second was much better and the third attempt went very well. She’d, more or less, nailed it.

The point is, though, that buying the full set of ingredients four times, including for the exam itself, was pretty expensive. In addition, she needed to bone and grind the meat to get the mince for the koftas. So I bought the food grinder attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer, so she could practice. This, too, wasn’t cheap. Although, full disclosure, I’d been looking for an excuse to buy that attachment for ages; so I know what’s going into my bolognese sauce, and the like.

The final practice of the three dishes for Ceri’s GCSE catering practical exam.

I think that, overall, Ceri has put together a very good meal. She’s certainly had to go through a very steep learning curve to get to this point. She should be proud of what she’s achieved. I’m certainly proud of what she’s done. Which makes the fact that she doesn’t think that she’ll ever cook any of this again, all the more disappointing.

Since Emma has finished her catering GCSE, she’s really taken to the kitchen. Admittedly, mainly for the baking. But a lot of that willingness to cook comes from the praise she got from her meal. Particularly the ganache tartlets.

And while Ceri has also received a deserved amount of praise, there is very little from her menu that she is likely to be tempted to cook again any time soon. The most likely, of any of it, is the chapattis. Which were lovely. But, at the end of the day, it’s a bread that needs to be eaten as soon as it’s cooked. And we really don’t have much call for it, as a snack.

This, too, seems likes a missed opportunity from the assignment selection made by the teacher. Speaking for myself, as a parent, I would have much rather that the assignment had been something that encouraged Ceri towards an interest in cooking. An assignment that left her a culinary legacy that she could build on as she heads towards her adult life. I simply don’t think that this has happened, and it’s disappointing.

The menu that Emma produced, in contrast, is full of things that she will make again during her life. She’s already made a couple of menu items, on numerous occasions.

The final practice of the three dishes for Emma’s GCSE catering practical exam.

Exam boards offer three options for the GCSE catering practical exam. They do this for a reason; to give the teacher a choice in what is set for the pupils of their class. Surely, the primary focus of this choice has to be, what gives the pupils the best chance of getting a high grade. To be fair, I don’t know what the other two options were. I may never know. It may be that the other two options would have been even more challenging for Ceri’s class. But this seems unlikely…

All I can do, now, is hope that all of Ceri’s hard work and dedication actually lead to the result that she’s after. And that Ceri’s desire to stand out, with her result, hasn’t been scuppered by her teacher’s desire to stand out, with her assignment choice.

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