Mongolian Beef and…Pianos, Rice and Tambourines

My parents believed their children should be ‘good all-rounders’ so as well as enrolling us in swimming lessons, signing us up for Little Athletics, dropping us off at Art Classes, making us do ballet with Mrs Warwick, somehow they found the time and the economic means to give us piano lessons.

We didn’t always have a piano.  One day it just arrived.  It had been my father’s piano when he was growing up and somehow it turned up and that was the trigger that inspired my parents that their three oldest children should have piano lessons.

Mongolian Beef

Mrs Sherman was the teacher and she taught from home with the front room of her house dedicated to her classes.  The room  contained no less than three pianos and just outside the room and squeezed into the hallway was a harpsichord and in the kitchen there was a pianola.  The house was a complete shambles with chipped and peeling paintwork, enormous piles of washing resting all over the worn out sofas, newspapers stacked on tables, dirty dishes waiting to be washed, cats up on all the furniture and an overgrown front garden to welcome you.  Mum said it was because she was ‘creative’.

I found the lessons tedious and boring and hated all the practising that has to go along with learning an instrument – such an inconvenience.  I did persevere however and I did learn to find ‘Middle C’ and I did learn to read music and I could play things like Green Sleeves so I couldn’t have been completely hopeless.

Rather than make us sit exams, Mrs Sherman used to put on concerts.  These were held in a room at the local Art Gallery on a Saturday afternoon.  After three years of lessons I was very much looking forward to performing at the concert and had many family and friends coming to see me give a recital.

The Thursday night before the concert we turned up for our music lesson to find out what pieces we would be performing.  My older sister was given a solo piece that was advanced and challenging.  Em was given a basic piece to do and I was wondering what recital I would be giving the audience.  But Mrs Shermen said she had a ‘special’ role for me.

‘What will I be doing?’ I asked with great curiosity.

She handed me a plastic ice cream container half-filled with rice.

‘What do I do with this?’  I asked all confused.

She told me that I was to ‘accompany’ another performer.  ‘I want you to stand beside the piano and shake it in time with the music’.

So, after three years of piano lessons, that was my instrument.  An old ice cream container filled with grains of rice.  I was about to enter high school and here I was back at pre-school.  I was obviously underwhelmed.

I went to the concert and did my ‘performance’ shaking the rice while looking out into the audience feeling rather silly.

At the end of the concert all the supportive and kind parents said, ‘Good job’, and ‘Well done’, and ‘So you got to shake the rice did you, well aren’t you lucky’.

But I was thinking, ‘She could have at least given me a tambourine’.

I haven’t played the piano since and today I don’t even think I could find ‘Middle C’.

Chinese food is not a one-course meal but eaten banquet style.  Here is something to go with the Fried Rice and the Stir-Fried Chicken Fillets with Cashews.  Again, this recipe is by Kylie Kwong from her Simple Chinese Cooking cookbook.  I like to use Kylie’s recipes because she makes non-Asians feel like they can cook authentic Chinese food.

Mongolian Beef

Excellent served with fried rice

Serves:  4-6

Degree of Difficulty:  2/5

Cost:  This is made with mince and is therefore an inexpensive family meal (I would even make this for a dinner party where I was serving a range of Chinese dishes).

  • 600g (1 lb 4 0z) quality minced beef
  • 5 cups finely shredded Chinese cabbage
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tbspns shao hsing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 tbspn hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbspn oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp malt vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and finely sliced
  • 1/2 medium-sized red pepper, finely sliced
  • 3/4 cup finely sliced spring onions (scallions)


  • 2 tbspns shao hsing wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tbspn light soy sauce
  • 1 tbspn cornflour (cornstarch)
  • 1 tbspn finely diced ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely diced
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil

Combine beef mince with marinade ingredients in a large bowl, cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge for 30 mins.

Meanwhile place cabbage and salt in a large bowl, mixing together well with your hands to combine.  Stand for 15 minutes then rinse under cold water and drain.  Use your hands to squeeze out any excess liquid.

Heat 2 tbspns of the oil in a hot wok until surface seems to shimmer slightly.  Add half the marinated beef and stir-fry for 30 seconds, breaking up any lumps with a wok spoon.  Remove fro the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add remaining oil to hot wok, stir in remaining beef and cook, stirring for 30 seconds.  Return reserved beef mixture to the wok with wine or sherry, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, vinegar and sesame oil and stir-fry for 30 seconds.

Toss in reserved cabbage, carrot and pepper and stir-fry for a further minute.  Stir through spring onions, reserving just a little to garnish, and remove from heat.

Spoon beef into a serving bowl, sprinkle with remaining spring onions and serve.

This recipe is from Kylie Kwong’s, Simple Chinese Cooking.

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  1. I too had to suffer through piano lessons as a child, for four years. It was just awful. My mother signed me up because she was tired of hearing my Aunt brag about how well my cousin played. Believe me, I was never anything to brag about. I hated practicing, especially during the summer when my sisters and their friends would be just outside the front door, listening to and laughing at me until they ran off to play. I think that I am still scarred by the experience. Not even this delicious-looking recipe would have made those days better … maybe.

  2. Perhaps the rice instrument was really to foreshadow your love for Chinese food. 😉 I like a good stir-fry, makes me feel right at home!

  3. Did you develop a liking for rice dishes because of your performance?
    Mongolian beef is interesting. Here you can find Mongolian BBQ but no Mongolian beef. I guess you can’t find Mongolian beef in Mongolia (it wouldn’t be called Mongolian in their home country I suppose). I saw Fiji Island salad in Kyrgyzstan, and you can’t find that salad in Fiji!

  4. She may have been “creative” but she stunk as a teacher.

    “… she makes non-Asians feel like they can cook authentic Chinese food.” If that isn’t the best review of a Chinese food cook book, I don’t know what is. 🙂

  5. She must have sensed in her “creative mind” that you would be a chef one day. I think the C note involves your middle finger, but I refused to learn the clarinet in class myself much less any of the notes required to play it. What a lovely balanced dish!

  6. My eldest daughter had years of piano lessons that she just loved, we knew she had zero talent but were not too fussed until we received a phone call from her teacher… Her teacher explained that while our daughter was a dedicated student and lovely girl, she nevertheless felt guilty taking our money as she was Just no good! I calmed the teacher down by saying we didn’t hold her responsible, but would she still let our daughter have lessons anyway, and not to let on that she was no good.
    My daughters favorite meal just happens to be rice, I think I’ll make this recipe this week- it sounds lovely!

  7. Oh poor Charlie. That’s really mean. She should have been the one shaking the rice!

    I might have to get my hands on Kylie Kwong’s book. There aren’t even any strange ingredients in that recipe I could make it from everything in my cupboard. Sounds great!

  8. This definitely look something an authentic Chinese dish – I am definitely bookmarking this!

  9. Oh yes all the things we tried out as kids just to find if we had another calling!

  10. Yet you’ve turned into a fabulous good and incredible writer:) I remember Jacqueline du Pre´s teacher did that to her because her sister was so much more gifted.. this angered her and she took up the cello and went on to become a world renowned cellist. I wonder if that was her intent? I’ve never found humiliation ever did anyone an ounce of good! xo Smidge

  11. She might have been ‘creative’ but she didn’t have a clue about how to encourage a young player.

  12. Oh no, you poor dear – what a horrid teacher! I didn’t much like her from what you wrote anyway – I could almost smell her house…yucky.
    🙂 Mandy

  13. Aaah, pianos…. sigh. I used to take piano lessons and my parents bought me a piano for my birthday. A beautiful thing made of walnut and mahogany I think. I used it for many years until I eventually gave up playing…. then my parents sold it and scoffed at me for deigning to ask if I could have the money they got for it… It *was* my birthday present, after all 🙁

  14. Ohhh that’s kinda rude of the piano teacher to give you an ‘ice-cream container with grain rice’…she could at least ask you to play a short piece…I don’t blame you for losing interest in playing the piano. I learnt piano back in the day…but my first teacher was so boring and didn’t really teach me stuff… I was playing the same piece of music again and again…then the next one was nice but then when I got Year 11 I had to stop because I had too much homework ~ then my last one was the best because I went back to learn piano in my first year of Uni 🙂 I thought i was really interested and enthusiastic but then realised I liked gel nails more HAHHAA

    Great recipe 🙂 Definitely perfect with a bowl of rice ~ Thanks for sharing!

  15. I think this would be enough to put you off piano playing for life! But maybe a way of giving a certain amount of mystique to rice? 😉

  16. Hi Charlie,
    Greetings from Wales!
    Just discovered your blog after you visited mine and kindly left a comment. I giggled out loud reading your post and woke up the cats who were then looking around to see what had set me off…really looking forward to reading more! The cats will just have to get used to it…

  17. You were looking forward to the recital and all you got was the rice? No wonder you stopped playing. Music is a wonderful treat, and it’s sad that you were driven away.

  18. I took piano lessons for MANY years also, but my piano teacher was the sweetest person ever…she would NEVER suggest that anyone play a box of rice as an instrument. No siree.

  19. This story saddens me in that your teacher did not recognize the importance of encouraging you, no matter your skill level. However, I do appreciate that your mom pegged her as “creative” rather than messy and unorganized. That speaks volumes for your mom’s kindness.

    I always wanted to play the piano, any musical instrument for that matter, but never had the opportunity. To this day I cannot read a musical note. I made certain my three children were offered the opportunity to play an instrument. The girls played a flute and clarinet respectively, for a few years. The son never tried, but is now talking about borrowing a guitar from a family member.

  20. oh thats sad, but atleast u performed something 🙂 the marinade looks lovely, so many sauces & spices

  21. Glad your self-esteem wasn’t daunted. I had five years of piano and should have been given the rice to shake! Love the recipe–you can never go wrong with Kylie Kwong, right? She makes Chinese food so accessible.

  22. I used to play a different instrument as a child, but I hated it, so I can totally understand why you have never touched the piano since then.
    I have never had Mongolian beef. It looks delicious.

  23. Love the marinade Charlie…must make one heck of a beef. 🙂

  24. I’d always dreamed of taking piano lessons when I was young, I guess the grass is always greener on the other side!
    I love the Asian flavours so perfectly balanced sweet, sour and salty, this looks really delicious!

  25. I just LOVE Mongolian beef, and you are so right, this would be perfect with the fried rice you made. I will try this together

  26. Oh Charlie, you poor little sausage, that was hard of your music teacher! Still, the alternative might have been to learn a new piece in the few days between your lesson and the concert! Mongolian beef looks most fine!

    PS. If anyone asks about my messy house from now on, I’m going to say that I’m “creative”.. 🙂

  27. Mrs Sherman must have known about your future culinary talents by giving you that rice to shake! Now you rock all sorts of ingredients like the Mongolian beef which looks delish!

  28. You always have the best stories! I can’t believe your music teacher had you shake a can full of rice at a performance. My parents never had us take any lessons of any sort, and I kind of wish they had. So there you go. This beef looks wonderful!

  29. *laughs* I had two different piano teachers with vastly different teaching styles (Teacher A would slam my fingers on the keyboard very painfully, Teacher B became a close friend), but thank god they never gave me rice to “play”…

  30. You can never go wrong with a tambourine!

  31. Im thinking, if I were your parents I would not have been happy. You poor thing what an insult. My sisters learnt the piano ( in an alarming carbon copy of your upbringing), from a creative lady with a similar house. Her house however was also home to Tin Tin a performing German Shepard , I was very scared of him and used to wait in the car for them to finish lessons ( perhaps this was also the plan)

  32. A fabulous dish! Really yummy.

    A lovely post!



  33. That teacher sounds terrible… but this story made me laugh! Clearly you were always meant to be a foodie and not a musician! Her loss, our gain!

  34. What a wonderful dinner – something oriental my brother and dad will definitely enjoy!
    Thanks 😀

    Choc Chip Uru

  35. I had dance, swimming and piano lessons as a child. At my first piano recital (I couldn’t have been more than seven), I had to play our national anthem, so was the first performer. I think I was in a daze the whole time.

  36. I am not musically inclined. I love listening to music but never have wanted to learn any instrument. My daughter however loves to play piano and is very good at it too. I found your post hilarious and am still smiling as I type.
    The Mongolian dish looks awesome. This is one of our favorite dishes we order in a restaurant and I would love to cook it for hubby.

  37. I love Mongolian Beef! Gonna have to try this. I love that you put (cornstarch) in for us Yankees! 🙂

    And as for that teacher of yours…ugh! Not right. Piano is torture to my daughter, as it was to me. I’m so unsure if I should make her continue or not…and she’s doing well! She just hates practicing…performing, though…loves that!

  38. This site may be hazardous to my health… er waistline! Love Mongolian Beef… and now I know how to make it.

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