When I first encountered the Sichuan Peppercorn in Chengdu twelve summers ago, I was hooked. As I love spicy food, this “pepper” (really, the berries of a prickly ash tree, a member of the citrus family) that makes your tongue numb and tingly was an amazing discovery. In Sichuan cuisine chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns are often in dishes together, creating an incredible eating experience. After I left Chengdu for Lhasa, the Sichuan food I ate was limited to Sichuan-style hotpot and mapo tofu, when I could find it on menus. Still, I knew I’d found a style of food that I loved and hoped I could find some Sichuan restaurants in the U.S. Unfortunately, at the time, the spice was banned in the States (from 1968-2005!) since there was a fear that the berries would spread citrus canker, which can destroy citrus trees.
Until I went to China for the first time that summer, I had little knowledge of the huge array and variation of regional Chinese cuisines. My childhood experiences with Chinese food were limited to the flattened Americanized Chinese take-out offerings (moo shu pork, General Tso’s chicken, etc.) served with the ubiquitous and not-at-all-Chinese fortune cookie (watch an amazing Ted Talk [see video below] about the origins of the fortune cookie and other American Chinese food anecdotes). When I lived in the S.F. Bay Area for several years in the ’90’s, I enjoyed going out for dinner in S.F.’s and Oakland’s Chinatowns, but didn’t get much about what food came from which regions, aside from that dim sum comes from Canton/Hong Kong.
Living in Beijing now, I’ve begun to get a handle on the vast variations of food in China. Broadly speaking, it is said that people in the north eat noodles, while people in the south eat rice. Similarly, vinegar is used more widely in the north, while soy sauce is more popular in the south. The notion that Chinese people eat “anything with its back to the sky,” as a Taiwanese friend once told me, comes from the south, where the breadth of possible edibles is much more expansive than in the north (dog, anyone? or how about one of those civets?). And now I’ve understood that Chinese cuisine is divided into four schools, based on regions, which is divides further into four branches, making the traditional “eight schools” that are commonly discussed.
Since I love to cook and my dad and I had a great experience taking Thai cooking classes at the Blue Elephant in Bangkok, when I was planning my parents’ recent visit to China I scheduled two classes, one with each of my parents. I decided that my dad and I should take a class at Black Sesame Kitchen, which is listed in 1000 Places to See Before You Die, as well as having appeared on Bon Appetit‘s website last February. My dad voted for a class called “Sweet and Savory,” where we’d learn to make Homestyle Tofu, Red Braised Eggplant, and Traditional Sweet and Sour Pork, which is Manu’s favorite Chinese dish.
The class wasn’t quite as professional as Blue Elephant’s, where each person has his/her own station with a burner, but it was an inviting setting, where we sat around a wooden table drinking club soda or tea and munching on locally made sweet potato chips, while we learned basic Chinese cooking techniques (with a cutting board, cleaver, wok, and chopsticks, you’ve got basically all the kitchen tools you need!) and then engaged in group preparation of the three dishes (the actual cooking was done by one of the chefs, while we stood watching both the burner and the mirror above). We were served each of the dishes as they were prepared, which gave us lots of opportunity to chat while we ate. The most amusing part of the class, I thought, was right after we’d all learned two different ways to chop garlic and ginger with a cleaver. Right after the demonstration was over, all eight of us simultaneously opted for loudly slamming garlic cloves with the broad side of our cleavers (and then gently chopping the crushed remains).
The class I chose to do with my mom was at Hutong Cuisine, located, like Black Sesame, in one of the traditional hutong (alley) neighborhoods. Since the website mentioned that kids of around 7 or 8 could take a class, we picked up Sophia early from school and headed to an afternoon dumpling class, where we learned to make three types of Cantonese-style dumplings (dim sum): pork; zucchini and egg; and black sesame-peanut. Hutong Cuisine was a somewhat more humble setting and less geared toward catering to foreign sensibilities with little *extras* (Black Sesame gives everyone their own Black Sesame Kitchen-emblazoned apron, as well as a silk pouch filled with Sichuan peppercorns). The almost four-hour class, where we each made our own dough from scratch, in addition to the fillings, culminated with (finally!!) sitting around and eating the delicious dumplings, comparing the taste when steamed or when fried. I was excited about Sophia’s taking the class, because I thought if she could take part in the preparation, she might be more apt to try something new. She hadn’t eaten much lunch, so kept telling me how starving she was and was drooling over the pork as it was barbecuing in the oven. The black sesame and peanut dessert dumpling was also really appealing to her, but in the end the only dumpling she actually liked was the egg and veg, which she hadn’t thought sounded good at all (score!). Incidentally, one of the coolest techniques I learned in the class was how to make scrambled eggs in a wok: pre-heating the wok, adding oil, and then the beaten egg (moving it quickly around with chopsticks) takes just over a minute and the results are perfect.
Learning specific recipes and techniques, in addition to trying as many different types of food as I can while I’m in China, has gotten me obsessed with cooking classes. I’ve already signed up for a Sichuan class at Black Sesame and a Yunnan class at The Hutong Kitchen (yet another cooking school located in a traditional hutong!). Maybe I’ll even be able to squeeze in the Hunan class I’ve been eyeing too.