Ok, I'm tardy on this one. I’ve been back from the adventure of a lifetime for about a month now. I’ve been meaning to blog about it, and kept promising to do so, but do you ever have one of those experiences where you have so much to tell, you don’t even know where to begin? Ok, then. QUIT JUDGING ME!!!
As both of you who read this blog know, I’m obsessed with Chinese food—ESPECIALLY Sichuan food. When Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty was published over ten years ago, I became addicted to the balance of chile-fire and citrusy, mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper this cuisine brings. While not all Sichuan food carries these flavors, the dishes which most appealed to me did. I cooked my way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, scribbling notes about what I liked, and pestering my Chinese boss and colleagues at work with questions and requests to smuggle some of the more esoteric ingredients to me in between my own trips to China. When Ms. Dunlop’s second book about the cuisine of Hunan came out, I had a similar experience. The recipes work, they’re authentic, they taste of the dishes I’ve had when I’ve traveled, and her books make accessible techniques and flavors I never would have been able to make otherwise. Her third book, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, was an autobiography of her time in China, being the first westerner to attend the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. The book explained the challenges she faced and chronicled her journey from being a westerner to truly being immersed in the food and culture of Sichuan province. I dreamed of getting to experience this for myself. Because of the popularity of her books and Sichuan Cuisine, I was constantly on the lookout for the means to make it happen for me.
In October of this year, I went to Asia for three weeks. While this isn’t uncommon for me with work, it’s the first time I’ve done it alone, purely for fun. A few years back, I stumbled upon a website called Cooking School in China. This site detailed a two-week culinary immersion at the same institute where Fuchsia Dunlop studied. I drooled over the monthly recipes in the newsletter as it was released, and thought, “Some day…” This year, thanks to a supportive spouse who didn’t mind me going off on an adventure without him (he probably relished 3 weeks of peace and quiet), I finally decided to give it a shot. As the date of the trip approached, Diane Drey, the owner and facilitator of this adventure sent us tidbits about the city, things we would see, helpful tips on menus, items we needed to bring along, and finally recipes which began with an authentic Gung Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken challenge for us to try at home before the trip. I followed her recipe and make the chicken along with some other Asian dishes for a dinner party, understanding that what we learned in Chengdu might be a bit different. (It was, but only slightly—it really depends on which chef you have which day). It was DELICIOUS, and drove my excitement through the roof.
I started the trip with a few days in Bangkok with good friends we don’t see nearly enough, where we did our best to drink every drop of liquor and wine in the city in between bouts of power-shopping, eating at some amazing restaurants (I love you, David Thompson), and taking a Thai cooking class at the Oriental. When my hangover and I arrived in Chengdu, I checked into my hotel, met my colleagues for the trip, and embarked upon the most exhilarating culinary adventure I have ever experienced. We lucked out, really…typically these classes have around 15 people from all over the world. This time, there were only 4 of us. We all had similar political (this was right before the presidential election) and social views, compatible personalities, and we just really clicked well together. This is important when you’re in a long commute each day, immersed in conversation and trying to ignore thinking about how you’re weaving in and out of insane Chengdu traffic).
The Culinary Institute itself is vast, and full of eager, curious kids excited to practice their English skills and find out why these big ol’ white boys were there wearing chef whites at the school.
The main entrance to the school
Because there were only 4 in our group, we received an even higher level of individual attention from the chefs and staff than the norm. We had two interpreters named Betty and Nancy who were our culinary experts and liaisons throughout the program, and who were a real highlight of the trip. No matter how random or detailed our questions (and I had a LOT of questions), they either knew or researched the answer to ensure we were getting what we needed. (Fortunately, they were as passionate about increasing their English vocabulary as we were about increasing our culinary skills).
Oh, how I love getting photos when they're eating.
On the rare occasion we couldn’t land on the English name for an ingredient, I’d take a photo of it on my iPad, send it out on twitter to the girls back home, and get an answer usually within minutes. It was also good for taking photos and scrawling out the names of the ingredients over the picture with your finger (there's an App for that) on the fly as not to forget anything. Gotta love technology!
Hasty finger scribbling
The chefs moved quickly, speaking even faster, and the girls quickly got used to me asking them to stop to ask how much of this or that ingredient went into the pot, what it was called, why they were doing it this way vs. that way, etc. I was pretty much the same pain in the ass I was when I went to culinary school in the US, but I looked at it like this: I’m here to learn everything I can possibly wring from this experience, and I want to be able to fully reproduce every nuance of this at home for my arched-eyebrow-of-judgment Chinese friends, and if I don’t take excruciatingly detailed notes I’m going to forget most of this because it’s so exciting. They were good sports and my colleagues in the class and I came to a compromise where I’d be the chief scribe and they would make sure everything was detailed at the right level, photographed thoroughly, and understood by all. It was a great arrangement for all of us, I think.
Classes typically followed a routine of 3 hours of chef demonstrations in the morning, showing us what we’d be making later in the day, followed by a break for lunch where we’d avoid the school cafeteria and beg the girls to take us to noodle shops outside the campus. These noodle shops were small, dark, and not something the Department of Health at home would be excited to see, but the food…OH MY GOD THE FOOD….it was breathtaking. And cheap. Lunch typically cost us around a dollar per person. We had Dan Dan noodles (one of my favorite Sichuan specialties), Yibin Kindling Noodles (a typically vegetarian dish with a great deal of fire), hot soups with hand-pulled noodles…the list was endless.
Street shop noodles. Amazing!
The proprietors of the shops were fascinated with us and our need to photograph EVERYTHING (I took about 4,000 photos on this trip. Truly). They were also very accommodating when I asked if I could take pictures of or with them and ask (through our saviors, Nancy and Betty) what they were doing or what the ingredients were. Naturally, I’d then scribble down the recipes they gladly shared. In the afternoons, we pulled out our cleavers and cutting boards and then it was our turn to try and reproduce what the chefs had shown us in the mornings.
A very patient chef and an annoyingly enthusiastic student
Fortunately, they were also very helpful and ensured we were successful in our endeavors. After cooking, cleaning and eating the fruits of our labors, we headed back to the city and when we could manage to stuff more food down, went out to local establishments to try the Sichuan fare we wanted most to explore. For me, it was trying to find street food: Dan Dan Noodles, Zhong’s Pork Dumplings in a spicy-sweet sauce that brings tears to your eyes, Ma Po Tofu. Some nights, we’d all just go back to our rooms and collapse or head out to find a drink. It was magical.
Practicing Garnishing the Plates
I have a lot to share about this trip, and will go into it more as I explore and duplicate more of the recipes at home, but for now let me tell you about the Gong Bao Chicken. This dish is a classic, and one which every restaurant does differently. In the Seattle area where we have a variety of Sichuan options, my favorite comes from a restaurant called Spicy Talk. Their version is very similar to this one: It’s spicy with dried chiles, has the aforementioned mouth-numbing zing of Sichuan peppercorns, and is stir fried with crunchy roasted peanuts and silky bites of chicken “velveted” in a cornstarch mixture with cooking wine, vinegar and a hint of sugar added at the end to pull the flavors together. This chicken recipe will (hopefully) rock your world like it has mine. If you’d like more information about the cooking program, check out their website or mail me and I’m happy to tell you more. It’s the best money I’ve ever spent!
Gongbao Diced Chicken (Chicken with Peanuts) 宫保鸡丁
7 ounces (200g) Chicken (leg and thigh meat, preferably)
4 1⁄2 tablespoons (40g) Crispy peanuts (roasted)
2 dry chilis (10g) Dried chili - chopped into 3”-long pieces
(add more chili if you prefer it hotter)
2 teaspoons (4g) Sichuan pepper
1 1⁄2 tablespoons (8g) Ginger, - chopped
1 1⁄2 tablespoons (10g) Garlic - chopped
1 scallion (15g) - chopped finely
4 tablespoons (60g) Cooking oil
Spices A: - coating
Pinch (0.5g) Salt
2 teaspoons (5g) Shaoxing Cooking wine
1⁄2 teaspoon (3g) Soy sauce
1 tablespoon (10g) mixture of water and corn starch
Spices B: - thickening sauce
1/8 teaspoon (1g) Salt
1 teaspoon (5g) Shaoxing Cooking wine
1 teaspoon (7g) Soy sauce
2 teaspoons (10g) Black Vinegar
2 teaspoons (10g) Sugar
Pinch (1g) MSG
1 tablespoon (15g) Mixture of water and corn starch
4 teaspoons (20g) Stock
1. Prepare Spices A
2. Dice chicken into 1.5c cubes, (2/3” cubes) and blend in Spices A and mix well to coat chicken.
3. Prepare Spices B to make thickening sauce.
4. Heat oil in a wok to 140 degrees Centigrade (285 degrees Fahrenheit) . Add dried chili chunks and Sichuan peppercorn, and stir-fry until aromatic (chiles will become bright red), about 20 seconds. Drain and remove.
5. Add a small amount of oil to the wok and add the diced chicken, stir-fry until al dente, about 1 minute. Add ginger slices, garlic slices, chopped scallion and after about 30 seconds add Spices B, the thickening sauce. Cook until chicken has lost its raw color. Add crispy peanuts when the sauce is thick and luscious, and season to taste with a little additional vinegar. Mix evenly and then transfer to a serving dish.
Features: brownish and reddish color; tender chicken; crispy peanuts; a rich medley of sour, sweet, salty and zingy tastes pepped up with Sichuan pepper and chili
History: The dish was originally made for Ding Baozhen, the governor of Sichuan during the Qing Dynasty, whose official title is “Gongbao”.
Recipe © Diane Drey, Modified and Reprinted with Permission.