“Do you know how to pick the right cucumbers? Pick the ones which have small hard spikes, so that your hand hurts when you pick them.”
The first gem of wisdom.
“Have you heard of one-touch mushrooms?”
“Every time you touch them they change to a less appealing dirty green or yellow colour. Understandably it is a 'look, but don’t touch' policy.”
“What’s this?” A bag of shrivelled, silvery goodies sits at our feet.
“Tree bark. It’s used in salads.”
This is my first trip to southern China. Indeed, this is my first time travelling in the China beyond the places I can reach in a long weekend away from my classroom. I'm travelling a path well known to many, and now full of domestic tourists. With a two-month break ahead of me, I've already travelled through Yunnan and Guangxi, as well as across the border into Myanmar. From here I have plans to explore Sichuan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
The market experience relayed above took place in Dali, Yunnan. A trendy town, where Hey Jude is sung in the streets, Dali is full of Chinese tourists wielding selfie sticks. It is also home to cafes that know how to make a flat white, a beautiful thing anywhere in China. I could have easily spent an entire week there, especially after our brilliant cooking school experience.
Though regularly booked out, we managed to find a dinner cooking class at the last minute. Furthermore, our cook kindly included a market visit not usually done in our timeslot. Walking through the market, our cook pointed out flowers used in cakes and cooking, and 'seagrasses' from the lake. I've seen some odd things in China: bags of live frogs; wild bracken on the menu; endless entrails. Even so, using tree bark to add some crunch to your salad was not something I had encountered before.
With our baskets full, a quaint and romantic touch, we returned to home base and met more soon-to-be-chefs. A group of young British backpackers rolled in, and it was like an interactive episode of the Inbetweeners. I am consistently impressed with the number of backpackers in China who don’t speak Chinese but pick the country as their destination of choice. This group was no exception. While their trip might be made more memorable – or perhaps less – by their high intakes of baijiu (Chinese rice wine), it was gratifying to see university students choosing China over Croatia.
Before we armed ourselves with aprons, our chef walked us through China's different food regions. I seriously love Chinese food: my crunchy Beijing jianbing breakfast, the fish-fragrant eggplant I could eat everyday without fail, or any masterful spicy Sichuan dish whipped up at Zhang Mama’s. Consequently, the opportunity to have elements of Chinese cooking explained to me was an exciting prospect. The chef explained that one reason for the prevalence of Cantonese cuisine overseas was how its sweet taste appealed more readily to Western palates than spicy Sichuanese dishes. She reiterated how the taller and broader northern Chinese owed their stature to a wheat-based diet, as compared to their rice-eating southern counterparts. Finally, she guided us through all the spices and sauces we were to use, including the infamous Sichuan pepper. This mouth-numbing spice, also known as 'landmines', is one I’ve become very familiar with over the past five months. Our chef revealed that, in theory, this tingling pepper is meant to be removed from food after cooking, but it is commonly left in. Unsuspecting souls beware.
Now finally ready to cook, we set out to make three dishes: Spring rolls (admittedly not common), spicy cucumber salad and Grandma's Potato. Attention to detail, fast work with the wok, fine tuning, and ever finer knife skills, were emphasised, especially when being taught how to make our own chilli sauce. The results were delicious. Crispy light spring rolls. Moreish peanut and cucumber salad. A tasty Chinese version of mashed potato that even toothless grandma could get down. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to recreate these dishes immediately, but practice makes perfect. A wok is already on my Christmas list, and the authentic sauce brands are now on my shopping list.
This small, simple experience has been one of my best in China. The food of a country not only relates to the climate or indigenous food groups, but to politics, history and trade. When arriving in China, we are all taught the greeting between good friends: “Ni chi le ma?” (“Have you eaten?”). A celebration of shared meals, it more importantly acknowledges the devastation of the Great Chinese Famine (1958–61). Tree bark doesn’t only sound like the vaguely magical food of a faraway land; it has a history of being a food source of last resort. Understanding how and why people eat what they do is a wonderful path, trodden by foreigners to tease out more knowledge of a particular place. If I am able to digest more knowledge through food, then it is a practice I will take up with relish.