CHENGDU — Maybe I let the cooking oil become so hot it reached its flash point, or maybe I splashed oil onto the burner. One thing is certain: I have a fire in my wok, and it’s embarrassing. Now our chef-instructor must drop his ladle and strainer and hurry over with a cover to smother the leaping flames.
A fellow student, a talented home cook from Seattle, suffers his own humiliation. A second of hesitation at his wok on this, our first day of class, and he’s watching his dry-fried green beans turn to charcoal.
Four of us, strangers but soon to be friends, are at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, one of China’s premier cooking schools, to learn the secrets of hot and spicy Sichuan food. But first, we must learn hard lessons about cooking with hot, commercial woks.
They are cumbersome, too, especially when filled with the likes of braising pork belly or simmering chickens. We learn to cool things by quickly pulling the woks from the burners, and to heat things by sliding them back on. With blasts of 150,000 BTUs, 10 times what one gets at a home kitchen, this is like cooking over a jet engine.
We are in Chengdu, population 14 million, capital of Sichuan, the province located in southwest China. Chengdu, less known to Western visitors than, say, the eastern cities of Beijing or Shanghai, is a bustling manufacturing and commercial center. But it’s also a city of beauty known for its openness and leisurely pace. The Jin Jiang River cuts through the area with leafy promenades along its banks. The city boasts parks and museums; a vibrant teahouse culture; Buddhist temples; a beguiling night life; the world-famous Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center; and many good restaurants.
While here, we do our best to sample everything. But it’s Sichuan’s food culture that brought us here and grips our attention.
I found the two-week program through a rather fanciful and cursory Internet search, a Googling of “Sichuan cooking school.” Up popped this two-week program, coordinated in the United States by a New York businesswoman, a Sichuan food aficionado who once studied at the institute. For $2,150, not including travel or housing, it seemed a perfect way to feed a longtime Chinese-cooking obsession.
The institute provides an engaging English-speaking guide, who teaches history at the school, and two interpreters, in our case cheerful young women who are English majors.
Despite the fire and burned beans, we enjoy early success. On day two, under the direction of chef Qiao Xue Bin, we produce glorious platters of golden brown and savory fish: two-pound grass carp that we killed, scaled, and gutted; marinated, deep-fried, and then finally braised in chili bean paste, ginger, and garlic.
Under the guidance of Qiao and an alternate chef, we learn 30 Sichuan recipes, using virtually all of the seasonings that define Sichuan cuisine, namely peppercorns, chili oil, chili bean paste, and hot peppers.
We dry fry, red braise, deep fry, and steam our way through the days. Some dishes are familiar to us, though we learn a traditional style of producing them: kung pao chicken; mapo tofu; and dandan mian, the spicy noodle dish once sold by street vendors from pots suspended from shoulder poles.
On campus we are a few among many. The institute has some 4,000 students but is part of the much larger, 8,000-student Sichuan University of Tourism. Offering studies in a variety of fields besides food arts — hotel management and foreign language studies, for example — the university serves the province’s growing tourist industry.
Our campus, with lawns and gardens of hibiscus and azaleas, is inviting. It’s a college scene similar to any back home as students in T-shirts, sweats, and other casual attire rush to class, books tucked under their arms, or amble about, chattering with friends, and fussing with iPods and cellphones.
The institute is an hour from central Chengdu, where the four of us are staying: two at a luxury hotel, the Somerset Riverview, which overlooks the Jin Jiang; one in faculty housing at Sichuan University, where his wife is teaching this year; and I, for affordability, at a hostel. It was a smart choice. The Chengdu Traffic Inn Hostel is comfortable, clean, and lively, a hub for travelers of every stripe, young and old. Most arrive carrying backpacks.
Our journey to campus each morning taxes nerves and tweaks senses. We travel down an eight-lane highway in a van provided by the school with our driver honking incessantly as we zip past and around cars, buses, and exhaust-spewing trucks.Continued...