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Apr. 23rd, 2012

Days Eleven and Twelve: Chinatown Tribute

Today's two dishes are Chopped Chicken with Pickled Green Peppers and Crispy Peanuts 山椒碎米鸡 and the well-known Tai Bai Chicken (tai bai ji, 太白鸡). Reportedly, famous 8th-century poet Li Bai favored the last dish, so it became known under his pseudonym Tai Bai. How typical of Chinese culinary history: the gentry patrons achieve notoriety for their great taste while the actual cooks remain nameless.
For Tai Bai Chicken we dress and dice a chicken thigh, chop pickled chilies and green onion, use crushed ginger, star anise and a bay leaf to marinate the chicken cubes.

The second dish calls for a bit more chopping: we mince pickled red chilies, slightly crush peanuts, chop green onion, pickled greens (芽菜) and pickled green peppers known as yeshanjiao 野山椒.

These pale little chilies are rather hot!

The time in Chinese kitchen is usually divided like this: 85% chopping and 15% actual cooking in the wok.

Tai Bai Chicken: tender, savory, slightly hot.

Chicken with green chilies: hotter, but also more gloopy. Teachers always spend some time explaining how to make each dish more 'upscale' to charge more. You can lay the edge of the plate with steamed buns, use rabbit meat instead of chicken and replace peanuts with cashews or expensive pine nuts.

Our afternoon cooking exercises call for crates of chicken thighs and breasts, bunches of onion and buckets of cooking oil.

Ready! Tai Bai Chicken is a world-famous dish frequently found in Chinese restaurants abroad, so it's not surprising that our class embarked on a little 'Chinatown homage' (to my chagrin). On the next day we cooked a couple typical takeaway stir-fries, all characterized by soy-and-vinegar sauces, starch-coated meats and only a little chili heat.

Dress and dice a chicken thigh, slice garlic and ginger, chop the green onion...

...add cubes of asparagus lettuce (wosun 莴笋) and mashed pickled chilies (plate on the left). Parallel to that, get ready for the second dish: cut a piece of pork tenderloin into slivers, match with strips of bell pepper. Both dishes require that the meat is marinated for a few minutes with soy sauce, salt and lots of starch diluted in water.

The cooking is lightning-fast. First dish: Lazi Chicken Cubes 辣子鸡丁 (not to be confused with Laziji that is dry, chewy and 'mala' – and much more to my taste).

Second dish: Pork Slivers with Bell Peppers 甜椒肉丝.

Sometimes it feels we are at photography school.

Apr. 19th, 2012

Day Ten: Steamed Pork and Dry-Braised Fish

Dish of the day No. 1 – Dry Braised Fish 干烧鱼, sprinkled with ground pork and Yibin salted vegetable 宜宾芽菜.

Ever since the laowai started filming and photographing the dishes, the trend has become ubiquitous.

Alternating perpendicular bars of onion and pickled chilies finalize the look.

Today's dish No. 2 is Steamed Breaded Pork Belly 粉蒸肉.

Thin slices of fatty meat, coated with starch and coarse rice flour and garnished with potatoes are such delicious comfort food.

Replicating dry-braised fish during practice.

Deep-fried fish is awaiting its sauce.

At the same time, we prepared a whole tray of pork and potato bowls and marked them with red and green epaulets, to distinguish our work from the competing teams.

Trays this size cannot fit into the wok-mounted steaming basket and have to be loaded into an industrial-size steamer.

Students are munching on the product of their work.

Apr. 18th, 2012

Day Nine: Cat's Ear and 'Shaomai'

No, we aren't cooking cats today. 'Cat's ear' is the shape of noodles: pointed and curved like a feline ear. On the right are the ingredients for the soup that will contain the noodles: chicken breast, young bean greens, mushrooms and that ubiquitous multipurpose MSG-laden pink sausage that makes everything so savory. On the left is the stuffing for 'shaomai' (steamed dumplings with glutinous rice and mince inside).

Cat's ears have ribbed surface because they are rolled on a wooden hair comb (the one used strictly for cooking).

The resulting soup has gentle flavor and soft textures suitable for children and convalescents.

The professor is rolling out the dough and stuffing 'shaomai' dumplings.

In his hands they came out remarkably uniform. 'Bokchoy,' someone whispered, meaning the shape. The professor pretended to explode with indignation: 'Does this look like bokchoy to you?' Someone else corrected the error: 'Pomegranate.' This satisfied our mentor. 

It might not seem so, but sticky rice fried with lard and ground pork makes each dumpling a full-scale breakfast for quaint persons like me.

During pastry practice, I always find that genetic memory of Siberian 'pelmeni' comes in handy.

But the variety of dumpling shapes our team produced looked less like the standard 'pomegranate' and more like 'wild cabbage', 'Victorian bonnet' and 'nuclear explosion'.

Doesn't matter. Everything gets eaten, and what's not eaten gets taken home.

Apr. 17th, 2012

Day Eight: Potato Banquet

The more spectacular of the two Monday's dishes were Lampshade Chips in Chili Oil 灯影苕片. This dish is a typical insider joke of Sichuan banquet cuisine: the main ingredient – sweet potato – is dirt cheap and vulgar, but it takes a lot of skill and time to slice it evenly into transparent 'petals'.

Slowly but confidently the professor's blade began to carve a pile of chips. Soon, however, he glanced at his watch, counted the students and made the exact number of chips for everyone to have a taste, not a chip more.

After some cautious deep-frying, the precious lampshade chips were dipped in chili oil and drizzled with sesame oil.

In the hushed and elevated atmosphere, even those who never take photos reached out for their phones to immortalize the star dish.

The redness of the chili oil makes the translucent chip glow.

In the afternoon 'lab', cursing under our breath and constantly dipping the stubborn sweet potatoes in salty water, we managed to make a large pile of sweet potato 'shavings'. But as the two of us were frying, the first batch of finished treasures mysteriously disappeared from the serving plate (as Russians say, "не щелкай клювом"). We hurried to fry the second batch and stashed it away in secret, making sure to snap a shot for posterity.

Apr. 16th, 2012

Doing my Homework #2: Noodling in Chengdu

UNESCO named Chengdu the City of Gastronomy because there are more eating opportunities here than anywhere in Asia. Wherever you look, something is cooking. Gazillions of 'normal' restaurants, multistory labyrinths devoted to food courts, moveable snack kitchens on pushcarts and tricycles, and an endless array of takeaway 'things on a stick', from pineapples to roasted quails. Every doorman cooks sausages and steams buns, every bench doubles as a mini-hotpot stop and every newspaper kiosk has a rotisserie in front. As we keep finding out, most Chengdu eats are tasty and cheap.

Since coming here in the last days of March we have not had the same dish twice. To begin narrowing it down, here are some of the noodles that we've eaten and liked:

Yibin Braised Noodle @ Yibin Ranmian
Braised egg noodles at Yibin Ranmian 宜宾燃面: store-bought egg noodles stirred with sesame oil, topped with fried preserved vegetable yacai 芽菜, ground pork with diced chilies, and crushed peanuts.

Strange-Flavored Noodle at Guaiwei Mian
Strange-flavored thick wheat noodle at Guaiweimian 怪味面. Handmade noodles are drowned in a mix of chili and sesame oils, flavored with sugar, vinegar and soy sauce, topped with pork cubes. The flavor is intriguing but the dish is especially greasy.

Sichuan Peppercorn (Laoma) Noodle @ Laoma Chaoshou
Thin rice noodle at Laoma Chaoshou 老妈麻抄手. This shop is a chain famous for its insanely numbing (麻) wonton dumplings. Thin rice noodle mixian 米线 is number two on the menu and is basically the same dish with a different main ingredient. The noodles are floating in chili-infused broth with lots of pepper flakes, pieces of Chinese cabbage and a sprinkling of deep-fried ground meat. Still, the dumplings are better.

Fresh Peppers Beef Noodle @ Yibin Ranmian
Fresh pepper and beef egg noodles at Yibin Ranmian 宜宾燃面. Store-bought egg noodles are served with sauteed ground beef, hot red peppers and cilantro. The flavor is balanced, not boring, but the hotness builds up as you eat!

Fat Intestine Noodle @ Feichangmian
Fatty intestine bean noodle at Feichangmian 肥肠面. Elastic noodles are mixed with fresh bean sprouts and diced pig's intestine; served submerged in oily broth with the sediment of chili flakes and sesame seeds. I tried a couple bites of the intestine and ignored it until the end of the bowl.

Pulled noodles 蛋炒拉面 at a neighborhood halal canteen. Topped with fried egg, lettuce and juicy tomato, this is my new favorite breakfast. The noodles were made from scratch from a large piece of fresh dough – the advantage of ordering it in the morning.

Thick wheat noodles called 'bewitching noodles' at the eponymous canteen Gouhunmian 勾魂面. The salty and rich sauce resembles 'strange flavor' and contains meat floss (rousong 肉松). According to a legend, 450 years ago, some clumsy Zigong meat dealer dropped a load of pork into a salt pit (which were many in this salt-mining county). Unwilling to let the meat go to waste, the pit owner extracted the meat, cooked it for a very long time (until it fell into fibers) and used for noodle toppings. A nice 'salty' touch: the noodles were served with awesome crunchy pickles on the side.

Apr. 11th, 2012

Days Six and Seven: Fish, Pork, Chicken & Chicken

The same authoritative professor was our teacher on Wednesday and Friday. Today's dishes are Chili-Bean Flavored Fried Fish and Salt-Fried Pork Pieces.

I love how the school lends everything a scientific edge. The flavors are categorized and analyzed, the dishes are pinned on the matrix of Sichuan cuisine, their connections and overlaps with other dishes and flavor groups get exposed.

Despite general cavalier attitude to hygiene, the teachers try to instill good habits like cleaning up and arranging everything in little plates before turning on the infernal flames under the wok.

The teacher's knife is especially huge and sharp. The instant all the cutting is done she wipes it dry and stows it in a cardboard sheath.

Chili-bean fish gets its 10 seconds of fame.

The simple dish of salt-fried pork completely deserved the international attention it received.


Now, practice time.

As our team members get used to working side by side, things get more and more orderly.

Well, almost.

Let's put 'salt' back in Salt-Fried Pork'! I'm trying to look hospitable, yet there is something demonic in this smile.

No fish or pork is immune to criticism. Presentation – one of the pillars of Sichuan fine cookery – clearly has room for improvement.

On Friday, the teacher made unbelievably thin slices of chicken breast and cut them into extremely fine slivers. (She is also famous for her ability to de-bone poultry and break the skin only once.)

The final dish, starchy and lightly flavored Deep-Fried Chicken Slivers 熘鸡丝.

The next dish was Sichuan Peppercorn-Flavored Chicken Cubes (花椒鸡丁). It's not a problem to serve chicken and chicken at a Chinese meal: flavors and textures will vary tremendously. This dish involved making a sauce from sugar caramelized in oil (糖色).

The dish was met with enthusiasm. The caramel sauce made deep-fried chicken cubes glossy and chewy, spiked with tingling peppercorn 'ma' 麻 flavor.

This chicken makes a savory cold starter or it can be served in a sizzling pan on a tabletop burner, a dry-pot entree. Endless possibilities!

Apr. 10th, 2012

Day Five: Going Basic

The Chinese method of making mashed potato is radically different from the western way.

Potatoes are peeled with a cleaver, in small strokes, then sliced into circles, steamed in aluminum steamers over a boiling wok, flattened on the table surface with the flat side of the cleaver or a spatula and finally scooped into a bowl.

After the left hand dips the stuffed patty in beaten egg, the right hand rolls it in breadcrumbs.

The second course of the day were plain steamed buns from rice flour. Using chopsticks and the same universal cleaver, the dough was shaped into fancy knots with names like 'boats', 'as you wish' and 'chrysanthemum blossoms'. He also used a hair comb (not the one he uses daily, rest assured) to prick patterns on the surface.

Still, a bun is a bun.

During the practice, all teams independently decided to take the buns further.

We stuffed ours with sausage and mince; the team further down the table slathered theirs with chilies and bean paste.

Loading our upgraded 'as you wishes' onto the steamer.

Ten minutes later.

The potato patties were fairly close to the teacher's example. The secret of their savoriness is in their smart stuffing: half meat mince and half vulgar pink 'ham' that contains half a hundred ingredients and loads of MSG.

Apr. 9th, 2012

Day Four: Simply, The Rabbit

Day Four began innocently, with chicken thighs.

With the help of Chinese onion, ginger, garlic (local single clove variety), red chilies, Sichuan peppercorns and a handful of peanuts the professor whipped up a reasonably good Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁; gongbao jiding).

Why only good? Bear in mind that here in school we replace fine chicken stock with water and reuse cooking oil.

In the meantime, the main ingredient for the second dish was boiled and cooled. Meet the rabbit (the upper half), depicted raw. After boiling, rabbits turn gray.

Dressed with chili oil and sauteed bean paste, scattered with peanuts and dusted with peppercorn powder, the rabbit became an attractive and delicious starter known as Rabbit Cubes With Peanuts (花仁拌兔丁; huaren ban tuding).

Time to practice! Our team is large (seven people on some days), so we were assigned a whole rabbit and a torso. Rabbit's proportions and color look oddly human.

While the hands of our in-team chef confidently dismember the body, the hand of our lovely teammate keeps diving for the peanuts. Her mother sent her to school to learn a practical skill, but her heart is with singing and dancing.

Ingredients were laid out on platters and each classmate took turns at the wok, producing individual Kung Pao Chicken portions.

The teacher does not need to taste the dish to give intelligent comments: the color of each ingredient and the look of the sauce tells him everything.

"It's all too easy to burn the peppers!"

The practice is over, but we aren't done with rabbits. Later that night we visited a legendary eatery, Mother Wang's Roasted Rabbit. The shop was barren, crammed with rabbits. Roasting rabbits spinning on the rotisserie grill, charred rabbits impaled on skewers, smoked rabbits in cellophane bags, rabbit heads piled separately. Speaking of rabbit heads, I haven't graduated to eat this delicacy yet, but I've been reading theory and readying myself for this great leap forward.

The rabbit body, however, is safe and scrumptious. First smoked, then grilled, then hacked in pieces, then torn by hand, and lastly tossed in oil with chilies, leeks, peppercorns and cumin. It was some of the most fun 'fast food' I've had. We pretty much got drunk on roasted rabbit, so good it was.

The rabbit lasted for a while, complemented with spicy grilled lettuce and garlic shoots and quelled by ice-cold beers (chilled beer is rare in Chengdu). Too bad it didn't last forever...

Apr. 6th, 2012

Day Three: Aubergine Fritters and Meatball Soup

I skillfully changed into my overalls in the back of the motorized tricycle and rushed to the class… only to find out that Thursdays are 'theory days' and you can dress casually. I barely recognized my classmates without their white hats and aprons. Discussing carbs, proteins and saturated fats in Chinese is more fun than it sounds – the teacher recounted the scandal with poisoned baby formula to emphasize that not all proteins are digestible – yet half the class escaped during the short break. And so did I.

At the stadium, physical education students practiced lining up; the coolest classmate was in charge of the soundtrack and zealously changed tracks on a portable mixing station.

On the rock-climbing hillock bartender majors juggled mockup aluminum bottles and shakers, dropping them all the time.

This week had more holidays than workdays, but Friday was a full-on practice day, at last.

The professor (known to be strict but just) unveiled two dishes of the day: fish-fragrant stuffed aubergine fritters and soup with meatballs.

Students-on-duty washed the onions, peeled the water chestnuts, soaked the huanghua stems and prepared scallion-ginger flavored water (to be added to the mince later).


In the teacher's quick hands each piece of eggplant swallowed a piece of mince.

Here the teacher is not scolding anyone; she is assigning students to groups, to better distribute the upcoming treats.

The dishes get sampled away almost as soon as they turned onto the plates.

Before the practice session, students-on-duty brought the basket with our cleavers (each has a sticker with a name on it) and distributed eggs, aubergines, stalks of onion, lumps of frozen mince and bags of flour.

Oh torture! My hand almost froze into the mince as I struggled to knead it.

Neat jobs like stuffing and pinching are more to my liking, but I hope this doesn't mean I'm destined for pastry, because my heart is in the flaming wok.

Teacher lends a hand hoisting the wok with sizzling fritters.

Divided into four helpings and ready to be slathered in fish-fragrant sauce.

Everyone took turns mixing their own sauce… and every sauce was flawed. Too much sugar, too much vinegar, too smoky, too salty. Oh well, live and learn; that's what we're here for.

Apr. 3rd, 2012

Doing my Homework: Eating in Chengdu

Getting better at cooking Sichuan food is only half the reason I am in Chengdu. The other half is eating in all those splendid authentic restaurants and snack stalls! For research purposes, of course.

Zhong dumplings 钟水饺 in a very popular canteen at Wuhou Temple Street were divine. The skins were elastic and substantial; the filling was a tender pocket of meat that held together well. I simply never tasted such an intense and sweet garlicky sauce before; and the sour and spicy sauce was almost better. The bowl on the upper right is douhua in sour sauce 酸豆花 -- a feast of lovely textures: airy tofu, crisp deep-fried dough sticks and peanuts.

Flaky pastry sweetened with bean paste and prunes (on top) and also flaky 'sandwiches' with sesame-walnut filling, resembling baklava, but not as sweet.

One of the evenings we tried Zigong cuisine, of which (for now) I know little except that it's defined by Zigong's history of a being a salt capital. Everything we tried in this restaurant called 呵细 was complex and balanced.

We ate a fish in rich peppery stew, beef slices in chili oil...

...and a marvelous grainy and tender rice dessert (its deep-fried crust was dusted with crushed peanuts).

It was inevitable that we'd eat in the famed Chen's Mapo Tofu restaurant very soon into our stay in Chengdu.

The tofu (firmer than usual) was enshrouded in smoky sauce; it was served still sizzling, in a heated pot.

Chengdu snacks are pleasantly cheap.

In a glassed-in kitchen a small lady whips up the best liangfen 凉粉 in the universe.

Cold bean noodle 凉粉 (that we call sline) comes in a couple dozen of sauces and extra toppings like bean sprouts. We went for the classics: yellow sline with mala 麻辣 (numbing and spicy) sauce and noodly sline in suanla 酸辣 (sour and spicy) sauce.

Near Wenshu Monastery there is a street of teahouses (one of the many in Chengdu, I'm sure).

Huamaofeng tea from Mount Emei is wonderfully tart and refreshing; it keeps on 'playing' for hours on end. But to make the teahouse experience perfect next time, we need to bring cards, backgammon, or books.

Strolling past a peppercorn shelf in a local supermarket one is enshrouded in waves of minty fragrance that's only comparable to wafts of ozone or freshly cut grass. I felt I was at a holy shrine (and probably looked it, as I was waving my hands over the peppercorn box and actually feeling the cooling sensation on my palms).

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