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Wok Wonders

In the seventh month of my trip around the world, I arrived in the Chinese city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, and attempted to learn something of the fiery cuisine of the region. I quickly attended a hostel’s afternoon course for backpackers, but, while it educated me on how little I knew of cooking, I had no doubt that I would need much more tuition to feel I had discovered anything of this incredibly spicy brand of Chinese food. I travelled to the rather intimidating “Sichuan Higher College of Cuisine”, but the prices they quoted me for some instruction were far beyond my budget. With few other options and on the verge of giving up, I decided I might as well visit the “Bayi” school in the south of the city, and thus began one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  

A bus ride through the city and I am walking around this very poor and unassuming part of the city. Coming across the school, I pass glass fronted sparse lecture halls, a couple hundred Chinese students in each taking down notes from a blackboard. From this far away, the Mandarin characters look like some intricate mathematics question – realisation sinks in that this is not the kind of place to have some short introductory course for travellers. I start to feel very presumptuous, this is their career they are studying for, and I have shown up unannounced and expect things to be set up for me.

Despite these feelings, I find reception and try to explain what I want, something made more difficult by everyone’s total void of English and my utterly inability to speak Chinese. A woman takes me back past the lecture halls, looking for someone in authority. As we walk past, I disrupt classes completely as every student starts shouting hello and cheering when they see me. We walk up flights of stairs to an office. The two stubbly men sitting behind desks radiate a friendly welcome and are flabbergasted to see me. One shouts, “Hello!!!!” in a voice meant to penetrate bunkers and I feel myself relaxing. No one here speaks English, though, and many frustrated minutes pass. Each student that sees me is captivated in awe – I get the sense I am the first foreigner in a very long time to come to these parts. Every so often, a student leans in and says a stock phrase like, “Hello, how do you do?”, and the directors shout something like, “Ha! You speak English, come and find out what he wants” – and each time the student recoils, downplaying their English ability and runs off. It suddenly occurs to me to call my hostel; Miss Li (the young woman running the desk) can translate. A three way conversation then ensues. It is explained I want to study at the school for three or four days, although I now have little hope this will be possible. But they are nodding, they will be happy to teach me. “Ask him how much for”, but as I ask her this, the director shouts out, “NO MONEY”! “They will teach you for free”, she explains, “as a friend of China”. I am speechless. Classes are from 8.30am to 12, then 2:30pm to 6pm – I will be starting in two hours. I have no idea what to expect.
Chaos, initially. After a lunch in a nearby restaurant, I try to find the office again, but students recognise me and start dragging me towards the lecture halls.

Daniel’s school pic, low-res from China

Then a gell heavy administrator starts asking for my student ID – of course I don’t have one. So I start retreating back through the crowd, but he then gets informed by someone of the situation and abruptly taking me by the hand, leads me to the cooking lecture. Facing a row of ten woks and a long supplies bench behind them, sit perhaps a hundred students on a cramped series of steps, packed in like hunched over sardines, the back row’s heads close to the ceiling. They go crazy to see me, cheering, shouting – a space is quickly made for me. Assistant instructors busy about, chopping ginger, cleaning the woks, refilling bowls of spices. As I sit, in what feels like some insane dream brought on by food poisoning, the gell bloke returns with the man who will become my translator, saviour and friend, Chris Cheng. Chris is 28, from Hong Kong, studying here for three months and speaks English, Mandarin and Cantonese. But ironically, many of the teachers here speak in a Sichuan dialect and so Chris moans to me, “I need a translator too”! He explains that this is the practical cooking class, he takes me behind the woks to show me the spice and sauce bowls by each station that students use to create their dishes, the roaring flames seemingly barely under leash that fire each wok. It is clear, being this honoured megastar, I can stand anywhere, but am already starting to feel embarrassed by the constant attention and we return to our cramped spaces between the other students.

The lecturer arrives – I never learn his name – he puts on a white chef’s coat on over his dark clothing. Were Tom Hanks’ face older, a little fatter and Chinese, he might play this man rather well. The lecturer’s face doesn’t radiate intelligence – but his character emerges in bursts from frequent laughing jokes, his loud quips to stressed out students battling with their ingredients and from his obvious genius with cleaver and wok. In his shirt pocket he keeps a rolled up chef’s hat, a pairing knife, two chopsticks and three cigarettes.

He starts shouting out names of students, and one by one they take their plate of raw ingredients and start preparing them hurriedly on the row of chopping boards at the back of the room. Then the lecturer looks over and calls me up to the table. He has a big smile on his face, but not, I think, an entirely altruistic one.

I attend the school for three days and each of my cooking classes fall into the same, nerve wracking pattern. Early in the process of students being called up for their turn of cooking, the lecturer beckons me over. Unlike the students who have to queue for their turn at a chopping board to prepare their ingredients, I always have a board waiting. I start slicing with my powerful cleaver, but the standards are exacting and I am an utter novice. Ice ages pass while I try to turn my chunk of tofu into perfect little cubes, mountain ranges fall into dust during the time it takes me to chop up my onion stalks, and while I desperately attempt to render my slab of pork into little ribbons, alien races attain sentience, build star faring empires and draw up plans to anally probe 3% of Americans. What makes matters worse, the rest of the students seem to dart around behind me as if on some speeded up film. Finally, often only after someone has grabbed my cleaver and finished the slicing for me, I turn with my plate of ingredients to face the instructor. He and I always cook together, with the entire audience watching in fascination and loving the comedy. He surmounts the language barrier neatly – he holds my right arm at the elbow and so together we dip my ladle in the different sauce and spice bowls and deposit them in the wok. He laughs uproariously at my idiot mistakes and he makes jokes to the students as we cook together. But it occurs to me that he is at heart a showman: he wants a foil, not a victim – so I play along and work the crowd as well. I mock recoil and check my eyebrows if flames leap up; as he and I stir furiously the simmering ingredients, I shimmy my head back and forth as if deeply concentrating and the students roar with laughter. Then, in brief minutes, the dish is finished, I pour it onto a waiting plate and the lecturer tastes a tiny portion – he gives me a little thumbs ups and a nod and everyone cheers. I stand to one side eating my creation (I made a chili red tofu dish the first day (Mapo Doufu), and a crispy pork and onion one the second and third), but I am not out of the spotlight yet. Due to the lecturer having directed me so closely, my dish starts being held up as the model dish – he chuckles broadly as a student shows him a dark brown Mapo Doufu and indicates my glowing red creation. I decide I need to get rid of my awkward masterpiece quickly and add it to the sloppy pile of discarded tofu.

After everyone has had a go, there is a break and we return to watch the lecturer inspire us by demonstrating more complex plates. It is wonderful to watch. Sichuan food screams. The colours are a shocking red, a rich peppery brown or an oily clear white. Dishes without a sauce inevitably have a layer of golden chili oil seeping across the plate. The smells are pungent, arresting, the fried chilies making eyes water even at distance. The flavours are so strong, salt, sugar, chili oil, peppers, MSG, vinegar, wine, I am feeling quite ill by the third day – after my first day at the school I wake up at 5am, feeling as though someone has thrown a shovel-full of salt into my mouth while I slept. The lecturer effortlessly parts fresh pork into paper thin slices with the huge cleaver Sichuan cooks use and as easily lightly fries a whole fish then strips it out of its bones with only the edge of his chopsticks. Two unforgettable meals: he cuts a huge slab of pork fat into cubes, slathers the cubes in egg yolk, deep fries them in his roaring hot wok, makes an amazing syrup by dumping sugar into a wok filled in oil, then adds the now battered pig fat cubes to the syrup, then pours sesame seeds all over them. They taste like nothing I have had before – sweet and addictively rich, as though everything I have eaten before has been some pale imitation of food. The other dish was fried pig intestine chunks with green vegetables and a huge amount of Sichuan pepper seeds dumped into the cauldron. It is hard to describe what Sichuan’s numbing pepper feels like – perhaps as if thousands of tiny needles are prodding in to your tongue and gums, but you like it. As he prepares this, he starts making jokes – I am going to taste this, as I get the first taste of all the dishes he makes – another way I am singled out. I try it, it is lovely, the spices are bearable, and to my and everyone else’s surprise I eat it all. He laughs and passes me a cap full of harsh liquor as congratulations – I lift the bowl to my mouth and my nostrils sting before I chuck it against the back of my throat.

I am incredibly popular. In every break, a crowd forms around me – students fire questions or just gaze at me, Chris having to translate it all. They tell me all kinds of things, they marvel at my brown hair, height and big feet. If I walk away ever, another group quickly forms around me. One says, “I wish I looked like a Westerner, tall and strong” – every else laughs on hearing this. Another asks if I like Chinese girls, have I visited any Chinese prostitutes, don’t I think black men look ugly? They also don’t like the Japanese much – hearing I may go to Japan, they warn me, “We may go to war with Japan, so bring back information”! I seem to be a combination of visiting hero and everyone’s favourite younger brother – the fact that I am such a bad cook only enhances my appeal. They take endless photos of me, I sign people’s books, one student even gets me to write my name on the shoulder of his white uniform. Unless musical tastes change drastically, this will be my one experience of what it is like to be a pop star.
It is exhausting. Each night Chris and I go for a coffee or beers, and I excuse myself fairly early and go back to my hostel to recover. I also feel a bit bad for unquestionably slowing the cooking class down with my rubbishness – and I can’t really pick up any recipes, not being able to understand a word of the theory lectures. On my third day, Chris and I go back to the office, and through him I thank them profusely for the experience. They thank me in return, and tell me I can come back whenever I want. Wow.

Daniel’s travels continue at No Place As Home:

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