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by Rick Green

Rocket-fuelled woks, Anshun

Chinese food is as diverse as its geography and people. A common saying describes it as "East is sweet, South is salty, West is sour, North is spicy" (dōng tián, nán xián, xī suān, bĕi là). Southern cuisine is rice based, while the north favours wheat. Then there are the 56 officially-recognized minority groups with their own traditions. So if you are expecting the Lemon Chicken / Sweet & Sour Pork variety of Chinese food, what you actually find may be quite different.

To really get the flavour of a place, you need to go to China's small towns and villages where little of what is consumed is imported. Rather, the food represents what is freshly available in the surrounding area at that time of year, supplemented by ingredients whose life has been extended by drying, pickling, or salting. With its longer growing season, the south offers more local eating options.

Yangshuo is a tourist town in northeastern Guangxi province that lies sprawled across a small plain squeezed between a series of sharply humped verdant peaks. Once a sleepy stop on the backpacker trail, it now receives a steady stream of tour groups cruising down the Li River from Guilin, it's more famous neighbour. Yangshuo sunset, Guilin DistrictThey're drawn by the region's surreal karst landscape, but most are only passing through. Those who stay overnight are there to eat Yangshuo beer fish, catch Zhang Yimou's Impression Liu Sanjie show, and buy a factory-made 'I was here' trinket on West Street. However, if you aren't part of the cookie cutter conveyor belt that is so typical of Chinese tourism, it's not difficult to uncover Yangshuo's country flavour.

A short walk along Binjiang Road from Dragon Head Hill quay, where the Chinese cruise boats disgorge their Guilin passengers, is a nondescript entrance to the riverside location of the Yangshuo Cooking School. I expect there will be a lot of tourist traffic nearby once construction of the covered drive from the dock and flanking souvenir stalls is complete. However, the courtyard house design of the school will effectively insulate students from the hustle and bustle, allowing them to concentrate on the lesson and enjoy their handiwork afterwards, relaxing with a cool beer while sitting in the courtyard overlooking a languid river scene of passing boats and grazing horses.

For the one-day course, we will learn to cook five dishes – Steamed Stuffed Vegetables, Beer Fish, Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Eggplant Yangshuo Style, and Green Vegetables with Garlic. But before we step into the kitchen, we first pay a visit to the market to see where most people do their grocery shopping and learn about local ingredients. It's mid-morning, when the market isn't very busy, so lǎoshī (teacher), Leo Wu, can take the time to answer our questions about the unfamiliar foods displayed on the tables. The market is divided into sections for produce, dry goods, seafood, meat, and processed foods. Leo offers to take us to the meat section and see animals being butchered. No one has the courage to accept, so we make our way back to the school.

Yangshuo Cooking School classroomTurning the saying, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,' on its head, we go into the air-conditioned classroom (kitchen) and find some relief from the 30°C weather. We don our aprons and take our places in front of a cooking station. Leo gives us an introduction to Guilin cuisine, then shows us how to properly hold and use a cleaver. Its bulk takes a little getting used to, but is handy for smashing garlic and ginger; just be careful not to include a thumb.

The colourful ingredients we'll be using for the dishes are already at each of our stations, neatly portioned on square white plates. To the side of the gas burner are bottles of water, soy sauce, and oil; containers of oyster sauce, salt, and pepper; and a spatula. We'll first prepare the Steamed Stuffed Vegetables. Because steaming takes longer than stir frying, we won't cook this dish individually. The bamboo steamers will be taken away to the prep kitchen to complete while we move on to the stir fry dishes.

Leo first tells us what ingredients to use for each dish, then demonstrates their preparation and cooking in succession, offering us a sample of the finished product. It is then our turn to see if we can put this into practice.The chopping is rather straightforward. Stir frying can be more tricky if you want to turn out a perfectly-cooked dish that isn't burnt or mush. The wok is first heated dry on the gas burner. When it begins to smoke, you add in some oil and give it a swirl. Then the aromatics – garlic, ginger, onion – go in for no more than a second before the primary ingredients are added. Should the dish start to go dry in the wok, you add some water to prevent it from scorching. When the dish is nearly done, the final seasonings are added, quickly mixed in, then scooped into a bowl.

Beer fish ingredientsAfter completing each dish, we file out into the stone courtyard with Leo for the final test our handiwork. The class assembles around a long, communal table where rice is served and drink orders are taken. Conversation meanders between the food, travel, and our backgrounds as we connect with Yangshuo in a primordial fashion. After each dish is finished, we reluctantly return to the classroom to continue. The urge to linger is irresistible – hǎo shūfú (very comfortable) is how the Chinese would describe it. All good things, though, must come to an end, but we each leave with a recipe booklet to recreate our Yangshuo Cooking School meal for family and friends back home.

Experiencing China is as much about the food as it is seeing the immortal Great Wall or the majestic Forbidden City. A cuisine not only reflects the bounty of a given locale's lands and waters, it represents the values and history of the indigenous culture. Eating, therefore, is an opportunity, at least three times a day, to discover the place that you are visiting on a more meaningful level. Why squander that on McDonald's, KFC, or Pizza Hut?

Yangshuo Cooking School offers one-, two-, and seven-day courses in English. The advanced seven-day course must be booked at least one month ahead of time. Choose between two locations – Yangshuo riverside or village farmhouse outside of town. All classes are small and hands-on with each student having their own wok, utensils, and work space. Vegetarians and those with food allergies or eating restrictions are welcome. For more details, contact:

Yangshuo Cooking School
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Tel: +86 137 88 437 286

Have an Adventure

Interested in learning how to cook Guilin cuisine? Join Adventurocity's Southwest China Cultural Minorities and Classical Landscapes tour that ends in Yangshuo with a session at Yangshuo Cooking School. Also, be sure to see our video Learning Guilin Cuisine at Yangshuo Cooking School.

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