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.
On a parallel, equally congested, but less hairy course go the slower scooters, bicycles, and motorized tricycles, some bearing teetering stacks of household belongings, others carrying fresh produce for market.
We pass manufacturing plants, corporate offices, 40-story housing complexes, construction sites, but also verdant walkways and gardens that sport yellow irises and roses. Keeping these walkways clean are laborers, eyes to the pavement, vigorously sweeping with traditional broom-grass brooms, an anachronistic scene on a contemporary stage.
By 9:10 we are in our kitchen classroom, and having donned our chef whites, are ready to go. Our interpreters join in pre-class banter but soon get to business at the whiteboard, translating the day’s assignments posted by our instructor.
For the next three hours, as Qiao prepares as many dishes, we are curious and attentive students, asking questions and taking notes. In the afternoon, it’s our turn to cook.
Not all of our time is spent in school.
After classes and on two weekends, my fellow students and I become more typical tourists, traveling about with limited language skills but unbridled curiosity. One night we use the new metro system to find a restaurant; but there are also rides by bus and taxi. The latter form of transportation typically involves handing over an address written in Chinese, followed by nods, shrugs, and excited pointing upon arrival at our destination.
Sichuan is known as The Land of Plenty because of the food it produces, the result of fertile soil, a warm climate, adequate rainfall, and what is one of China’s wonders, the ancient Dujiangyan Irrigation System, which for 2,000 years has controlled floods and brought water to thousands of farms.
We celebrate this abundance at an indoor emporium, the Yimin Produce Market, where we buy seasonings to take home; at myriad noodle shops near campus, where we go on noontime sampling frenzies; and at two of Chengdu’s most distinctive restaurants.
At Lao Ma Tou (Old Dockside Restaurant), a spacious, brightly lighted and glistening eatery, we are served traditional hot pot, putting eel, kidney, goose intestine, and other meats, fish, and vegetables into a steaming broth. And at Yu Jia Chu Fang (Yu’s Family Kitchen), offering private rooms with balconies overlooking courtyards, we are served more than two dozen tasting dishes, all artistic creations, among them, what turns out to be my favorite, an exquisite yam and crocodile soup.
Our little group joins thousands of camera-toting tourists one day at the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center, a zoo-park hybrid, where visitors from around the world watch these protected animals sleep, romp, and munch bamboo. At the Chengdu Opera we hear traditional music and witness elaborate performances of fire-spitting and face-changing. And in Renmin Park, an urban oasis that shares a likeness with New York’s Central Park, we have tea at bamboo tables at a sprawling outdoor teahouse.
The park offers a delightful mix of street music, dance, mahjong playing, and boating in a lagoon, with narrows and bridges, featuring slow-moving craft propelled by car batteries, many hitting each other like bumper cars at an amusement park.
What to take home from this whirlwind culinary visit? Peppercorns; jars of Pixian bean paste, the pride of the province; and three carbon-steel cleavers with decorated wooden handles bought at a kitchen supply shop. Also, a vow to make better dumplings.
It’s Dumpling Day in our classroom kitchen, and Qiao is showing us how the pros do it. In seconds and with fluid motion, he flattens a ball of dough with his palm, rolls it with a roller, drops pork to the center, then deftly folds and seals the edges to produce a beautiful symmetrical crescent.
Our attempts are feeble. Our dumplings, frumpy impostors.
“Ask chef Qiao how long it took before he made his first perfect dumpling,” I say to our interpreter.
“Two years,” Qiao replies, smiling, and suggesting what at the moment I fear is a realistic timetable.
Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol