Sichuan cuisine is quite possibly one of the most recognizable forms of Chinese food abroad. Spicy and full of intense flavor and the comparably named pepper, the taste hits you and stays with you the entire dish. So when my hostel in Chengdu offered cooking class at a relatively affordable rate by western standards, I jumped on the idea. 100 yuan ($14.71 USD) was the small fee to have a small group instruction session with one of the hostels chefs, preparing two iconic Szechuan style meals.
While eating in Chengdu is one of the cheapest I’ve come across in China, the inflated price of learning the recipe and having an instructor was well worth it. Just to give a bit of perspective to what is considered cheap in Chengdu, buying the meals at the hostel would cost just $4.12 for both dishes combined, and those reading should also take into account the fact that most hostel’s kitchens have a relatively inflated pricing structure anywhere in the world.
The two dishes on the menu: Mopo Tofu and Hui Guo Rou (Twice Cooked Pork). We were fortunate enough to have two vegetarians on the excursion who got to also make Yu Xiang Qie Zi (Fried Eggplant) that us meat eaters also got to sample and mooch the recipe as well.
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What Does a Cooking Class Include?
Cooking classes around the world are often setup in various styles. As this excursion was brought on by a hostel, the equipment was not setup in a friendly way where everyone could work simultaneously. Instead, the instructor would make a dish very quickly, and then one by one each guest would make the dish on their own. Scary when reading, but as stir fry only takes a few minutes, we were done relatively quickly. But only four people in a group didn’t hurt in terms of time management either.
Chinese Food: Simple and Complicated
Overall I was surprised to find out that there are only a few common ingredients in terms of Szechuan cooking to make a wide majority of the sauces. All three meals prepared included a great deal of garlic, ginger, bean paste, Szechuan sauce (Szechuan peppers in oil), salt, sugar, MSG (gasp!), Chinese cooking alcohol, and soy sauce. Subtle differences in the level of any ingredient produces a wide array of tastes as was evident when we sampled each others dishes as the chef told us what was added heavily or not enough. A little bit more sugar? Sweet. A little heavy on the Szechuan sauce? Mind numbingly spicy. Cover that with famous Szechuan peppercorn? Well, the peppercorn produces a numbing experience on the tongue that has to be felt to be understood.
The dishes, naturally, turned out amazing and taste exactly as they should in restaurants. The Chinese cooking wine (much like a sherry) even when used minimally produces a strong flavor that is only counteracted by the random kick of garlic, peppers, and ginger producing variations in every bite. When done right, the sauces are designed in such a way as to not be too over powering over the main ingredients be it tofu, pork, or vegetables and the individual flavors of the staples have a familiar taste with exotic overtones.
Of course, my favorite thing about cooking classes in general is that the recipe comes home as a great souvenir of the adventure. I’ve passed them along to Angie, and she will be attempting them at home before I return, and once again before I return. Yes, even the tofu, it was that good.