Food in China

Flavours of the East: Experience the Local Cuisine

Food, for me, is as important a part of travelling as seeing great sights and meeting new people. Truly understanding a country’s culture requires experiencing the local cuisine, whether it be sampling a beachside barbecue in Australia or savouring the complex and spicy flavours of a Thai curry. It might not always be an enjoyable experience, but often one to search out, none the less.

I had always wanted to travel the world and having completed two years of work after graduating from university, I persuaded my partner George to rent out his house, we both packed in our jobs and set off on what was  to be the trip of a lifetime.

Our first stop was China, a country with a mysterious culture that had fascinated me from an early age when I’d spent many family mealtimes determined to master the technique of chopsticks. George and I selected a three-week tour with Intrepid Travel, who operate in small groups  of up to 12 travellers, to fit in  as much of the country as possible and absorb the culture through the local guides provided.

I’d heard a lot of stories about the food in China regarding anything from hygiene standards (or lack off) to chicken feet and offal – some of them clearly urban myths, others very evidently true. We gained some firsthand experience of the reality by walking through stalls at the famous Beijing night market. At every turn we were confronted by strange perfumes and aromas, with  the smell of what can only be described as ‘intestine stew’ being quite nauseating. Call it morbid curiosity, but I couldn’t help but stop and stare at the locals and a handful of intrepid tourists as they tucked into fried starfish skewers.

Eating as a group is central to the Chinese culture and I thoroughly looked forward to our evening meals with fellow travellers. Our group of 12, with the help of our Cantonese guide Leya, were able to order countless dishes to share and try – in true Chinese style. The standard was good and the food enjoyable; there was really only one meal the group felt a little unsure of – Sichuanese snacks (generally cooked in a hot peppery chilli and quite different from the Sichuanese food I know from my local take-out at home), but there were thankfully no dodgy stomachs along the way!

By the time we reached Yangshuo in the south-east of China, Leya had booked us on a local cooking course. The next afternoon we met our teacher, Jackie, outside the nearby food markets to learn about local produce. While wandering through the stacks of fresh vegetables, Jackie would often stop to point out unusual items and explain their importance in the region’s and Chinese cuisine. For example, winter melon, a large green fruit that looks a little like a courgette, is often used in soups and stir-fries.

On to the fresh meat section, where the emphasis was clearly on fresh; you could purchase your animal and watch it being butchered in front of you. Among the fish jumping from their tanks, chickens clucking and ducks squarking loudly in their packed cages, I found my limits when Jackie mentioned the dog being slaughtered in the corner. While some of the other travellers wandered over to watch, this was a little too much for my pet-loving side.

Piling into a minibus we were driven through the countryside of Yangshuo to a little farmhouse where we were greeted by big smiles, a glass of ice-cold water and the start of the cooking lessons.

The first dish we attempted was egg wrapped dumplings – small, fresh duck egg omelettes filled with a tasty minced-pork and chive filling, often put into Chinese hot pots or soups but also great on their own. We were then given a cooking demonstration before attempting them ourselves at individual cooking stations.

All ingredients were pre-measured and Jackie talked us through each step, with her kitchen helpers on hand to lessen the stress of learning new cooking techniques and to ensure that everyone completely understood how things were done. This was great for me as I seemed to have difficulty remembering which ingredient went in which dish and in what order.

Once we’d completed the dumplings, thankfully we were able to eat them straight away as by this time my stomach was making rather loud rumbling noises.

We then went on to make a dish of steamed chicken with wild wolfberries and ginseng, all cooked in a large stack of bamboo steamers, before learning the secret of cooking vegetables Chinese style – steaming in a wok rather than stir-frying, as you might expect. This grew to be a method used throughout the many dishes we learnt on the course.

After a couple of hours slaving away in the heat, with many laughs along the way, we all finally got to sit down and enjoy our meal together. In the end we had each successfully cooked five simple, tasty and very authentic Chinese dishes of which we could be proud, including Yangshuo style eggplant, green vegetables with garlic, and pork with vegetables and oyster sauce.

The next stop on our trip was Thailand. Again, food played an important part of our travels, always striving to try out new places to eat. Despite never having been a fan of hot and spicy dishes, I soon found my taste buds adapting to the more fiery foods of South East Asia. By the time we reached Chiang Mai in the north, we were ready to try our hands at a little more local cookery instruction.

The choice of schools in Chiang Mai is huge, from the more professional, large-scale affairs to individual tuition in ‘mum’s kitchen’. After much looking around and talking to some very persuasive guesthouse owners, we decided to book one that seemed to meet our needs. The Thai Cookery School is well known and has the prestigious claim of being the first cooking school in Chiang Mai. It offers a professional, yet relaxed atmosphere, and taught the dishes we knew   we wanted to learn.

The school offers two locations, one in the countryside and another in the heart of the city beside The Wok, a restaurant run by our teachers. We chose to attend the city course as it was only a short walk from our guesthouse. There are different courses offered on different days, each teaching a full menu, so if you’re after a course with a bias towards blending curry paste or vegetable carving, then there’s something for you. There is also the option to take part in all five days if you have the time.

Our group was made up of 16 mainly gap-year travellers from around the world, largely Brits but with a couple of Aussies and other nationalities thrown in. The class started with an introduction to Thai cooking essentials, including an overview of the key utensils, such as the ubiquitous stainless steel wok, spatulas and pestle and mortar. The ingredients  we would be using for each    of the dishes were then discussed, including galangal (of the ginger family), kaffir lime leaves, holy basil and, of course, the fiery Thai red chilli. As it can be difficult to get  hold of some of the ingredients outside of Thailand, suitable substitutes were helpfully suggested.

The cooking demonstration was held in a cool, air-conditioned room set out as a professional kitchen, complete with ceiling mirrors to allow everyone a good view of the wok or pan in use. As in China, following a demonstration of each dish, we were assigned a personal cooking station consisting of a gas burner and wok where we could attempt to replicate the dishes we had just watched being prepared, with teachers and assistants on hand to help.

The dish I’d most been looking forward to was the old standby, pad thai. While this dish is always made to look so simple by street vendors, I was amazed at the number of ingredients required. But when it turned out just as I’d hoped I was very pleased.

Next we made an authentic green curry, which we were encouraged to adapt to our own tastes – careful on the chillies though, it’s easy to get carried away! To quicken the process we used a paste prepared by our teachers. However, while on his Thailand trip, a friend chose a similar course where he learnt to make the paste from scratch. The extensive grinding and smoothing of the ingredients in a mortar and pestle is time-consuming and exhausting but the end result worth it. As my friend told me: “I always make my own paste at home now, although admittedly with the help of a food processor!”

Thai cooking is quite straightforward – it’s finding the right balance of flavours that is difficult. I found myself experimenting with different ingredients and tasting throughout the cooking process. I was careful not to make a mistake, however, as a few of those on the course who either chopped a clove of garlic instead of crushing it, or added the fish sauce before the soya sauce, or managed to rub their eye after chopping chillies (ouch!), were subjected to some humorous banter on their lack of cooking skills!

After attempting the dishes ourselves we were able to relax with a cold drink and the fruits of our labour. We cooked a number of dishes, including the popular pad thai fried noodles, but also sampled our attempts at green curry, larb (a dry spicy minced pork dish from the north-east of Thailand), delicate fish cakes and fragrant tom yam seafood broth. Like our Chinese cooking experience, the day was both an enjoyable and social one.

New Zealand was the ultimate destination of our trip. With my sister living there it seemed a good idea to get work visas and base ourselves there for a while. We made the most of a seven-month stay, travelling much of the country and spending time with family and friends. Our Christmas was spent on a farm and included  a close introduction to NZ lamb – famous across the world. Fresh that morning from the farm, barbecued in the summer sun and washed down with a couple of bottles of local Speights Beer, this was an experience that any traveller to New Zealand should seek out. Apart from the lamb, venison is also in good supply and my sister’s husband showed us his signature dish: barbecued venison in honey-soy glaze – a recipe he’s been reluctant to give me.

For three months of our time in New Zealand we lived in Auckland, home to a famous fish market, where all sorts of freshly caught fish, crab and lobster can be found on a daily basis. The fish market also has a popular cooking school where we decided to take in a course on the Spanish seafood dish paella. The Fish Market Seafood School is popular with local residents, so we found ourselves sharing our cooking experiences with Kiwis rather than other travellers.

Our teacher for the day was John Campbell, author of a number of seafood cookery books, and executive chef in top Auckland restaurant in   the Duxton Hotel. John demonstrated two Spanish tapas-style seafood starters followed by the paella in a classroom style kitchen. He spent time going over techniques, particularly on preparing the vegetables and fish. I found this very useful and came away from the demonstration feeling I’d  learnt a lot already. We then separated into groups of four, with two people assigned to the production of the tapas and the remaining two given the task of cooking paella.

Although this meant we didn’t get to try our hand at every step, as we were sharing cooking stations there was plenty of opportunities to ask each other questions and see what was going on around. After everyone had finished, we sat down and tucked into our freshly prepared dishes and quaffed some crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Now back at home we frequently practice our new found culinary skills on friends and family (with a little help from our local Asian supermarket), whether it be a full Chinese meal or a few simple tapas. Pad thai, always a firm favourite of mine, often makes a great meal to cook quickly and easily after a long day at the office. Not only do they taste good, but it’s great to be able to bring back a little something of those travelling and cultural memories to your own dining room table.


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