Teaching culinary arts is one of my passions. I watch people learn; I have spent a large amount of my life studying and gaining experience and I enjoy sharing the information I have gained with others along the way. I like the shine of discovery in the eyes of students who are just now embarking on the journey that I first started so many years ago, and I love seeing others who are just as excited about food and cooking as I am have new experiences for the very first time.
Last night I taught an Introduction to Sichuan Cooking class at Sur la Table; it was a hands-on class and it was filled with seventeen people, which is the limit to the number of students we teach hands-on in that venue. I taught three traditional Sichuan dishes: dry fried green beans with minced pork, Ma Po Tofu, and red-cooked beef with turnips. I also taught an original recipe, called “Too Hot Chicken” a stir fry that is based upon Sichuan flavors. The four recipes were meant to be put together into a dinner party, with the first three recipes and steamed rice being able to be made ahead, with the only dish that required last minute cooking being the stir-fry. One of the mistakes a that a lot of novice cooks make when learning Chinese food is they assume that everything is stir-fried and so when they give a dinner party, they wear themselves out stir frying everything at the last minute. In fact, Chinese home cooks would never construct a party menu in that way, but would utilize other cooking methods: steaming or braising, for example, which produce dishes that can be cooked ahead of time and then reheated when needed, or which cook undisturbed on the back of the stove without any supervision from the cook other than starting a timer.
I like to give a great deal of cultural information while I am teaching, often in the form of stories or examples from my own learning experiences, and I always tell my students that they can ask me questions at any time. One question that came up last night from a very enthusiastic and attentive student was, “What is the difference between Sichuan and Cantonese cooking?”
I thought it was a very good question, and one that deserved a well-thought out answer.
One of the great fallacies that many Americans hold in regards to Chinese cookery is that there is one over-arching cuisine that is known as Chinese. That simply is not true; China is a vast country, with many different regions that have distinctive climates, growing seasons, crops, languages, cultures and correspondingly different culinary traditions. Some authors say that there are four main schools of Chinese cookery, others identify up to eight distinctive named variants in cuisine.
Americans come to this notion in several ways. One is that most Americans are woefully under informed when it comes to anything about China; most of us know very little about the history, philosophy or culture of China, because for many years, that country was extremely isolationist, and so there was little opportunity to learn anything accurate about it. Opportunities to share and learn have broadened within my lifetime, and cultural exchange that is available to the general public has exploded in the form of martial arts studios, Chinese medical practitioners, Buddhist teachers and temples, films, books, musicians and theatre companies.
The greatest influence upon American ideas of Chinese culinary homogeneity has come not only from a lack of cultural awareness in general, but from American experiences at Chinese restaurants where the same handful of Americanized Chinese foods are presented with slight variations from city to city, across our nation. Most Americans think of chow mein, chop suey, sweet and sour pork with the scary day-glo pink sauce and egg rolls as “Chinese food.”
This misconception is changing as Chinese restaurants develop and change in the United States, but the process is slow. The dishes mentioned above are still available on a majority of Chinese restaurant menus and many Americans order and enjoy them. What they do not know is that while those dishes are based upon actual Cantonese recipes, they have been strongly adapted to American tastes, and so are in essence more strictly understood as “American-Chinese” food, or as I call it, “American-Chinese Restaurant” food.
Which brings us back to the question of what are the differences between Sichuan and Cantonese foods?
Sichuan food tends to be robustly cooked and intensely flavored with a variety of condiments, from spices, pickled vegetables, chilis and vinegars, which are used in combination to create twenty-three distinct, named flavors, such as fish-fragrant flavor, strange flavor and scorched chili flavor. A great variety of cooking styles are employed in manipulating flavor and texture in Sichuan food, including cooking methods unique to the region such as dry-frying, which is a process that involves slow cooking in a wok over high heat with little oil in order to dry out and change the texture of the ingredient being cooked in this way. Chile peppers are used in a variety of ways–dried whole with seeds and toasted, ground up and steeped in oil, fresh and sliced or in a uniquely Sichuan condiment, fermented chile bean paste. In addition, the berries of the prickly-ash tree, which have a fragrant flavor and produce a pleasant tingling numbness on the tongue and lips, are used in many different ways. These Sichuan peppercorns, as they are called, create a distinctive flavor which is not often used in any other regional cuisine in China.
By contrast, the style of Cantonese cookery is one of restraint and sublime simplicity. The cooking of Canton is the regional style most highly regarded by Chinese gastronomes, in part because of the great respect paid to the quality and freshness of the ingredients used in creating a dish. Pure, fresh meat, seafood and vegetables are skillfully cooked and adorned with a minimum of condiments in order to bring out the natural fragrance, color and flavor inherent to the raw ingredients. There is great emphasis placed upon the aesthetic properties of food in Cantonese cuisine, and there is a lot of attention paid to contrasting colors, textures, tastes and scents of each dish. The Cantonese are particularly known for their stir-fried dishes where brilliantly hued crisp vegetables contrast with meltingly tender meat, which are often enhanced with one or two judiciously applied condiments like light-colored soy sauce or fermented black beans.
As a whole, Sichuan food is all about building flavors with many layers, and creating many different textures with different cooking techniques, but without regard to the natural colors of the ingredients. Many Sichuan dishes are muddy in color, and lack the kaleidoscopic color variety that is present in Cantonese food. By contrast, Cantonese food favors purer, more simple and clean flavors, which are no less satisfying for their lack of complexity, and the colors of each dish provide a delight to the eye as well as to the palate.
Interestingly, last night turned out to be an experience that perfectly illustrated the answer I gave to my student.
After the class was over, while we were cleaning up, I tasted the foods that I had prepared, along with my four assistants and some other employees of the Sur la Table store. I cook these dishes often at home, and so I was not surprised to find that they were really good. They were intensely flavored, which illustrated the layered effect that the use of many different condiments and unique ingredients that Sichuan food is known for. Zak had come to pick me up and he had a taste as well, and said that the Ma Po was particularly good, though I myself, was fond of the Too Hot Chicken and the green beans.
We planned to go to a local restaurant which was open late for supper; it had been suggested to me by one of the students from Grace Young’s class, a man who teaches Chinese cooking in a local high school as a special part of the home economics and social studies curriculum. We had stopped in for dim sum a few days before and were very impressed with the quality of the taro dumplings and turnip cake, as well as the steamed lotus seed buns. We had been told that they had two menus and that the Chinese menu was superb.
We were not led astray.
We sat down and set aside the silverware, and the woman who handed us both the Chinese and American menus said, “I see you want chopsticks.” She then brought out two sets of chopsticks, the homemade chili oil with seeds and a small dish of sliced fresh jalapenos in a dark soy based sauce, along with a pot of tea. We ordered a small order of tofu and sliced pork soup, and I ordered chicken with bitter melon and Zak ordered beef with Chinese broccoli. When she heard our orders, her eyes lip up and she smiled.
She brought out the soup and it was a typically delicate Cantonese offering–a good homemade chicken stock with billowy cubes of extremely fresh tofu, rich black mushrooms, thin slices of sweet pork, greens, baby corn and straw mushrooms. The chicken stock was light and seasoned with a bit of white pepper, the baby corn was the most fresh and flavorful I had ever tasted and the greens, choy sum, had the buttery-smooth leaves contrasted with the crisp stems with their distinctive salt-tinged vegetal savor. The soup came in a communal tureen, and we were given small individual bowls with Chinese style soup spoons. The bowls were perfectly sized to fit in one hand, so I felt confident eating the soup in a Chinese manner, by drinking it.
When our entrees came out, a different waitress brought them. Setting mine down, she declared, “You sure know what to order! This is the best dish on the menu–it is my favorite.” When Zak’s dish came moments later, we both dug in, cupping our small rice bowls in our off-hands while plucking morsels from the central platters with our chopsticks.
Both dishes were perfect examples of Cantonese restraint in seasoning and mastery of the wok. The chicken with bitter melon was seasoned with fermented black beans, a bit of thin soy sauce and some chicken stock, and was utterly sublime. The meat was filled with wok hay, that savory fragrance that only comes from being cooked in a well-seasoned wok on high heat and then rushed to the table before it can dissipate. The salty black beans accentuated the rich flavor of the meat, and coaxed out the natural sweetness that lays hidden in the heart of the bitter melon. Without that slightly smoky saltiness of the black beans, the bitterness would overpower the watery hint of sugar present in the fruit.
Zak’s beef with Chinese broccoli (gai lan) was a lovely dish, too. The gai lan was a provided a great contrast to the bitter melon; the broccoli was crisp where the melon was velvety, it was sweet with the slightest hint of bitterness while the melon was the opposite, and it was vibrant emerald green while the melon was the muted shade of celadon. The pale chicken breast meat slices contrasted with the meltingly tender richness dark beef slices; the two dishes complemented each other perfectly.
It was a meal of perfect yin and yang balance.
And in retrospect, I realized that the entire evening was a study in the balance of opposites.
Halfway through the meal, our original waitress came to check on us and refill our tea. Seeing me holding my rice bowl and eating casually in a Chinese way, she blinked and asked if I was from New York. Smiling, I shook my head and said, “No, I’m from West Virginia.” She blinked again and said, “Oh.” Then she paused and said, “I wondered, because you eat like a Chinese.”
I explained that I had worked in a Chinese restaurant, and she nodded, satisfied with my answer, though I suspect, still a bit confused. When she caught sight of my jade and gold wedding band, she commented on it, and smiled. Another contrast, another balance. A West Virginia farm girl wearing jade and teaching the cuisines of a completely different culture.
I wish that I could have brought all of my students from my Sichuan class there to eat, so they wouldn’t have to just take my word on the differences between Sichuan and Cantonese food. They could have tasted those differences directly, and would have had a perfect, unforgettable object lesson in the importance of balance and contrast when it comes to Chinese cookery.
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