Thursday, May 28, 2009

5/28 - Yangshuo Cooking School

Which brings me to today! After a quick western breakfast of great banana pancakes, fruit, juice, and coffee, we were off to our official cooking class with our host Kelly (see last I checked, the site pretty accurately described the fun we had learning to stir fry). We met lots of other tourists from both the US and the UK, some very enjoyable folks, and we were all escorted through the local farmer’s market. Let me try to describe both the high and low points of this market, the similarities and the differences to farmer’s markets in the US with which you might be familiar. In the US, you meet and talk with the farmer who grew the crop, harvested it, and drove it to market. In Yangshuo, you meet but cannot talk with the person who squats near an unidentifiable yet very beautiful looking organic of some sort (which Kelly named, but since we knew there would be no final quiz, most of us quickly forgot) or the person who rode in with a cage full of chickens, rabbits, or geese and was eager to pass it to you live, stunned or partially prepared, depending on your freshness preference [at breakfast, I'd unsuccessfully tried to get a photo of a guy in a suit carrying a dead chicken hooked on his briefcase...there were just too many stories possible from this one scene]. One farmer had as many vegetables and herbs displayed as did the scarf and jade vendors along the waterfront market. One fellow was busy peeling cloves of garlic [why they bother is an unanswered question] for display. Others hung pork parts which we don't think were actually the parts which our guide euphemistically called "the bladder." We avoided the more grizzly areas of the beef and dead animal areas, and were warned not to photograph any of the tofu ladies [none of the other farmers or animal providers seemed to have a problem with cameras....tofu must be in a class by itself]. The produce market consisted of two warehouses of customers and vendors, each about the size of Walgreen's or a bit larger. The aisle ways were wet, somewhat dirty, had pedestrian traffic in two directions which was occasionally punctuated by motorcycle or tricycle deliveries of animals or more raw veggies. There were people and products everywhere. Every color and kind of egg imaginable was stacked in rows. A guy smoking was lining up his rows of green onions. Babies played in the limited free space on the cloth areas which defined each vendors' one or two hundred square feet. A squatting customer was counting out wu jiao's and kuai on the ground to complete his transaction for his restaurant's or family’s daily needs. I'm sure our noodle making grandpa was around there somewhere, but we'd already been past the pork area and had no interest in making our favorite Yangshuo dinners too personal.

We got to know the other cooking students on the way over to the kitchen. Quite nice people. Two eighteen-year-old London girls, Etta (Henriette) and Gina, traveling together, had just spent three weeks crossing Russia and found it very cold and forbidding. Although neither spoke Russian nor Chinese, they enjoyed their trek through China thus far (a second three weeks) and planned on continuing on to Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. I told them they should write a book not on their travels, but on how to convince one's parents to allow worldwide travel by young girls through third world countries, but they seemed to take for granted what I considered the novelty of their adventures. I suppose cell phones enable more risk taking than I ever imagined. A married couple, TC from London and Vanessa from Australia, were both eloquent and entertaining. A pair of ladies from Texas were actually fun too, and finally another mother-daughter pair doing their third class this week from (you guessed it) London rounded out our group. We each had a chef station, and learned how to prepare five dishes using a cleaver and wood block, a well seasoned wok, and a cool personal propane wok stove at our stainless steel work area. Dumplings, fried tofu and vegetables, spicy chicken, green vegetable and garlic, and Yangshuo style sweet and sour pork (from the tender arm roast area and not the mystery parts we'd seen at the market, I'm told). When I get back to the states and perfect these new techniques, I promise to add the recipes to the Yahoo! group DavesDiningGuests site. I just have to iron out the kinks. But we ate everything we cooked, and are still feeling all right several hours later in spite of slicing raw chicken and pork on a wooden cutting block. We also forgot to wash our hands afterward and ate some fresh fruit (bayberry) with our hands, so we'll see if our luck holds. Alex photographed the entire class and got to eat the fruits of our labor during an enjoyable hour of dining and international exchange (though most of it UK / US except for the Chinese host and assistants). We plan to have lots of photos documenting our culinary adventure on the website to share with these other travelers.

We walked back to our hotel through the riverfront market, feeling more and more confident with the vendors, either because we've learned how to deal with them, we've become accustomed to and ignore their shouts of ello, ello, or they've recognized the odd guy in the same Hawaiian shirt carrying the big camera and the pair of expert hagglers who are shopping with purpose. The biggest limitation to our shopping is that we have to carry whatever we purchase back to Beijing. A better deterrent has yet to be found to reign in on the temptations of the Chinese market.

Alex and Karen have worn out the cards playing Crazy 8's. In short, we were relishing the good lessons learned at the Yangshuo Cooking School. We were actually starting to miss Yangshuo already, even though we hadn't left yet. We'd mastered the street vendors, which were less pushy than those of other touristy spots (or, as I said, they simply recognized us). The landscape was breathtaking in every direction, and it was reassuring that the town's two and three-story buildings were dwarfed by the karsts. We'd survived the roadways and the market. We'd found some very good food, and spent our final dinner at our favorite food place with the very friendly family of restaurateurs. They had pushed all but one of their four tables together for a large, Chinese family of about ten. We had the other. It was so much fun watching the locals devour all their food in a festive manner. I kind of imagined they'd all met up in Yangshuo for dinner after maybe watching the Dragon Boat races up in Guilin and were in full swing, enjoying the first day of the Thursday, Friday, Saturday holiday. We branched out and ordered another, spectacular dish, though I still crave another Julienne potato stir fry. Grandma, very proud and eager for our assessment, brought me a sample of her very spicy hot chili, yellowish string bean appetizer, a chewy vinegary snack similar to one Jeying had shared with me (packaged) a year earlier. I alone, it seemed, forced myself to eat most of it, since it was after all a gift, and although it was oddly addictive, it was so chewy that I thought my jaw and molars would ache the next day. The dinner crowd had heated up, and even though the big family had finished and left, and their three tables had been quickly cleared and relocated, the place was packed again. We explained to the family that we'd be leaving Yangshuo the next day (since we'd hoped they too had enjoyed their repeat Caucasians and we didn't want them stocking extra beers or chopping extra potatoes for us), and we think they figured out what Alex was saying, certainly more than the grandpa had understood me. I'd pulled him over after he'd delivered one dish to our table and tried to tell him something to the effect that, "You are a lucky man. You have a beautiful family." Alex told me that it was probably interpreted as "The food is good."

Guilin is to die for

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