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After my first cooking class abroad in Yangshuo, I knew I wanted to at least slip in one more before we left China. When I saw how highly rated Rice and Friends in Dali is on TripAdvisor my mind was set.
Though Dali itself is a quaint old town with a beautiful lake beside it, I was mostly interested in this cooking class. With Dave coming along for the ride this time, I was very excited. It was an intimate setting; only four of us – Dave, myself, Roger (an expat working in Beijing) and his mother Elizabeth. We patiently awaited our instructor Luxi’s arrival in the center of old Dali.
Soon, a petite young woman, who I instantly knew would be super friendly, approached us. Luxi, who has a background in hospitality, opened the school 2 years ago and offers classes daily including a market tour and three dishes.
The market was a short walk away and we headed there first. Luxi took the time to point out various exotic (to us westerners) foods specific to the Yunnan region. She stopped to show us the many different kinds of tofu (and there are plenty), eggs, fruits, mushrooms etc. Her explanations were spot on. People sometimes forget that cooking schools are not just about learning to cook, but learning about the culture through the cuisine. Luxi was marvelous in this aspect.
Once she saw our interest in the different kinds of eggs she bought them without hesitation so we could each have a bite. A chicken egg and a duck century egg, made by preserving them in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, calcium oxide and rice hulls from several weeks to several months.
We casually walked around learning about the different eccentricities of the produce. Luxi shared with us that the leaves of the bitter melon (a popular veggie in China, resembling a prickly zucchini almost) work well in curing teenage ache. If only I had known that 10 years ago!
With a few glimpses of raw meat (though nothing as intense as at the Yangshuo Market) we made our way on to the cooking school. Set on the rooftop of a charming old building with picturesque orange flowers lining the awning we were ready for our lesson.
Instead of preparing the food right away we all were seated in the dining area and Luxi cut up the eggs for us to try. Since the eggs have been preserved they do not need to be cooked and can be eaten as is. The duck egg was literally almost black in color, with the whites turning to an almost jelly consistency but the yolk still slightly creamy, this really is an egg unlike an other. The chicken egg yolk maintained its yellowish color but the white almost took on a yellow hue. Surprisingly the duck egg (the black one) was my favorite.
Luxi sat down to join us and offered a great introduction into the different aspects and types of Chinese cuisine. Her English is practically native, to the point that she even makes jokes about the various eating habits of Chinese and Cantonese.
During this time she also introduced some of the main flavoring agents used in Chinese cooking; rice wine vinegar (black), dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, sichuan peppercorns, garlic and ginger. These would be our sidekicks for the day.
She was incredibly personable and it really felt like she was interested in interacting with us and went as far as to share personal stories from her childhood as we sat around the table. My favorite part was when she referred to the Cantonese as people who “will eat everything with four legs except the kitchen table”. A humorously accurate way to describe some of the eating habits we had observed during our stay in China. It was a perfect start to the cooking class, and armed with the history and background into the art of Chinese cooking and eating habits we were ready to start prepping and chopping.
Everyone has their own cooking station, equipped with bowls, cutting boards, burners and wok. We started with the dried tofu salad, which required a simple preparation only 2 minutes of cooking times and some minor chopping and mixing. A simple salad with an exquisite sauce that balances out the various flavors used in Chinese cooking.
As Luxi explained Chinese cooking is all about balance. The sauces combine sweet, salty, bitter flavors but with just the right amount each ingredient compliments the other perfectly. A light taste test is always required to make sure the flavors don’t not overpower one another. Luxi went around the table to individually taste everyone’s sauces and make recommendations.
From there we went on to prepare the fish flavored eggplant (which actually contains no fish) and kung pao chicken. Both dishes were delicious. The depth of flavors in the fish flavored eggplant was incredible and this has quickly been bumped up to one of my favorite eggplant dishes.
Luxi would start with a cooking demonstration and we would mimic her motions. During this time we all shared stories of our travels and ask Luxi questions about her cooking school. It felt very much like we were all cooking together.
After class we all sat together enjoying our meal in the dining area, enjoying more of Luxi’s conversation. It was a pleasure to have Luxi sit with us and continue talking to us about Chinese cuisine and cooking. Given that this was the end of our trip, we had plenty of questions we wanted to ask. Luxi was honest and open to talking about anything, such as the market experience from Yangshuo. To finish off a delicious meal we are all served yogurt fruit cups – a light and simple dessert.
As Dave accurately mentioned, the difference between a good and a great guide is that a great one makes it feel like the interaction is as unique for them as it is for you. This is exactly what Luxi did during our cooking class and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone interested in learning about Chinese cuisine.
As part of this review, Luxi sponsored our class, however, all opinions are entirely our own.
Rice and Friends cooking school is located in old town Dali, China
Classes are held every morning at 10am and last 4-5 hours. Price of cooking class is $25 and includes the market tour, 3 recipes and the recipe booklet.
Luxi can accommodate food allergies and dietary restrictions (with a separate box to write this in on the booking form on the website).
We fully enjoyed our cooking class with Luxi and would recommend it to anyone passing through Dali.