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Traveling with a Celebrity Chef

by Teresa M. Chen

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(3) page(s): 13 and 14

In March 2009, I joined Chef Martin Yan in an exciting fourteen-day tour of China's Pearl River Delta region for a unique gourmet and cultural experience. While it was the first time for me, I was surprised to find many 'returnees' to the Yan Can Cook tour, some for the fourth or fifth time and one particular fellow-traveler for the ninth time. As the days unfolded, I found myself charmed and pampered by Martin Yan and his trilingual (English, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese) staff. It was no surprise that people would want to repeat the wonderful experience in its myriad variations.

The people joining our tour were gourmet eaters, some chefs and restaurateurs themselves. Food enthusiasts are naturally a bunch of fun-loving people, curious, and ready for adventure; and Martin Yan was most accommodating. A detour to a village in Xinhui (Sunwui in Cantonese) was arranged at the request of the Hong family. As I just finished my book titled A Tradition of Soup: Flavors from China's Pearl River Delta, this tour took us to three restaurants in Guangzhou, Shunde, and Xinhui, where soup was their specialty. While the Xinhui Restaurant featured hot pot with a strained rice soup base, the other two restaurants sported scores of soups on their menu with declared medicinal and tonic values.

Our lunch in Xinhui included many dishes, a clay-pot rice, and three pots of soup. Plates of raw ingredients were brought to our table at Chef Yan's request so we could identify what was served in the soups. It was a great learning experience. Cantonese people are true soup enthusiasts and connoisseurs. I could really appreciate Martin's attention to details.

Needless to say, a gourmet tour always includes the best of regional cuisine. Our tour of the Pearl River Delta offered, besides the famed Cantonese slow-cooking lou fo soups, rice noodle ho fun dishes of Guangzhou, roast goose from Xinhui, some squabs of Zhongshan, scrambled milk and milk pudding of Shunde, and traditional pastry and dim sum from throughout this area.

The only drawback of being with a Celebrity Chef is, what else, his celebrity. He was recognized everywhere. For instance, during a morning excursion to the open market, Martin was recognized and greeted by fans from Indonesia. We were covered by the media in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Panyu, and Shunde. Chef Yan had orchestrated cooking demonstrations in five-star restaurants in the dining rooms of top-notch chefs, and the media was invited. Furthermore, he allowed us the opportunity to play alongside these chefs, learning to prepare regional dishes, dim sum, and desserts right in front of the camera (and I did as you can see in the picture on this page). Of course we got to sample all the food.

The setting was the Pearl River Delta in the twenty-first century. Traditional cuisine here is enriched by the influx of international influence, giving rise to fusion styles that highly emphasize presentation.

Being in the hub of epicurean excellence, Cantonese chefs such as the master chefs we met did not shy away from experimentation. Kobe beef and black angus were grilled over lychee wood as roast goose is traditionally done. A bowl of shark's fin soup came crowned with a flaky lid just like French puff pastry. Paella (Spanish seafood fried rice) is made with rice from the Northeastern region of China instead of arborio. Dim-sum has become too beautiful to eat and, instead of tea, the cute little morsels often came paired with wine.

In China, gourmet food festivals are regularly held. At them, chefs from all over debut their new creations and innovations. We dined in a restaurant where annual competitions are held. We were hosted by a master of masters. We witnessed a ceremony where accomplished chefs were knighted with sword and aplomb. We spoke with owners and managers of award-winning restaurants. We even met festival judges and food critics. Such VIP treatment distinguishes the Yan Can Cook gourmet tour from any ordinary tour.

Without Martin Yan's connections and arrangements, who would allow a group of tourists to invade a spic and span kitchen surrounded by glass walls? The many tours to China I had previously taken dwarf in comparison to this experience. No wonder gourmet travelers keep returning to the Yan Can Cook tour to be in the entourage with Chef Martin Yan who also scripts every trip like he would plan his own show.

The following recipe, an appetizer and finger food, uses instead of a dough wrapper, a lettuce leaf. It holds a few spoons full of stir-fried minced meat and vegetables. Traditionally, minced dried oysters are used; later minced pidgeon was introduced. This dish, served at the Yu-Mi-Zhi-Xiang or Land of Fish and Rice Restaurant features fresh clams from the Pearl River Delta.

The diced vegetables that accompany it definitely show a Martin Yan influence as they use red bell pepper, yellow corn kernels, white jicama, Chinese black mushrooms, and chopped greens such as Chinese parsley, scallion, broccoli, celery stem, and/or green bell pepper. Do take a look at the Corn Stir-Fry recipe in Martin Yan's China book. It is on page 104 and can provide additional guidance, if needed.

Before you check out the recipe below, let me advise that the picture with this article is of me cooking at the Happy Together Restaurant in Shunde. The expert chef guiding and teaching is Chef Kong Qing-Cong; Martin Yan is in the background. This was one great lesson!
Lettuce Wrap with Clam Meat Stir-fry
2 cups fresh corn kernels
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup diced jicama
8 dried soaked black mushrooms, stems discarded, their caps then diced
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup fresh boiled baby clams, minced
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
2 scallions, minced
6 sprigs Chinese parsley, minced
lettuce leaves (at least as many as there are people being served)
1. Dice or chop all vegetables and set them aside.
2. Place a wok or fry-pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil, swirling to coat the sides, then add all the vegetables and stir-fry until they are tender-crisp, about two minutes.
3. Add clam meat, Chinese parsley, and the scallions, then the soy sauce, salt and sugar. Toss all until well mixed, then quickly transfer to a serving plate.
4. Put lettuce leaves on this or another serving plate. Everyone wraps a few spoonfuls of the clam mixture into one lettuce leaf, folds it in, and enjoys their own efforts and the chef's expertise.

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