CNN: What sparked your interest in Sichuanese cuisine?
I got very interested in China through a job subediting news reports about the east Asian region, particularly China. So I started Mandarin evening classes and went on holiday to China and was fascinated.
I'd been in Sichuan in 1993 when coming back from a holiday to Tibet and had an amazing lunch with some dishes I never forgot. I had looked up a Sichuanese musician whom I'd met in my hometown of Oxford, and he and his wife took me out. It was at a very modest little restaurant, but we had a delicious meal and ended up on the riverbank drinking jasmine tea at a teahouse. At that moment, I thought, I want to come back and live here.
The next year, I applied for a British Council scholarship to study minorities, culture and history at Sichuan University. While in Sichuan, I started cooking in my spare time and investigating the food. It gradually just took over, and I realized that was the thing that I really wanted to study.
You were the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. How did that come about?
A German friend and I had heard about this famous cooking school, so we cycled over there one day and managed to persuade them to give us private classes for a month. We worked with a translator because our Chinese was not very good at that stage.
When I finished my studies at Sichuan University, I went back to the cooking school, asking if I could drop in occasionally and watch some demonstrations. Instead, they said, "We have a chef's training course beginning now, why don't you join in?"
It was a real curiosity that this Englishwoman was so interested in their food. I don't think it was strictly according to the rules at the time, because foreigners didn't do this kind of thing. So it was really the kindness of the teachers and the principal of this school. They just thought, "Well she's interested; let's let her have a go."
At the time in China, everything was changing. There had been all these things that had been closed to foreigners. It was just sheer luck that I was there at that moment.
What were the classes like?
Every morning, the teacher was at the blackboard explaining the process of the dishes of the day -- the ingredients, how to choose them and the cooking methods. Then we would all go into the demo room, where the teacher would demonstrate the dishes of the day. After lunch we would divide into groups of 10. Each group would pool the prep and then make the dish.
You've said that Sichuanese cuisine has its own specific vocabulary.
Chinese cuisine and Sichuanese cuisine are highly sophisticated. In French cooking, you have different words for different processes and different kinds of sauces. And Chinese cuisine is like that. For example, there are words for different kinds of frying that don't have English equivalents.
For example, liu is taking your ingredient, which usually has some starch paste on it, and pre-cooking it in oil or water. Then you make a sauce and mix the two together.
There's jia, which is to deep-fry.
Jian is what Westerners would call pan-frying in a flat pan, or frying without moving the ingredients around very much because you can also do it in a wok.
Chao means stir-frying. Chaoxiang is to fry fragrant, which is bringing out the fragrance of oil, ginger, or garlic.
Bian is another word similar to stir-fry. Ganbian, meaning dry bian, is frying without any oil and later adding oil and seasonings.
Qiang is frying Sichuan pepper and chili and then adding an ingredient to drive in the spice.
Those are the immediate ones.
Are there more frying techniques in Sichuanese cuisine than other types of Chinese cuisine?
No, but Sichuanese is supposed to be one of the four great Chinese cuisines. There's also Shandong cooking from the northeast, Yangzhou cooking from the east, and Cantonese cooking. In places that have very serious cultures of gastronomy, you get very systematic cooking.
How did your mainland Chinese classmates react to having a foreigner learning their local cuisine?
Some of them had never met a foreigner before. So they were quite shy and didn't really want to talk to me. I was a curiosity. It was mad, also because I was a woman -- there were only three women in a class of 50 -- and a university graduate. Cooking is normally something they think educated people wouldn't go into.
I had a couple of friends who were very nice to me and helped me write some of the Chinese characters I didn't know. But in my group of 10, I didn't have any particular friends. I had to make sure they let me in on things, because they didn't necessarily want to include me all the time.