Australia's favourite food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, experiences a taste sensation while cooking Dai cuisine.
At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, or at least repeating it, it's often said that Asian people are all the same. Most educated people know that this isn't true at all as within Asia, each country has its own distinct identity and look. And while we're in China, we're quickly learning that even within the one country, not all Chinese are the same. In Xishuangbanna we've been introduced to the people of the Yao and Yi ethnic tribe but the largest tribe in the area are the Dai people. What better way to get to know the people than through a Dai cooking class with a Dai chef.
The Dai are a 300,000 strong minority ethnic tribe living in Xishuangbanna that practice Buddhism. They are related to Thai and Laotian people, but the cuisine has an identity all of its own. Dai cuisine is made up of a kaleidoscope of herbs and fresh flavours and unlike Thai, there's little coconut milk or fish sauce used. The rice they use is sweet and glutinous, often mixed with small pineapple pieces and served in a hollowed out pineapple called buoluofan.
Dai food is prepared by grilling, steaming, frying and boiling but some vegetables are eaten raw, particularly medicinal plants which are used to curb the effects of living in a high humidity area. Mi Wei An is a Dai woman who used to be the chef for staff meals at the Anantara Resort — Dai cuisine is very popular in the area. Today she is teaching us the secrets of Dai cuisine and showing us how to make a Dai banquet.
With all Dai food, herbs play an essential part in the cuisine and she tells us "without herbs there is no Dai food". Each family has their own herb garden and all members of the family learn how to cook no matter what their gender is. The predominant flavour is salt and, unlike Thai cuisine which balances sweet, salty, sour and spicy, there is virtually no sweet element to Dai dishes, save for some sugar used in the rice cake sweets for dessert. The Shui Dai people also like using lime in their cooking.
Mi Wei An has been a chef for about seven years, working at Anantara for the past five; she learned her skills from neighbours and other people in the village. The setting for us to learn is the sunny deck of the Luosuo restaurant with the river of the same name to the side. There are stations set up for each of us so that we can cook our own dishes as it is a hands-on course. A range of fresh herbs from French or sawtooth coriander, mint, local basil and chillies are laid out.
A Dai dish that we requested a recipe for was the grilled eggplant. Little did we know how easy it would be as well as healthy. Eggplants here are long and large — about 30cms in length and one-and-a-half inches in diameter. Mi Wei An starts by pricking a hole in the eggplant to stop it exploding and it is placed on the barbecue where the colour changes from purple to green.
She then splits it open, pulls the creamy flesh away from the skin and tops it with a range of herbs: regular and sawtooth coriander, smartweed, mint, garlic, onion, chilli and basil. The eggplant then slides off the barbecue easily, the flesh is easily removed and mixed up and served.
Our next dish uses the ganba or dried beef rump. To make ganba, they salt and dry the beef over coals or fire using residual heat so the time taken to dry it depends on the amount of heat left in the coals. Then they use the barbecue to reheat the meat to soften it. It is then separated into strands and pounded in a large mortar and pestle and seasoned with herbs and chili. The resulting dish is delicious, likea pork floss but less sweet and with a fresh herb and chilli flavour.
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