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Cooking out of poverty

Beijing Review, August 24, 2020
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Yan Jinming (right) and his colleagues show names of dishes they are going to teach on August 21, Zhaojue county, Sichuan Province, southwest China (WEN QING) 

Chef, professor and businessman. That is how Yan Jinming describes himself. Yan is one of China's most famous chefs. He has taught Cantonese cuisine in Shunde Polytechnic, a vocational educational institution in Guangdong Province in south China for over two decades. Also, he is a successful entrepreneur with four restaurants.

Yan has left his busy life in Shunde behind this summer, leaving Guangdong to visit Liangshan, one of the poorest regions in southwest China's Sichuan Province. He travelled to Liangshan, encouraged by his university, with what he describes as a "noble and meaningful" mission. That mission is to deliver cooking classes to some of Liangshan's poorest residents.

Known officially as Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Liangshan is home to members of China's Yi ethnic group, one of 55 ethnic minority groups recognized in China. The Yi civilization boasts a rich history and culture, but due to geographical isolation and historical factors, they lag far behind in economic and social development. Many members of the Yi ethnicity have missed out on basic education and cannot speak Mandarin, let alone mastering the skills necessary to find good jobs.

But Yan says his cooking classes can be the key to improving Liangshan residents' employment prospects. "Once they have learned to cook Cantonese or Sichuan dishes, they are able to work in restaurants or open their own cafes to earn more money and improve their living conditions," Yan told Beijing Review on August 20 in Zhaojue, a town in Liangshan.

Jielie E'amu (right) and her classmates talk to Beijing Review reporter at their community center on August 21, Zhaojue county, Sichuan Province (WEN QING) 

Jielie E'amu, 43 years old, is one of Yan's students from Liangshan. Jielie is only able to find the simplest of jobs, like washing dishes in restaurants for around 1500 yuan ($200) per month. With aspirations to learn more, Jielie will participate in Yan's cooking course, which will run for 20 days. "I hope to learn some cooking skills, which will enable me to work as short-order cook with higher salary, or maybe I will open my own cafe in the future," she said.

Photo shows specialty of Yi ethnic minority in colorful wood tableware with characteristics (WEN QING) 

The Yi people's traditional cooking methods are mostly very simple, such as boiling ingredients and seasoning them with salt. Yan told Beijing Review he plans to teach his students to cook 40 dishes, some of which are Cantonese and some of which are a fusion of Cantonese and Sichuan styles. "Even if they will not work in this industry, at least they can cook for their family," he said.

This is Yan' sixth trip to Liangshan. "Sometimes I cannot take a bath for up to a week here, which is intolerable for Cantonese people. But I still hope to do my part to help people here in need," Yan said.