By Tan Kee Yun
Two hundred and fifty days.
That's how much time celebrity chef and frequent flyer Martin Yan spends travelling a year. "I don't think there is any other chef who travels as often as I do," said the tanned, stocky 62-year-old Guangzhou native spiritedly.
"Last year, I spent four months visiting different provinces and regions in China, and then another four months across Europe.
"That's eight months in total!"
Yan - who is best remembered for his catch phrase "if Yan can cook, so can you" - was the man behind the TV programme Yan Can Cook.
His show debuted in 1978 and became an instant hit, winning the affable chef fans from all around the world.
Now based in California where he owns three restaurants, Yan was in town on Wednesday to conduct live culinary workshops as part of Asian Food Channel's Celebrity Chefs Event Series.
In an interview with The New Paper, the accomplished chef talked about his memories of Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangxi - rural areas of China where the local ethnic minorities congregate. Along with a TV production crew, he filmed the food-themed travelogue, Martin Yan's Hidden China, there last year.
The show is currently showing on Asian Food Channel (StarHubCh435).
"At each place, we spent two to three days staying, eating and cooking with the villagers," recalled Yan.
"We picked our own vegetables, hunted wild fungi and mushrooms up in the mountains, located about 2,000m above sea level.
"It was physically tough for us. But for the local folk, they are extremely used to the laborious process...The young women are so strong, they can carry things on their backs which I can't, like huge bamboo baskets filled with fruits."
Interacted with the tribes
In Yunnan, one of China's most exotic provinces where the cities of Kunming, Lijiang and Dali are fast becoming popular tourist destinations, the Cantonese- speaking chef had the opportunity to interact with different minority tribes such as the Naxi, Dongba and Bai tribes.
"It was difficult to talk to them," Yan admitted. "Most of the minority groups speak their own dialects, or use singing as a form of verbal communication. "Thankfully, everywhere I went, I had a local guide who acted as my translator."
The lifestyle of the tribal villagers was enviable, he added.
"Where they live, it's like time had stood still 2,000, 3,000 years ago," he said.
"The locals' pace of life is slower and more leisurely... There are very few cars on the road and the air is fresher.You hardly see any signs of pollution.
"People there generally don't use modern drugs or medicines. They rely on home remedies."
And when it comes to home-cooked food in Yunnan, freshness is definitely guaranteed.
"To prepare a meal, the villagers take five to six hours," said Yan.
"That's because everything is plucked fresh, all the vegetables and fruit presented on your table are the ripest and most succulent.
"It's really different from the hustle and bustle of urban living, where we conveniently make most of our grocery purchases from the nearest supermarket."
This article was first published in The New Paper.