Sichuan food – often written as ‘Szechwan’ from the old Wade Giles Romanisation system – is one of the 4 main distinct cuisines of China. Known as the cuisine of 10,000 flavours, Sichuan food is an experience that can only be discovered in the home of its origin. So much more than chilli – which is how it has come to be seen in western eyes – Sichuan cuisine is all about juxtaposed flavours – the light and the strong, the spicy and the bland, the sweet and the sour.
Sichuan has been known as the ‘Land of Abundance’ for thousands of years because the land produces two crops a year and the rivers and mountains were full of fish and game. This abundance of food has meant the region has seldom suffered from the famines afflicting other parts of China and has encouraged the people to adopt the relaxed lifestyle centring around one of man’s most enjoyable pastimes – eating. Not that you would know from the lack of obesity in the area.
Forget about eating rice here – rice is only served at the end of the meal in case the host has been stingy with the meat, vegetables and delicacies and is a filler to make sure the guest don’t go home starving.
There are more than 10,000 restaurants in Chengdu – ranging from the places where you can eat a huge steaming bowl of noodles or dumplings for around 3-5 dollars to magnificent restaurants surrounded by opulence where, if you count a few bottles of Louis the 13th, the bill will come to several thousand dollars.
Chengdu food is simply endless – menus are vast and the variety of flavours and fragrances are legion but the most popular and almost ubiquitous is the steaming fiery Chengdu hot-pot.
They say local people would have chilli with their cornflakes if they had cornflakes for breakfast – and the Chengdu hot-pot (not to be confused with the Chongqing hot-pot which according to the local Chengdu people is a mere imitation of the real thing) is one of those dishes that totally lends itself to eating in winter to get warm and eating in summer to get cool. All combined with the sheer social experience of sitting around a big pit of broth that has a one inch layer of chilli oil on top with a vast array of unidentifiable number of spices and roots and strange looking things that are added to make the unique flavours.
Chief among these spices is a little berry that looks like a pepper corn but which is known as numbing spice. Actually the berries of the prickly ash tree these little suckers taste like dishwashing liquid and leave your mouth as numb as the aftermath of a trip to the dentist. A lot of local people can’t manage to eat anything unless this little dose of anaesthetic is added to everything – and the first few times you eat this you wonder how anyone could get addicted to this – but then it grows on you and the unique flavour it actually imparts to the dish makes it worthwhile – just don’t be led to actually chew them. And they make the chilli almost bearable – at least when you eat it.
Hot-pot uses almost anything and everything that can possibly be eaten gets eaten at a hot-pot – frog, duck intestines, pigs aorta, baby eels and a host of other yummy things – the most interesting I was confronted with was 3 month old calf fetus. Like anything the first time someone is confronted with this they tend to go for the ‘white soup’ side – which is broth without the chilli and the more identifiable things – like sliced beef , lamb, and things that to western sensibilities look right on the plate but after a while the other things don’t seem so bad and you find yourself eating more and more of the other things until you become a dedicated follower of Chengdu hotpot fashion.
Getting off the hotpot subject and into the other things Chengdu is famous for there is a restaurant in the city that has been established on the same spot for more than 150 years – the Pock Marked Grandmother’s Bean Curd restaurant. It was the this place that gave the world the incredible tastes of Ma Po Dou Fu – or Spicy Minced Tofu – that is found on menus the world over. Combining spice mince and dou fu – what else? The dish is synonymous with Chengdu food and being able to sit down in a restaurant and say that it is the original after 150 years is quite an experience. The descendants of the owner are still around as well, making it an incredible experience.
One of the most common local dishes is a great dish called ‘Put-Back-In-The-Pot pork – which is exactly that – a lump of pork with lots of fat on it is boiled to a certain level then cooled down and sliced thinly for its second turn in the pot – where it is stir fried and has a local sauce called Pi Xian Bean Sauce and a local spring onion added – the bean sauce is quite unique in its flavour using black beans that have been preserved and with a dash – yes you guessed it – chilli. This is a dish almost everyone – meat eaters that is – enjoys and served at almost every single banquet in Chengdu – without the authentic sauce though (Pi Xian is a town on the outskirts of Chengdu) it is a pale reflection of the real thing.
A custom that has developed for late night eating is the local barbeque – a charcoal trough over which bamboo skewers of almost everything are barbequed. One of the most popular is quails eggs – which are threaded onto the skewer and then brushed with cumin and chilli – there goes the chilli again and then gently barbequed. There is quite honestly nothing like coming home from the pub on a cold night and stopping off at the local barbeque stands – there are literally thousands of them appear on the street at night and getting a dozen or so skewers of warming barbecued meats and vegetables – smoked tofu – chicken legs, cauliflower, quails eggs and lamb – you name it and the stalls will sell it.
There is also a local tradition in ‘xiao chi’ – little eats – lunch times you will see thousands of people in restaurants with bowls of little dumplings, meats, noodles, buns, pastries and all sorts of things – a bit like a local version of dim sum – but way tastier. Finding one of these places is a delight –the largest of them in Chengdu has a regular lunchtime clientele of around 5,000 – which while it is great for the owner its hell on the dishwasher.
A few lines in an article like this cannot do any justice to the vast array of dishes that exist in this area – every possible means of cooking – roasting, frying, stew, grilling, boiling are used to create one of the world’s most comprehensive array of dishes – from abalone and quail egg stew to tea-smoked duck, from bull frog with wild fungus to fried spare ribs coated in rice flour and garlic, from smoke dou fu to wild vegetables found nowhere else, from tiny snacks to the most sumptuous banquets imaginable Chengdu has it.
It is said that person could eat in a different restaurant everyday of his life in Chengdu and while that might be an exaggeration there are more places to eat in Chengdu per kg of body fat than anywhere else in the world.
Watch out for the restaurant however that specialise in the unusual – like the restaurant that hangs its shingle on ‘fried black ants’ – not a bad taste but the hooks in the back legs stick to your tongue, or the restaurant that is doing its bit to help the farmers – flour coated fried grasshoppers – faintly reminiscent of – well, if the truth were known – fried grasshopper flavour really. And don’t be fooled by those people who tell you that snake tastes like chicken – it is way more like the taste of fish and chips when it is coated in a light batter.
And to sum up Chengdu food (tongue in cheek): Chili on your cornflakes, chili in your tea. Chili on everything, one two, three.
Categories: Doings In The 'Du